Two and a half years ago, the federal Green New Deal (GND) resolution ignited interest both nationally and internationally in a bold vision for public investments to deliver climate justice. The resolution and subsequent GND efforts in Congress and beyond have been inspired and buoyed by progressive grassroots climate action.
Saul Levin, a Global Center for Climate Justice Advisory Board member and Legislative Assistant for Congresswoman Cori Bush, spoke to us about the momentum building around the Green New Deal for Cities Act of 2021 and other Green New Deal legislation. Proposed by Congresswoman Cori Bush (MO-01) and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) in April, this proposal provides the essential financing necessary to deliver a Green New Deal in every local, tribal, and territorial government.
“We think of this legislation from the perspective of organizing. Power comes from the bottom,” says Levin, who has a strong background in movement organizing.
Why a GND for Cities?
Recent years have highlighted the inability of governments at all scales to take meaningful action on the climate crisis, racial injustice, and economic inequality. Luckily, grassroots movements and recently-elected progressive Members of Congress have begun to flesh out specific elements of the Green New Deal resolution in new policy. The GND for Cities legislation would use federal funds to deliver a Green New Deal to all levels of government and empower communities to pitch in.
The proposed legislation is created specifically for cities, counties, states, tribal nations, and territories rather than large-scale national programs. Levin discusses how this approach — supporting action at the local level — can empower the movement and engage stakeholders by sending resources to communities who know best what risks they face.
Levin highlights how the Green New Deal movement is made up of and centered around working people and their communities’ needs. Status quo environmental policy has traditionally avoided urgently needed public investments in favor of tweaks and market-based programs and regulations that have failed to deliver robust decarbonization.
Levin asks, “What does a green army base bring you? Very little. But eliminating lead and asbestos in your house and building renewable energy are worth fighting for on your evenings and weekends.”
The GND Cities legislation aims to support the critical work of decarbonization and ending environmental violence by alleviating strain from budgetary restrictions. The legislation would immediately provide cities with funding to put GND solutions into action, while also supplying a framework of policy options for localities to enter the Green New Deal space, says Levin. If passed, the legislation would authorize $1 trillion in funds for investments in frontline communities and climate mitigation. Unlike the federal government, cities and municipalities are required to balance their budget, so these supplemental funds are even more impactful.
Redistributing funding to local sources is a necessary step, but federal policymakers have to be wary of replicating anti-Indigenous decision-making processes the way that many earlier policies have. Levin stresses that the systemic oppression and denial of support from federal and state governments has left Indigenous communities with limited resources to enact transformative policy. In spite of this, some Indigenous communities are leading in solar power generation and wildlife conservation. To ensure equitable access to funding, the GND for Cities legislation will allocate separate funds to Indigenous nations rather than making them compete with states for federal funding. Levin also highlights that this is an opportunity for all tribes, not just federally recognized ones, to access these resources under the proposed legislation.
Components of the Legislation
One of the major components of the GND for Cities legislation is affordable housing and housing stability, a policy area that Levin emphasizes needs to be at the core of all policy and planning, particularly as the end of the federal eviction moratorium weighs heavily on communities. Housing, and other social services like public transport and access to green space, are all issues of urban social organization — Levin’s academic background in urban planning is rooted in an understanding that urban infrastructure is central to transforming society.
“These are the very structures of how we live — these are the frameworks,” says Levin of our built environment being the foundation for other policy issues. “You’re incorporating racial, geographic, and labor justice, in fundamental and system[ic] ways.”
There needs to be a right to housing, says Levin, who cites the Brazilian constitution and its inclusion of the codified right to a healthy and clean environment as a model for what GNDs in cities can help achieve. To him, the need for housing stability is “flagrantly obvious as an environmental issue in part because of the perils of being outside in an increasingly unstable climate” as well as a social one.
Levin argues that housing stability goes far deeper than a roof over your head; basic necessities like affordable energy and climate resilience need to be addressed in housing solutions as well. Rep. Cori Bush is a vocal proponent of access to affordable housing because of its ripple effects; she herself has experienced energy injustice and been unhoused. Levin describes just one instance where her monthly electric bill topped $1,800 — despite her efforts to secure a reasonable provider. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated incident, as unrealistic energy costs are often an extreme and immoral burden that low-income communities face. Rep. Bush is among a handful of representatives who have shared these lived experiences of insecurity \in the halls of power.
Disadvantaged communities have been chronically disempowered and dispossessed by urban planning and neighborhood redevelopment programs, leading to land mismanagement and gentrification. But the comprehensive policies mentioned in the GND for Cities like rent stabilization and clean water infrastructure investments could empower these communities and help tackle the pervasive drivers of poverty and gentrification.
Other highlights from the proposed legislation include minimum wage requirements to prioritize workers, inclusive procurement policies, equitable and local hiring provisions, and apprenticeship and workforce development requirements. “False solutions” to climate change, which perpetuate social, economic, and racial hierarchies, like carbon capture and storage and carbon markets, as well as any investments in law enforcement, immigration detention centers, and prisons, are explicitly excluded from the legislation’s funding eligibility.
The Momentum is Building
With Congressional support for GND-style legislation — from a GND for public schools to a climate corps — at an all-time high, Levin is enthusiastic that momentum will continue to build as we head into the fall. He created an easy-to-read (and share!) Green New Deal spreadsheet to track which members of Congress have signed onto which landmark Green New Deal bills, as well as as a tool to push more members to sign on. According to Levin, to gain even more ground we need a “flurry of activity” from all stakeholders.
“It has been more useful and effective than we ever anticipated,” he said. “We find that the simplicity of unchecked boxes and the satisfaction of completing rows are extremely handy.”
Challenges still persist, especially as we continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and worsening climate catastrophes. Movement leaders and members are increasingly impacted by unprecedented flooding, wildfires, heatwaves, and other fossil-fueled disasters, amplifying burnout within the climate justice movement. And of course, funding continues to be an obstacle. Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) estimated a cost of $16 trillion prior to the pandemic for his own GND Climate Action Plan, but Levin believes that now this number is too small — the costs of implementing GND legislation will be far more expensive. But to do nothing would be the most expensive option of all.
Despite structural and political challenges, there is clear energy and momentum building around the country in favor of the GND for Cities legislation, other bills in Congress, and in particular for local coalitions pushing for a GND in their communities. For Levin, some of the key provisions for truly achieving climate justice through a Green New Deal include:
"We are nowhere close to the ceiling of support for a Green New Deal that is possible with the current makeup of Congress."
"We are nowhere close to the ceiling of support for a Green New Deal that is possible with the current makeup of Congress," says Levin, a sentiment that is growing stronger as the movement grows, “this summer, for the first time ever, more than half of House Democrats are signed on to Green New Deal legislation.
The critical work around GNDs has never been more pressing as we race against the accelerating pace of climate change. Local communities are at the frontlines of racial, social, and environmental challenges, and as such are uniquely positioned to bring about transformative climate justice politics. With federal support through GND for Cities legislation and movement support through tools like the GND Resources Hub, we can protect our environment and build the future we deserve together.