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In tackling the climate crisis, we need to draw the right lessons from the New Deal

Department of Energy via AP
An undated photo provided by the Department of Energy shows crude oil pipes at the Bryan Mound site near Freeport, Texas.

As the current congressional lame-duck period moves forward, many lawmakers are still clinging to the hope that an 11th-hour deal can be struck on the permitting reform effort, which was first initiated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as part of the Inflation Reduction Act negotiations. We can expect that the supporters of this effort on the political left will continue to evoke the image of the New Deal programs of the 1930s, as they seek to rally progressive-minded members of their caucus to their side.

This strategy makes a certain amount of sense given that, for many Americans, those programs are emblematic of effective government, thanks to their success in rescuing the nation from the depths of the Great Depression and setting us on the path for the widely shared prosperity of the post-World War II years.

But the legacy of the New Deal is complicated, and the lived experiences of many Americans underscore why we must proceed cautiously as we balance the welfare of our most overburdened neighbors with the imperative to quickly decarbonize our economy. The recent calls to dramatically overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) cast this dilemma in stark terms.

The oldest of our major environmental laws, NEPA requires that federal agencies analyze the potential environmental consequences of their actions, such as the air and water pollution that results from newly approved natural gas pipelines. It further directs those agencies to consider alternative approaches that would reduce those consequences, such as selecting a different route for a proposed pipeline that avoids fragile water resources. Crucially, NEPA empowers members of the public to sue agencies to ensure they properly perform these analyses.

Critics argue, however, that NEPA permits “too much” democracy over climate policy, thereby thwarting such essential responses as the rapid construction of renewable energy infrastructure. Squeezing carbon dioxide emissions out of our economy over the next decade, they argue, will require more decisive action — much as the New Deal was able to rebuild the fundamentals of the economy in short order.

One of the New Deal’s forgotten tragedies is that its promise of economic opportunity and security were not extended equally to everyone. Many of its programs were designed to exclude Black communities. To take one infamous example, the law that established Social Security’s retirement benefits and unemployment insurance programs explicitly excluded agricultural and domestic service workers — sectors that employed disproportionately large numbers of Black Americans.

Proposals to gut NEPA, which some claim is required to usher in a newNew Deal, would replicate such racial injustice. Some notable exceptions notwithstanding, low-wealth communities of color have been NEPA’s biggest beneficiaries. Today, the law empowers many communities to protect themselves from becoming industrial “sacrifice zones,” exposed to dangerous toxic pollution while being denied the well-paying jobs and wealth creation that might come with such economic development.

Still, the New Deal does have one important lesson for NEPA overhaul proponents: the value of empowering the public to shape our political and economic lives. This principle is most clearly captured in the National Labor Relations Act, which establishes the basic legal framework guaranteeing workers the right to form unions. The framers of this 1935 law recognized that achieving economic justice required positioning unions as countervailing forces against the corporations that dominated the economy. (Notably, this law excluded agricultural and domestic service workers, too.)

In the same way, communities can promote environmental and climate justice by serving as centers of countervailing power against today’s corporate polluters. The goal, then, should be to find ways to enhance their ability to fulfill this role. Gutting NEPA would do just the opposite, though.

Despite what NEPA overhaul proponents claim, we need not sacrifice environmental justice for effective climate action. The New Deal teaches us that we can and must have both. To do so, we must empower the public to play a greater role in the design and implementation of energy policy.

If structurally marginalized communities have a chance to set our energy policy priorities from the outset, they will have less need to resort to NEPA litigation at the end of the process, minimizing or even eliminating delays in energy infrastructure construction. The real challenge of meeting the climate crisis isn’t communities demanding more power; it’s the corporate interests who refuse to give their excessive power up.

James Goodwin is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Progressive Reform and a widely known expert in regulatory reform.

Tags Climate change Energy Fossil fuels Global warming Joe Manchin NEPA permitting deal pipelines

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