By Huck Fairman
As climate change becomes more pronounced – the warmest years on record have all been over the last several – societies and communities are discussing and trying different approaches.
In Portland, Oregon, voters approved a 2018 ballot measure, The Clean Energy Fund. Denver, Colorado, voters recently approved a similar program. President-elect Joe Biden’s proposed, sweeping climate plan targets many of the causes of climate change, but notably, 40% of its clean energy investment will be directed to disadvantaged communities.
The Portland program looks to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy. It has funded small planning grants to help communities apply for larger grants. It will assist low-income Portland residents to finance green initiatives and job creation. The city is expecting in this coming year to provide $40-60 million for clean energy job training, weatherizing houses, and installing roof-top solar panels.
In order to pay for these plans, the city has levied a 1% tax on larger businesses. Some of those businesses have objected that the tax is unfair and will not produce any of the promised improvements. The president of the Portland Business Alliance responded that while the alliance supports the goals of the Clean Energy Fund, it questions “who is paying for this and how they pay for it.” The alliance president pointed out that the definition of “large retailers” was so broad that retirement funds and garbage haulers were included. The city subsequently excluded those businesses.
But other groups, such as The Coalition of Communities of Color, saw the program as an economic recovery tool. Still others saw it as a rebalancing of programs that had previously benefited only affluent portions of the community.
The city expects to offer its first $8.6 million climate justice grants next year. It is to be hoped that this initiative, and others like it around the country will help reduce emissions and the global warming they produce.
The complexity of tackling climate change is evidenced in a number of ways beyond these local efforts. While carbon dioxide emissions have dropped nationally since switching from coal to natural gas has been widely adopted, a recent 2020 study found that methane leaks from the U.S. gas systems has countered many of those benefits. Although natural gas produces fewer emissions than coal, its heat-trapping properties of methane, when released into the atmosphere, are stronger than coal. The solution lies in reducing leaks, but with their sources in drilling, piping and refining, it is neither a simple nor cheap fix. And yet allowing climate change to continue will lead to much greater costs, in a number of ways. We, as a nation, largely recognize this and know what to do. The question is: will we come together sufficiently to do it?
This question was addressed as long ago as 1932, by theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. In his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, he wrote: “However much human ingenuity may increase the treasures which nature provides … they can never be sufficient to satisfy all human wants; for man, unlike other creatures, is gifted and cursed with an imagination which extends his appetites beyond the requirements of subsistence. Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life.”
Thus, in environmental terms, the benefits from fossil fuel usage must be weighed against their environmental costs, which must be paid for by both beneficiaries, the producers and, equitably, the communities.