A photo of a factory


The Environmental Movement Has a Classism Problem

Whether pushing for electric cars, energy-efficient light bulbs, or solar panels, green tech policies often ignore low-income communities, putting them at even greater risk.

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While wealthy white liberals are discussing climate change as something that will hurt their children’s children, low-income communities are already living with the consequences: a largely unseen nightmare of pollution, water contamination, and natural disasters that affects everything from their health to their housing security.

As Democratic leaders pat themselves on the back for their climate change initiatives, some of their programs also stand to make life more difficult for poor communities and people of color.

Industrial facilities are routinely built in low-income communities, where property is cheaper and residents are less able to push back against water and air pollution. Because they often live in poorly constructed or maintained homes and apartment buildings, low-income communities spend three times as much of their annual income on utilities as higher-income households do, according to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, with Black and Latino households in particular spending more of their income on utilities than other households do.

Several recent policy-based efforts to combat climate change, although well-intentioned, stand to make life even more difficult for these communities that are already disproportionately affected by climate change. Initiatives seeking green solutions to issues such as pollution, carbon emissions, and renewable energy often do not take the needs of low-income communities into consideration. While inherently progressive by nature, legislation aimed at environmental justice often overlooks the bigger, related picture of economic inequality. Many of the people writing this policy are white and wealthy, and may have blind spots when it comes to low-income communities. An extremely expensive rental market means that low-income households have little say in where to live, for example, let alone the home’s energy efficiency. They are not included in discussions of these policies, nor are they the target audience of businesses marketing “green” products. From energy-efficient light bulbs to tiny homes, if the marketing is to be believed, green tech seems almost entirely to have been made for wealthy white people. What’s more, energy groups spend millions of dollars on lobbying annually to ensure incentives and regulatory frameworks that benefit them. These powerful special interests can make it difficult for everyday people to be heard in the legislative process.

One initiative that purports to help combat climate change actually allows companies to pay a fee essentially for permission to pollute. Cap-and-trade programs often lack public disclosure or input and stand to increase the amount of toxic chemicals in the air and water by turning pollution itself into a commodity. For example, environmental advocacy group Food and Water Watch found that the cap-and-trade program in Pennsylvania was ripe for exploitation: “A significant number of pollution credits in the state is being generated through what can only be described as a shell game, whereby piles of manure move from place to place to pollute local waterways while middlemen brokers skim profits from sales of highly questionable credits.”

In California, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act introduced a detailed timeline for lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and included a cap-and-trade program. In 2017, the state extended the program. California also requires that 25 percent of the revenue from the cap-and-trade program is invested in projects targeting climate change in disadvantaged communities. A recent study found that California cap-and-trade regulations are actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions in other states. But in California, 52 percent of regulated industries reported an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Researchers at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods with large communities of Black and Latinos were more likely to experience these increased emissions from nearby facilities—posing a risk for “severe and long-lasting” health consequences ranging from asthma to cancer. Finally, the researchers found that the oil, gas, and electricity industries were among the largest offenders for polluting in-state.

“The air pollutants we looked at in our study, including particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, can cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as cancer,” said Lara Cushing, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at San Francisco State. “Even if one facility does not emit enough pollution to be worrisome, the cumulative effect of emissions from many facilities in a small area can contribute to poor air quality and ill health. Our study showed that the higher the proportion of residents of color, the more likely a neighborhood was to have several facilities nearby and the more likely the neighborhood was to experience increases in air pollutant emissions from those facilities.”

According to Food and Water Watch, “Polluters have long built their facilities in lower-income and minority communities where residents lacked the political muscle to prevent toxic facilities from moving into the neighborhood.”

“When I first heard about cap-and-trade, I couldn’t conceive how pollution had become a commodity to profit from,” said Alicia Rivera, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment.

California, though a major polluter, prides itself as a leader in attempting to curb the effects of climate change. Behind the scenes, though, the state’s disadvantaged communities continue to suffer from the effects of climate change—which, in some cases, stand to be exacerbated by the state’s own green initiatives. In May, the state passed a mandate requiring that all new homes have solar panels on them. The state’s Energy Commission, which passed the new rule unanimously, estimates that it will save homeowners $19,000 over 30 years.

But there aren’t many new homes being built in California, and this new rule will make a new home cost $9,500 more than it already does. That’s a big problem in a state that dismantled its redevelopment agency a decade or so ago and is currently facing an intense housing shortage—last year the U.S. homeless population grew for the first time since 2010, spurred almost entirely by a spike in homelessness in California. The Energy Commission estimates that the new solar mandate will add $40 onto a monthly mortgage payment but will save customers $80 on bills. The state has a major affordable housing shortage, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and critics worry that these savings will not reach poorer communities.

This new rule also fails to address larger systemic issues in California. Earther’s Yessenia Funes, calling the solar mandate “for wealthy white people,” wrote that the commission did not account for poorer communities being displaced by these new solar homes. However, communities historically affected by pollution may soon have access to clean energy at a discount. In June, the California Public Utilities Commission expanded the Single-Family Affordable Solar Homes program to create a rebate program to reduce the cost of solar power in low-income communities. The program will give rebates to people renting in multi-family homes.

As more homeowners shift to solar power, non-solar houses will continue to foot the bill to maintain the power grid through a policy called net metering. Net metering has long been hailed by environmentalists as a great example of, essentially, using market forces to drive the transition to renewable energy. But the big losers in this scenario tend to be those without solar panels, because rather than shoulder the cost themselves of buying back solar energy, utilities typically just pass this cost along via rate hikes to other customers. It’s a classic example of policymakers not necessarily seeing the potential impacts on low-income communities, and thus not preventing utility companies from passing this cost along. In 2013, a study commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission found that net metering would shift about $359 million a year from those with solar power to other customers, with a total annual cost of $1.1 billion projected by 2020. The study found that the median household income for a house with solar power is $91,210, compared to the state median income of $54,283. And California has the highest poverty rate of any state in the country at 20.6 percent. The CPUC study also found that utilities are losing 12 percent of their full cost of service on each household with solar energy, suggesting that that gap in revenue is then covered by customers that do not have solar power and therefore are not being reimbursed.

It’s important to note that net metering has dramatically increased the amount of solar power in use, which has driven down the overall cost of solar energy. It seems plausible that there could exist a scenario in which wealthy solar customers are rewarded for their environmental service while lower-income families are shielded from having to pay the difference. Net metering itself is not the culprit; the corporations behind them are. It shouldn’t be an either-or choice to fight climate change or help poor communities.

Other states are reconsidering their net metering policies, although that may create a new swath of problems, including job losses and rate increases. For example, in Michigan, the Public Service Commission approved a new system of compensation for solar power, the head of a local energy company said it was possible that the new program would be even more expensive for non-solar customers. In South Carolina and Massachusetts, new caps on net billing left solar workers concerned about their jobs. Indiana began phasing out its net metering program in the end of 2017, but critics worry that the change lacks specifics. “In this state, utilities effectively write and carry out the policies. The commission has been incredibly hands-off,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition.

Lack of clarity about the metering policy has also plagued Massachusetts: “It’s horrifyingly bad,” said Mark Sandeen, president of MassSolar, a sustainable energy nonprofit. “If you’re thinking about putting solar on your roof and there isn’t any way for a customer to tell in advance what the charges are going to be, how are you going to enter into a financial contract?”

In a purported attempt to address power bill disparities, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, and Maine have also decided to get rid of net metering, although Nevada reversed its decision when pressured by Elon Musk, whose Solar City was set to lose millions if net metering went away. It’s a complex situation, though. Many in the solar industry protested that Nevada was single-handedly killing the state’s solar industry by abolishing net metering. Now that it’s reinstated, environmental justice advocates are pushing the state government to look for ways to benefit both low-income residents and green power initiatives.

Fortunately, some policymakers across the U.S. have begun to acknowledge that class discrimination and climate change are interconnected. Last year, the city of Portland, Oregon amended its climate action plan to include a statute that 10 percent of customers in the community solar program must qualify as low-income and inclusionary housing programs. The change was at the community’s recommendation: In 2009, when the city sought feedback on its climate action plan, many of the 1,500 comments collected addressed issues of discrimination. The city is seen as a leader for sustainability action, and several climate groups have looked to Portland’s plan as a model. The city “has really been at the forefront of trying to embrace a focus on equity in their climate action planning,” says Ann Wallace, program director of Portland-based environmental justice group Partners for Places.

In Washington, D.C., some low-income households have received solar panels for free. Solar Works DC, a program launched last year by the Department of Energy and Environment and Department of Employment Services, worked with GRID Alternatives to provide 60 to 100 low-income households with renewable energy while also training about 75 people in career skills for the solar industry. Recipients have reported significant savings in their energy bills. In Colorado, households have reported savings from the state’s low-income solar installation program as well.

“More can be done to ensure efforts to slow climate change benefit low-income and diverse communities,” Cushing said. “Ultimately, a more holistic approach that considers greenhouse gas and other hazardous air pollutants together might be needed to maximize the short-term public health benefits of addressing climate change and harmonize sustainability and environmental equity goals.”

California’s housing crisis is closely linked with its attempts to fight climate change through solar policies and the cap-and-trade program, and the very poor are paying the price. As the oil and gas industry lobbies for benefits from lawmakers across the country, it is important that leaders on the left prioritize the needs of low income, Black, and Latino communities. Given the immediate consequences are asthma, cancer, and toxic waste in our air and water, it seems too important to wait.

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