A recurring criticism of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is that it has too much social justice baggage: Why does a statement of goals to limit climate change and decarbonize the economy devote so much ink to affordable housing, universal health care, and jobs for everyone?
“They are right that the entire energy sector must be reshaped,” the Washington Post editorial board wrote in a sharp appraisal. “But the goal is so fundamental that policymakers should focus above all else on quickly and efficiently decarbonizing. They should not muddle this aspiration with other social policy, such as creating a federal jobs guarantee, no matter how desirable that policy might be.”
Yet the reason the Green New Deal does include social programs is that, as Vox’s David Roberts put it, “It is not merely a way to reduce emissions, but also to ameliorate the other symptoms and dysfunctions of a late capitalist economy: growing inequality and concentration of power at the top.”
And given that decarbonizing the economy would mean jettisoning fossil fuel jobs, the resolution asserts that the transition needs to happen in a just way, mindful of the needs of “vulnerable, frontline, and deindustrialized communities.”
Nonetheless, we haven’t seen much in the way of climate policies that address social justice in this way ever in the United States.
Which is why a new clean energy bill in Illinois may serve as a remarkable test case of one of the Green New Deal’s core principles, at a time when more and more states are adopting ambitious decarbonization targets.
Illinois’s general assembly is weighing a bill that sets an aggressive target of decarbonizing the state’s energy by 2030 and running the state completely on renewable energy by 2050. That includes deploying more than 40 million solar panels and 2,500 wind turbines alongside $20 billion in new infrastructure over the next decade. The bill also calls for cutting emissions from transportation and for vastly expanding the clean energy workforce.
But it also leans into many of the social justice ideas outlined in the Green New Deal resolution.
“In the wake of federal reversals on climate action, the State of Illinois should pursue immediate action on policies that will ensure a just and responsible phase out of fossil fuels from the power sector to reduce harmful emissions from Illinois power plants, support power plant communities and workers, and allow the clean energy economy to continue growing in every corner of Illinois,” according to the text of the Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB 2132/ HB 3624).
Broadly, the bill aligns with the Green New Deal. But the Green New Deal resolution is just that — a resolution — whereas in Illinois, the rubber might actually meet the road.
“This bill is far more comprehensive [than the Green New Deal] and positions Illinois as a leader in the clean energy economy,” said Emily Melbye, chief of staff for State Rep. Ann Williams, a sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. She noted that legislators were working on this bill for years before the Green New Deal entered the national discourse.
It’s ambitious, but also risky. Clean energy policies have faltered in other states where climate change is ostensibly a major concern among the public. Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee recently launched a campaign for president with climate change as a tentpole. Yet voters in his state last year voted down a carbon tax for a second time.
It’s likely Illinois’ more aggressive proposal, with strong social justice themes, will face even bigger political hurdles. Its fate could also be an omen of whether a national climate policy built off the Green New Deal could get off the ground, so it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening in Springfield.
Justice is a central pillar of the Illinois clean energy bill
Supporters of the Illinois bill are arguing that addressing equity and social justice are required to build a coalition to back tough climate targets. And, they say, injustice is an inherent consequence of climate change: The people who contributed the least to the problem stand to suffer the most. Meanwhile, the people who profited the most from burning fossil fuels are the most insulated from its effects.
An amendment outlining the key provisions of the Clean Energy Jobs Act mentions “environmental justice” at least 30 times.
“We are getting pushback from communities that have coal plants that would be predicted to close under this,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, a group promoting the Clean Energy Jobs Act. “They need to see the financial and environmental benefits from whatever we do.”
Illinois currently gets about 31 percent of its electricity from coal, 6 percent from natural gas, and 54 percent from nuclear. That means the 2050 target of getting to 100 percent renewable electricity would require a turnover in the workforce producing 81 percent of the the state’s electricity. That’s a huge social and economic shift.