No. 2

Our Green Transition May Leave Black People Behind

I’m an architect of the Green New Deal, and I’m worried the racism in the biggest climate law endangers our ability to get off fossil fuels.

Illustration by Mark Harris. Photographs by FG Trade and Matthias Kulka, via Getty Images.

This summer, the earth raged. Fires in Maui and Canada, floods in Delhi and Beijing, heat everywhere — this is the beginning of the climate impacts scientists have long predicted, and the U.S. is unprepared in terms of everything from infrastructure to public health. And if I’m honest, I raged, too. Never in my life have I wished more to be a cyclone, blowing away everything in my path, or an earthquake, shaking everyone to their core until they take seriously the concerns of Black and Indigenous frontline communities.

August marked a year since the Inflation Reduction Act passed, arguably the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history. But the racist compromises and the marginalization of Black people and their demands that facilitated the bill’s passage have seeped into the climate movement, sowing division and narrowing discourse in ways that not only threaten to keep Black people at the bottom of a new green economy but also undermine efforts to address thornier issues, such as who owns energy resources or how to navigate conflicts about resource distribution and land use, questions that money alone cannot answer.

It’s true that the IRA has sparked the largest investments in clean energy and manufacturing that the U.S. has ever seen. In fact, along with investments from the CHIPS Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, two climate-adjacent bills passed around the same time, the federal government is funneling so much money into the development of clean and renewable energy — at least $515 billion in public investment from the IRA alone — that 25 percent of electricity in the U.S. is expected to come from renewable sources by 2024 (up more than 10 percent from a decade ago), and over half of all electricity could come from solar and wind by 2030. More than 170,000 green jobs have also been created in the wake of the IRA, a majority of them in red states, some of which, like Texas and Georgia, have the largest and fastest-growing Black populations in the country.

I should be happy about that. I want to be happy about that. By “derisking” clean technology through public subsidies and other forms of industrial policy, the IRA is succeeding, at least in its mission to spur private investment in clean energy and low-carbon goods. And after 40 years of exclusively neoliberal economic policy, that is something to celebrate. But the transition to clean energy, like every other economic transition, is inherently distributive and redistributive — especially in a capitalist society — and this time, we need Black people to significantly benefit. Yet, with the exception of a few targeted policies, the IRA and the debates that have emerged since its passage suggest that the U.S. is again (at this big age!) relying on white supremacy to decide how to allocate the power and resources that come from going green.

Since last August, commitments to climate and racial justice — legion in the wake of the 2020 uprisings — have disintegrated rapidly, leaving Black people at risk of being left behind and locked out of the clean energy economies spurred by the IRA. The shift arguably began with the deal Senate Democrats brokered among themselves to pass the law, which included several concessions that deeply and directly harm frontline communities. For instance, the IRA required the federal government to reopen public waters in the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas lease sales, although the Biden administration had previously canceled the sales after court challenges from environmental and community groups. So far developers have bought only a fraction (3.3 million acres) of the reopened sites, but their successful development will almost certainly increase pollution in neighboring Black communities, which house the oil refineries and gas and petrochemical facilities that will process the oil and gas fossil fuels extracted from these sites. Worse still, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency responsible for carrying out offshore lease sales, dismissed these impacts, both in its analysis preceding the sale, arguing that “these low-income and minority communities are located onshore and distant from … oil- and gas-related activities” and thus did not merit consideration in the agency’s decisions about the sale.

The Senate deal also led to federal approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which, like the lease sales in the Gulf, had been blocked after environmental groups presented evidence of the negative effects the pipeline’s construction and operation would have on water quality and local air pollution and argued that the project bypassed environmental protection regulations. Like most fossil fuel infrastructure, the pipeline and related facilities would run through poor Black, white, and Indigenous communities in West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, some of which already have elevated levels of pollution because of existing fossil fuel facilities. Furthermore, while the owners of the pipeline are required to pay residents for easements to run through their property, those who live in poor communities near the pipeline and its stations will not be compensated for decreased property values or anticipated health risks that may result from the pipeline’s operation.

Many white climate experts and advocates argued that while these concessions were unfortunate — unjust, even — they were costs worth paying to pass the nation’s first major climate bill. Others argued that the compromises reflected nothing more than the outsize influence of Senator Joe Manchin and his fossil fuel allies, which would lessen once the IRA made clean energy industries bigger and more politically powerful. But even some of the IRA’s flagship policies seemed to be designed almost exclusively to serve the needs and interests of middle-class white people and also to pave the way for clean energy systems that continue to deeply marginalize Black people.

The IRA includes a slate of tax credits for individual consumers to install heat pumps, buy electric vehicles, switch from a gas stove to an electric stove — basically to electrify their homes and vehicles in order to reduce emissions. But the IRA’s tax credits are nonrefundable, making them nearly useless for the 40 percent of households that do not earn enough to have tax liability, many of which are Black. IRA tax credits also require users not only to have the money to cover upfront costs but also the ability to wait months for reimbursement, as with all previous energy tax credits — which have been overwhelmingly used by white people even compared with people of color at the same income levels.

The IRA tax credits also prioritize homeowners, a class that is 75 percent white, and exclude renters, who are much more likely to be young, Black or Latino, or poor. The credits don’t attempt to address the split incentives that exist between renters and landlords: While renters are more likely to want to switch to renewable energy because they usually pay the utility bills, landlords bear the costs of electrification without benefiting from the savings that result, making them far less likely to invest in the relevant upgrades. Nor does the IRA address the fact that climate investment increases home values and thus property taxes for low-income homeowners, which risks unintentionally pricing them out of their homes, particularly in gentrifying areas.

It is easy to understand why the IRA and the negotiations surrounding it were shot through with racism. White supremacy is incentivized at every level of our policy-making processes — from deciding whom a policy should target and shaping how it is designed to deciding how (and to whom) to market the policy. If I step back and squint (and try to forget that I’m Black), even I can understand how racism can seem — emphasis on seem — reasonable in light of the conditions we face. But just because something is logical doesn’t mean it’s free — or smart.

For a policy to be effective in the long run, it must be about people. Imagine the impact of a clean energy development whose tax benefits went back into the community to help fund schools or build libraries, or a solar panel factory that’s required to provide child care and elder care for workers and their families. We need to give people concrete experiences of climate policy materially benefiting their lives: better-paying jobs, lower energy bills, new business opportunities, fewer utility shutdowns, and new public spaces for art and recreation. Lower greenhouse gas emissions will mean fewer extreme weather events, fewer boiling summers, and less illness, but that will take time. And even then, most people will not experience the benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions as viscerally as a transition that helps them to feed their families or take care of themselves. Blame it on capitalism or individualism or consumerism — it doesn’t really matter; we need those sorts of direct experiences for people to care about climate policy when the planet is boiling. Most days, for most people (including me), life is just too hard to worry about what’s not feeding, fucking, or relying on you.

But for climate policy to be successful long-term, it has to serve Black people too, perhaps most of all. Especially in this fragile moment, right at the start of the domestic energy transition, the experience of having a hydrogen or CO₂ pipeline built through your community without consultation, or a new lithium mine cratering sacred tribal land without consent, or new petrochemical facilities being allowed in Cancer Alley because they have carbon capture and storage with the emissions, or a new solar development being rammed through a rural community that feels like it had no say, or a utility exercising eminent domain to build a transmission line without any effort to find a different path, or a new incinerator being greenlit in an already polluted neighborhood without any consultation because it has solar panels — experiences of being silenced and dispossessed — could quickly halt the progress of a green transition, especially with the right wing hungry for followers and fossil fuels waiting in the wings.

These are real possibilities — in some cases, real stories. But they come with mounting, potentially unsurvivable costs, even if we rarely discuss them that way.

Consider the discussion that surrounds “permitting reform,” a catchall term for efforts to streamline siting and permitting processes to help speed the development of renewable energy projects and modernize the electric grid. Permitting reform has emerged as a focus of Washington policy makers, many of whom worry that the U.S. lacks the regulatory regime and administrative capacity to support the rapid buildout of clean energy funded by the IRA. But the discussion has been dominated by the purported evils of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), one of the best remaining tools Black communities can use to oppose toxic polluting infrastructure; almost all proposals to weaken it would remove or constrain the avenues the law provides for democratic participation in building infrastructure. Gutting NEPA has long been a goal for fossil fuel lobbyists, but since the passage of the IRA, it has also been championed by “supply-side liberals” and members of the climate movement’s green growth coalition.

Thankfully, only the most toothless of the proposed NEPA reforms made it into the debt ceiling deal passed in June. But the fight over permitting reform reflects a trend of pushing aside what Black communities have said they want out of IRA implementation and the energy transition, often in favor of advancing clean energy technologies preferred by fossil fuel industries. Many frontline communities have expressed a fervent desire to prioritize renewable energy when it comes to clean energy development in their neighborhoods — especially community solar, microgrids, and distributed energy resources (like rooftop solar). But while several programs in the IRA do provide funding to support these types of projects, recent federal decisions have also begun to push projects into frontline communities that employ technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) that could be used to prop up fossil fuels.

For example, the Biden administration has committed to funding two hubs for direct air capture — a form of carbon removal — in or near frontline communities in Kleberg County, Tex., and Calcasieu Parish, La. This is in spite of vocal opposition from residents who worry that the technology could be used to justify the continued operation of at least 12 existing petrochemical facilities. Residents’ concerns are justified: The CEO of Occidental Petroleum, the company building the Texas hub, has already said that she sees direct air capture technology as a lifeline to “preserve our industry over time.” Nor would the technology remove any of the particulate matter or other pollutants that harm residents most.

The debates about climate policy since the passage of the IRA have been marked by dynamics that make these occurrences more likely — particularly an effort to once again define the climate crisis as a matter of energy policy, separate from concerns about the environment and unconnected to efforts to build a more just society. In fact, many of the loudest advocates for “cutting red tape,” who are almost exclusively white men, argue that demands for a just transition are incompatible with the demands of decarbonization or simply that they do not understand how to “effectively” address environmental justice concerns.

As a result, policy proposals that aim to balance efforts to decarbonize with the needs of Black communities are increasingly dismissed as ancillary, insufficient, or, worse, “unserious.” More dangerously, after it seemed like people started to understand how white supremacy, the fossil fuel industry, and the climate crisis are linked, environmental and racial justice are being sidelined as separate, secondary issues instead of principles that should guide decisions about how to structure the green transition. But there are simply not enough environmental justice block grants in the world to prevent Black people from being left behind in an energy and economic transition that does not intentionally consider justice at every turn — not in this country, not with our history, and not with these systems.

I will never agree that white supremacy is a legitimate response to the demands of the climate crisis. Not just because I refuse to assent to my own oppression but because I do not believe that finding ways to legally yeet as many Black people as possible between us and a boiling planet is, or will ever be, a viable climate solution. But I understand the temptation. Truly.

The climate crisis is one of the biggest and most complex problems that the world has ever faced. If you slice open even one of the issues, 10 more problems fall out. Permitting reform alone touches issues with the transmission of electric power and, by extension, the design of our electric grids and energy markets; interconnection queues; cumulative impacts and fossil fuel development; environmental review; permitting and siting for energy projects at the local, state, and federal levels; labor; democratic participation; coalition building; disinformation and growing opposition to renewables among both elected officials and everyday people; utilities and their frequent opposition to clean energy development — and that’s just a start.

Addressing the climate crisis requires us to build out unprecedented levels of clean and renewable energy, much of it within the next decade; stop using fossil fuels, even though our societies and economies remain painfully dependent on them; broker new diplomatic relationships and operate with untold levels of global cooperation; and, at least in the U.S., do all of this while developing and defending a new regime of industrial policy — all while fending off climate disasters, a rabid GOP, rising white nationalism, and a democracy that seems to become more dysfunctional by the minute. It’s an absolute shitshow, through and through.

But as the U.S. begins to implement the country’s first real climate law, we are also creating the frameworks we will use to address the climate crisis for the foreseeable future. Baking white supremacy into these new frameworks, even if just to make designing and passing climate policy easier, will undermine the long-term success of the energy transition.

Why would a crisis this enormous require anything other than a broad set of people and perspectives? What makes us think that anything less is wise?

More concerning, as long as we treat Black people as dispensable, we help protect the social license of fossil fuels, making it harder for us to fully and hastily decarbonize. Few politicians on the right or on the left are eager to confront some of the most powerful corporations in the world, sever ties with some of their biggest donors, or lose some of their most lucrative personal investments. Why rush it if you’re only killing people who don’t matter?

For the green transition to be equitable, racial justice must thread through all the decisions about how it is structured and how public resources are distributed. One of the best ways to do this is to expand Justice40, a Biden administration initiative that aims to direct 40 percent of the benefits of federal clean energy and other climate investments to disadvantaged communities. The White House should update that order to include all of the programs in the IRA, and agencies should ensure that 40 percent of the funding (not nebulous “benefits”) are going to the communities identified by the White House’s new screening tool to identify communities that have faced historical environmental and economic injustices. In programs where it is not possible to ensure that 40 percent of funding reaches frontline communities, as with individual tax credits, agencies need to create partnerships with community organizations and local governments to try to increase tax-credit participation among eligible Black households. The Biden administration should also reverse its decision to make eligible for Justice40 funds projects with technologies that frontline communities have repeatedly opposed, like carbon removal and industrial carbon management.

Congress should also make tax credits refundable and add provisions that reconcile the split incentives for renters and landlords. The IRA programs do offer new possibilities for community control over energy resources, such as direct pay (which can help public and nonprofit entities build renewable energy) and the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (essentially a national green bank that will provide $15 billion for projects in low-income and disadvantaged communities). But these need to be supported with robust technical assistance and connected to organizations like the Bullard Center, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and the Solutions Project, which help grassroots organizations design projects and apply for federal funding.

Investments alone are not enough. We must reform the administrative state to advance regulations that create fairer procedures. The Environmental Justice for All Act proposes many such regulations, including strengthening NEPA by requiring earlier and more robust community participation; mandating community impact reports that “assess whether the proposed action will exacerbate or contribute to adverse health outcomes for that community, including historical patterns of exposure and cumulative effects,” among frontline communities; requiring federal agencies to develop strategies that outline how they will address policies, programs, and practices that could have negative health or environmental impacts in disadvantaged communities; creating an interagency council to ensure such principles are incorporated into decisions across the executive branch; and requiring analysis of cumulative impacts in permitting decisions. The bill would also amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 so that people could again sue in federal court for racial discrimination so long as the action created a disparate impact — a change that would make it much easier for people to protect themselves against environmental racism. Congress needs to pass the Environmental Justice for All Act so that these protections are in place before more IRA funding is released and the green transition matures.

Just as important, the U.S. must divest from fossil fuels, even if that requires nationalization or a federally funded wind-down of domestic fossil fuel operations. Fossil fuel industries have built their wealth on the exploitation and endangerment of Black, brown, and Indigenous people, and their continued operation not only undermines efforts to reduce emissions but also ensures that those communities will continue to be harmed even as clean energy deployment rises. There is no path for justice or full decarbonization without ending the production and use of fossil fuels.

All these changes require our movements to view policy making as a tactic or space that should be organized. As I’ve written before, policy making is a contested, contentious process that starts months and often years before legislation is written. At the federal level, while movements are often active at the start of the process (getting an issue flagged as a significant problem and spurring government intervention) and the end (shaping legislation once it’s in play or lobbying for its passage or dismissal), they are often absent from the murky middle stages where people struggle to decide how to solve the problem in question or which solutions should be included in the next stage. The climate movement needs to develop infrastructure and tools to shape policy, beyond electing allies or engaging in legislative fights. Just as important, we must organize ourselves to push back on the idea that racism is a policy choice without costs to anyone but Black, brown, and Indigenous people.

There is hope. From 2018 to 2022, the climate movement became more powerful and unified than ever because we coalesced around a vision of green transition that included racial justice and broad social welfare policies. When I helped design the Green New Deal, I was trying to design policies that served Black people. And that proposal helped galvanize millions of people to care about climate change; they created local coalitions, passed municipal and state versions of Green New Deal policies, and eventually pushed climate to the top of the Democratic agenda. That, in turn, opened up the space to leverage the political opportunity created by the Green New Deal into meaningful federal action.

Strong climate policy requires a strong climate movement. But now that we have the policy, we are at risk of ripping away the foundation for the mass movement we need to see it through. When we trade away Black people, we trade away everything that makes a green transition compelling and urgent. No one gives a fuck about a heat pump when they can’t afford a home. No one cares about clean energy when they can’t eat or when polluters are allowed to dump poison over their heads to turn a profit. The climate crisis may be an existential threat, but millions of people are weathering tiny apocalypses. What’s a little more heat when you’re already going through hell?

But Black people — when we eat, everyone eats. Thanks to structural racism, the average Black person earns less, has less wealth, is less likely to own a car or a home, less likely to be able to afford their energy bills, more likely to be disabled, and more likely to be unemployed than the average white person. When we design a green transition that serves the needs of Black people, we’ll have a green transition that serves all people, especially those who might not support climate action otherwise. That’s a transition that can sustain itself long-term. And the U.S. desperately needs that. In 2023 — on pace to be the hottest year on record — Americans still ranked climate change 17th (out of 21) when asked about national priorities. And despite the massive spending, in mid-July, 71 percent of Americans polled said they had heard little or nothing about the Inflation Reduction Act.

How much more is possible if we mobilized around the green transition the IRA started just as we did the Green New Deal? What momentum, what progress could that unlock? We need a sustained mass movement along with mass organizations for climate. And the only way there is with — not over — Black people.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright, an architect of the Green New Deal, directs the climate policy program at the Roosevelt Institute. She is writing a book about intersections among white supremacy, addiction, and the climate crisis.

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