By Effenus Henderson
Embracing a more inclusive society is the only way to overcome the many great challenges that we as a people face, the most pressing of which is the rapid warming of our planet from heat-trapping and health threatening carbon pollution. Unless each of us believes, as Dr. King said, that I am my brother and sisters keeper, we won’t feel the common bond of humanity necessary to create a society that benefits everyone, both present and yet to be born. I have fought to build the vision Dr. King expressed across my life’s work, such as the former Chief Diversity Officer of Weyerhaeuser, past Board Director of the Environmental Education Association of Washington, and as a current Council Member on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board. I have learned that building unity and equity can uproot many social problems, including the environmental injustices that predominately African-Americans, other racial minorities and other vulnerable populations face.
Climate change is a social justice problem. The poor are less equipped to respond to the impacts of a warming planet – from escalating food and energy prices, floods, forest fires, and diseases. They’re also the least responsible for the amount of carbon pollution in the atmosphere.
The links between poverty and pollution are strong. Consider South Seattle for evidence. It includes Seattle’s highest rates of poverty and African American populations, the worst air quality and some of the lowest performing schools. Unhealthy air, hunger, and other external factors associated with poverty make quality learning in a substandard school even harder. Without educational achievement, decent job opportunities become difficult to attain and the cycle of poverty persists.
We have the opportunity and obligation to produce a policy that not only addresses global warming pollution but also decreases societal inequalities.
The Carbon Pollution Accountability Act would cut air pollution by capping Washington’s carbon emissions and gradually reducing them to the levels required by a law the State Legislature passed in 2008. Under the cap, the largest polluters would pay a market-based fee to emit carbon. By making fossil fuels less economically attractive we can unleash a wave of investment in clean energy, while making Washington a leader in curbing climate change through market innovations.
Of critical importance is how Governor Inslee proposes to allocate the nearly $1 billion in annual revenue the carbon pollution fee would raise. He would direct about 40% of the revenue to education programs designed to lift kids out of poverty. Investment would flow to proven measures such as College Bound, which makes the dream of a college education more affordable to low-income students, and counseling services for students identified to be at risk of dropping out. Additionally, pollution fees would support shrinking class sizes, giving kindergartners more instruction time, and extending free and reduced meal programs that feed low-income kids, ensuring their learning isn’t distracted by an empty stomach.
Governor Inslee proposes dedicating another 40% of the pollution fees to clean and critical transportation projects including the much needed repair of our state’s vital infrastructure projects, and promoting transit and biking. The benefits of investing in alternative modes of transportation can be enormous. However, in creating such sustainable transportation options, good policy must be sensitive to possibly displacing low income residents who may be priced out of housing near suddenly popular transit corridors. Governor Inslee would aim to address this challenge head on by dedicating pollution fee revenues to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and the Working Families Tax Rebate, which refunds up to $500 in state sales taxes to families qualifying for the federal earned income tax credit.
The Carbon Pollution Accountability Act would create a more equitable Washington, where every resident has a chance to reap the immense health and economic rewards of a low-carbon future. I foresee this as the outcome of the legislation not only because of the planned investments, but also because of the equity focused committee the legislation would establish. This committee should provide the Legislature with guiding principles for implementing the policy to benefit low-income Washingtonians. This could be done by monitoring where the emissions reductions are happening and sounding the alarm if it’s found that pollution is being consolidated in the poorest parts of our state. To take it a step further, this committee should advise the Legislature to invest program revenues in emission reduction projects in communities that best meet the standard of improving health, expanding employment, and lowering energy costs for those who can least afford it.
Despite the obvious need to curb carbon, policy progress has long remained stalled, largely because of the outsized influence of the fossil fuel industry. They’ve been consistently beating the drum that addressing climate change will make energy prices soar and place financial strain on the poor. However, it is hard to take these claims seriously since we are all already paying the significant price of global warming through expanding health care and other costs. Therefore, it’s critical that we implement a policy that prioritizes benefits to those who already bear the brunt of these externalized costs; with a thoughtful, comprehensive policy approach, cutting carbon can be a potent poverty reduction tool.
Aside from the benefit of a cleaner environment that makes low-income communities healthier, cutting carbon emissions will create jobs. Instead of padding the pockets of out of state fossil fuel giants, imagine if our energy dollars were spent on developing solar thermal to heat our homes, growing clean biofuels to power our vehicles and buses, and unlocking the hidden cash savings of energy efficiency by retrofitting our schools, homes, and offices. The energy cost saving and job benefits are already being realized in Washington and will expand if we fully commit to action.
I commend Governor Inslee for his bold leadership in introducing the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act. I urge all of us to get behind it as the vehicle for positive change that Washington needs, and one which will set a compelling example for the rest of our nation.