The Structural Transition We Need: An Interview with Jonah Kurman-Faber
March 22, 2022

As the climate crisis continues to worsen, climate-related anxiety around the globe is reaching an all-time high. This angst is fueled by two main questions: what are the sweeping policy changes the planet requires, and how can populations around the globe bring about these changes? To develop a better understanding of what tackling the climate crisis actually entails, we spoke with Jonah Kurman-Faber, Research Director at Climate XChange and Fellow with the Global Center for Climate Justice.

A Fractured Climate Movement

The last few years have been marked by a struggle within a very diverse environmental movement to fully agree on what solutions to pursue and how ambitious to be. Constant obstruction from the polluter-industrial complex has undermined any real policy change, so success hinges on the ability of the environmental movement to put up a strong front against these polluters. That is why Kurman-Faber stresses that the first issue to address is the lack of space for political discussions. As he describes, this can be seen through the “lack of symbiosis between political critique and technical critique.” A prime example of this misalignment is the debate on carbon pricing. 

Opinions on carbon pricing range on a broad spectrum. On one side is the neoliberal environmental movement and on the other is the environmental justice (EJ) movement. Many environmental advocates believe carbon pricing is an effective market signal which indicates that there is a cost to emitting pollutants that should be internalized into the price of goods and services. They often prefer carbon pricing over the potential for stricter government regulations which could limit certain ways of doing business entirely. It is also seen as a revenue-generating mechanism which can raise funds for priority projects, such as investments in EJ communities. While, in principle, the policy would seem like an immediate addition to the climate movement’s agenda, its level of support varies greatly among the different corners of the movement. 

The EJ movement, however, has significant reservations about carbon pricing. The EJ movement centers around the fact that the US’s most polluted areas are typically poor and/or minority neighborhoods: the result of the current capitalist system in place. EJ advocates worry that carbon pricing may be a “false solution,” which refers to policies that look to solve climate issues yet perpetuate social, economic, and racial hierarchies. To this side of the movement, any carbon pricing policy must be centered around equity and the just transition, or else it is just a market mechanism and reinforcement of capitalism.

The neoliberal environmental movement also has reservations, wanting to support carbon pricing as the market-friendly approach to regulation yet not wanting the policy to be too ambitious. While neoliberalism typically centers around lessening governmental control, advocates and fossil fuel executives see carbon pricing as a relatively palatable policy to support because the constant debate makes it unlikely to pass, and even if it does, it is not a very disruptive policy for their business models.  

Evidenced by the carbon pricing situation, the ideological gap between the different sides of the environmental movement has drawn energy away from work on new climate policies, diluting these bills of the critical details needed to make them impactful, and instead leaving them vulnerable to loopholes or complete shutdown as a result of little support. But that does not mean activists should give up on discussing and building transformative legislation.

The First Steps Towards Fundamental Change 

To achieve the productive conversation and action the environmental movement needs, we must first reform the current nonprofit and philanthropic complexes. 

The mainstream environmental movement is currently structured in a way that promotes the creation of in-house power. By encouraging nonprofits to prioritize organizational expansion, the system has fueled the rise of single policy actors: organizations that are funded to pass an explicit policy goal in the state. This translates to multiple environmental organizations working on the same issue, but separately, because each is grant-funded purely to pass that single policy goal. To that end, Kurman-Faber argues that divisiveness among the organizations will influence all aspects of the movement and destroy any chance of these policies passing.

“The biggest thing that you can do right now in the environmental movement is help build collective power,” he emphasizes.

To refocus the movement on this goal, Kurman-Faber advocates for an increased use of networks. Successful coalitions, like the State Climate Policy Network, work together to identify and pass climate legislation, with a strong focus on providing members with the resources they need. Based on this, Kurman-Faber sees networks as “ of the most important forces within local and state work,” and believes they are one of the keys to promoting a popular discourse on climate issues while bringing environmental nonprofits together. 

Furthermore, Kurman-Faber argues that at its basic level, “good activism is sharing knowledge freely amongst organizations without concern of credit, and then seeing how far it can go. There is a multiplier effect on your impact when you serve the movement rather than yourself.” Kurman-Faber recommends seeking grants that allow for free and open access to the research data, and that are constructed to help a wide variety of actors in a state. Organizations that seek to give resources and assistance to others can have a better, more cost-effective impact than organizations that only use money to build up their own abilities and influence. 

A Framework for Climate Policy  

Reforming the way non-profits, activists, and funders work together to pass climate solutions is just one part of the equation when it comes to accelerating climate action. Kurman-Faber explains that existing knowledge has already outlined solutions like energy storage standards, building energy efficiency standards, and emissions tailpipe standards, but we have not made much progress because these solutions are not being implemented and enforced in meaningful ways. He emphasizes if change is to be realized, we must establish governmental processes that can effectively implement these policies.

“When someone asks me a question, like how to turn something as technical as this Massachusetts Jobs report into action, the first thing I say is: does your state have a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target and is it any good?” explains Kurman-Faber, adding, “and what are the governance structures that will then decide how to hit that target? Who is in charge of hitting it? Who gets sued if you miss that target? Is there an inclusive process for communities to have a say in that plan? Is there a task force assembled? Where is the draft plan?”

He presses that policymakers need to create and pass state climate plans for 2030. With the world projected to hit the 1.5°C warming mark around this date, climate plans should target completion by 2030 at the latest (preferably much sooner) to have any chance at preventing catastrophic warming. But as Kurman-Faber points out, very few states have finalized 2030 climate plans. And according to a 2020 report by the Environmental Defense Fund, none of them are near sufficient for the 1.5°C targets.

Furthermore, Kurman-Faber explains that there needs to be an overhaul of the currently used societal well-being metrics. In practice, this means focusing on both traditional statistics, such as quality of life and employment, but also on more recently used statistics like infrastructure quality and quality of service provided. By making this shift, policymakers will be better informed about the gaps in equity and system deficiencies that have left many people decimated from both the COVID-19 pandemic and the current climate crisis.

“The implicit agenda of this research is to encourage governments to continue to change the metrics they use to make decisions towards things that are way more centered on people in the community,” says Kurnam Faber, referring his current state-level climate policy research, “rather than 40-50 year-old economic conservative doctrines.” 

Toward a Just Transition

Kurman-Faber argues that one key to truly transformative change is a redistribution of resources, which refers to the transfer of income through economic policies such as taxation and investment in public services. As he puts it, “one of the most important things that we need to reckon with is that energy systems and public infrastructure are things that are for the people.” 

Currently, even states that are considered to be leading the way on redistribution are falling short, with Kurman-Faber citing California's equity standards for new developments as a prime example. The state’s current rules for newly approved transit projects dictate that, if any part of that transit system passes through just one disadvantaged community, all of the funds allocated to that project are misleadingly counted as directly located within and benefiting that community. This practice skews the real equity impacts, with the numbers falsely portraying a large stream of funds going to disadvantaged communities. In actuality, these communities are not receiving nearly enough support.

Passing Green New Deal Cities legislation at the federal level will be imperative to funding the breadth of action required. Kurman-Faber explains that societal collapse begins with the “decaying fiscal health of the state,” and since states cannot deficit spend, nor capture much global wealth, they need federal funds. In essence, states do not have enough money on their own to fully fund the scale of Green New Deal investments we need, handicapping their ability to fight the climate crisis. However, the currently proposed federal legislation would alleviate this roadblock by allocating nearly $1 trillion to cities, states, towns, and tribal nations, sending money straight to where it is needed, allowing states to take broader action. 

For activists, one of the main priorities is getting environmental advocates into office. This is especially important at the state and local levels where Green New Deal legislation has a greater chance of passing. As Kurman-Faber points out, “[the amount of environmental advocates in office] defines the constraints of what I can accomplish and it's clearly a huge bottleneck.” To combat this, he explains that we need to support and elect more climate-centered politicians, and that if we can hold office, we can force the chain of events that can and will solve this crisis. 

The Good News

Although the climate crisis is intensifying and growing increasingly destructive, there is a silver lining: the solutions are established and no longer have to lean on a moral argument of the greater good.

Kurman-Faber insists, “reducing pollution has become an irrefutably good economic move for state governments, even those uninterested in the morality of climate change.” The cost of renewables have dropped precipitously, and Kurman-Faber’s new research on Massachusetts reveals massive job creation, energy savings, saved lives, reduced traffic, and significant other quality of life improvements from investment in climate solutions. These same findings have been replicated in many other states — “Massachusetts is, in no way, shape, or form, uniquely positioned on this type of research.”

Working at the intersection of research and activism, Kurman-Faber provides a unique perspective on the climate crisis: while the work ahead of us feels daunting, and sometimes insurmountable, there are proven strategies, solutions, and frameworks that can move us in the right direction. Now is the time to commit to the collaboration, network building, and execution of the policy changes we need.

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