Our society has finally reached a turning point on climate.
I’m not referring to the “point of irreversibility” about which the United Nations warns us: In nine short years, the cascading impacts of climate change will trigger more and greater impacts — to the point of no return.
Rather, we have reached the turning point of political will for climate action. There is no going back to climate passivity or denialism. Choosing to electrify and greenify is a progressive agenda, a mainstream agenda, and an industry agenda — though all of these agendas differ.
Reconciling these interests, Congress will pass one, if not two, major spending bills this fall, which would invest as much as $750 billion in climate investments to decarbonize, electrify, and build resilient infrastructure. This achievement is not the Green New Deal, nor the full vision of the Sunrise Movement, but it borrows parts from them. Nor is it solely a market-driven approach, though markets and industry would have major roles to play. We have only crossed the first gate toward real change, but it’s a promising step.
Why the swing to action? One reason is that the effects of climate change are palpable in ways never felt before; it’s no longer just about the weather.
Indeed, one in three Americans were impacted by climate-related disasters this past summer. One in three. Count yourself and two Facebook friends: One of you was affected by a wildfire, a hurricane, or a blackout — or faced power shortages because of it — between June and August of this year.
People are demanding action on climate policy, and one in three is a big reason we’ve hit the turning point.
I sense that the level of excitement about climate action has replaced the sense of dread about our future. The first layers of our government — our cities and states — are our first responders. They’re already designing policies to combat climate change and responding to rising tides and temperatures. Fully 34 states have committed to curbing their emissions, investing in clean energy, and making their footprints more resilient.
States don’t have the power or the purse of our federal government, but they are laboratories for change — and that’s cause for optimism.
I’m less optimistic that, as the broader public reaches its moment of truth on climate change, the communities most impacted and harmed by it will be made whole — or even considered. Given that, I’m more committed than ever to fighting for climate justice.
Communities of color contribute the least to climate change but suffer its ravages the most. Low-income people and communities of color, such as those in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” are sacrifice zones for industrial pollution and extraction. High energy and transportation costs, public health impacts, and climate-induced disasters affect these communities first, hardest, and longest. Climate impacts everyone, but it doesn’t impact everyone equally. Pro-climate action legislation will force these communities to sacrifice further unless their voices and interests are paramount among competing interests.
Why Now? Why Us?
The Center for Progressive Reform has also reached a turning point on climate. While we have long researched and advocated on behalf of environmental and energy policy, it’s no exaggeration to say that this is our moment of reckoning.
Going forward, our top priority will be to push our government to take bold and equitable climate action. We will press Congress and the Biden administration to enact and implement a whole-of-government climate agenda and accelerate a just and equitable transition to clean and renewable energy. We will work to prevent and repair climate-induced harm to disenfranchised communities, redress societal inequities, and ensure that all people can fully participate in and benefit from our transition to a carbon-free economy.
With this new direction, I want to share our answers to the questions of “Why now?” and “Why us?”.
First, we all need to act to save our planet from climate change — in small ways, in every way. This is our generation’s response to the generational question of, “What did you do in the war, daddy?” Demanding climate action is the moral imperative of our time.
As a research and advocacy organization founded and backed by legal scholars, we offer expertise that is sorely needed in the climate policy formulation process. We use the power of the law and the force of public participation to create a responsive and inclusive government.
Policy-making is a messy business, muddied by money in politics, tribalism, and self-serving interests. Policy design and its implementation, which is our forté, are also complicated, filled with trade-offs, second-best solutions, technical challenges, and uncertainty in application.
Our staff of (largely) environmental lawyers and our network of legal scholars understand in detail how policy is formed, how governing agencies work, how regulations are written, and how climate policy will be applied.
Steeped in the law and legal analysis, our reports and advocacy inform policymakers and government agencies on how the market is regulated, how agencies monitor and enforce the rules over corporations and other actors, and how governments can invest, subsidize, and offer tax credits to shape a renewable future.
The ideas we advanced in Climate, Energy, Justice: The Policy Path to a Just Transition for an Energy Hungry America, the comprehensive report we released in the fall of 2020, helped shape the Biden administration’s climate agenda, and two of its authors now serve in the administration. We pay such close attention to the important details that we’ve been called “The Department of Fine Print.”
Our focus, too, is to support advocates for change. Climate law is an empty vessel without public participation to influence its direction, hold government accountable, and press for ever-stronger government policies and programs. Too often, public participation is viewed narrowly as an act of voting with the public pushed aside in the lawmaking, rulemaking, and enforcement functions of government.
For us, law and public participation are an alternating current that flows back and forth, with public participation shaping and being shaped by law, and the law being shaped by and shaping participation. Supporting allies, advocates, and coalitions with legal analysis and understanding of climate policy dimensions is sorely needed, particularly in such a dynamic and high-stakes moment.
We are committing every ounce of our energy to ensuring that the broader public has a say in shaping the broader functions of government. Regulatory procedures, for instance, should be democratized to eliminate potential barriers to meaningful participation, lived experience should count more than lobbyists’ dollars, and this has been a bedrock of CPR since our founding 20 years ago.
The greatest test for the fairness and the effectiveness of climate policy will be in how the law accedes to the justice demands of historically excluded communities. Their demands to redress past inequities, that the climate benefits flow to their communities, to have a voice in the process — those are the indicators of whether climate action equals climate justice. We are standing with these communities by deepening our collaborations and offering our services to the cause.
Turning points are often discovered by historians as they look back to the past to understand the swirling of events and confusion that people often experience at that moment in time. We have neither the luxury of time, nor do we require it to understand that for the plane and for people, it’s now or never.