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How to implement a ‘just’ energy transition? Make it local

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Ever since President Biden issued a historic executive order directing 40 percent of the benefits from federal climate action to flow to disadvantaged communities, those of us on the front lines of the climate crisis have been singing its praises — the Justice40 Initiative. We’ve also been concerned about its implementation. 

Will this well-intentioned effort get bogged down in D.C. business as usual, with well-connected, well-funded organizations and state agencies getting the lion’s share of the funding? 

Or will front-line environmental justice communities like those across the American South — where dirty energy and climate change bring disproportionately high energy bills, air pollution and rates of asthma and other illnesses — finally begin to see serious resources invested in solutions? 

Through my work with the Partnership for Southern Equity, I’ve met inspirational leaders on the front lines of the climate crisis from across the United States. Most are rooted in Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American and other communities of color, which bear disproportionate burdens stemming from climate change and dirty energy. These communities are also victims of structural inequities in our economy. In my hometown of Atlanta, for example, median income for Black households is one-third that of white households. As you can imagine, the Justice40 Initiative’s promise of federal contracts and grants seems a world away.

But in these very same communities, neighbors have been banding together for generations to create solutions that address climate change and dirty energy while also addressing other inequities, from good jobs to affordable housing to safe drinking water. Scaling up these practical solutions rooting in the community and helping other communities solve even more problems we all face would be the best use of Justice40 funding.

Here are a few examples of innovations already happening:

  • A rust-belt neighborhood turns its abandoned school into solar-powered affordable housing for the elderly and a safe gathering spot for the community that morphs into a mutual aid hub during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A predominantly Black church in the South installs solar-powered panels that create fresh drinking water to serve an area with persistent water quality issues, and successfully advocates for affordable solar power and home weatherization.
  • An Indigenous community on the Great Plains builds a sustainable neighborhood of solar-powered, energy- and water-efficient homes while providing on-the-job training for its young people.
  • West-Coast Asian and Pacific Islander communities successfully advocate for policy changes enabling renters to power their homes with affordable solar energy.
  • A multiracial grassroots group advocates turning an old industrial waterfront into a new center for green jobs — and sees public and private sources commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a new wind-energy facility.

These are practical, replicable solutions created by the communities most affected to the problems of pollution and climate change — and they are inspiring us to do what we can to help the Justice40 Initiative succeed.

The Justice40 Accelerator is that kind of solution, designed to serve front-line organizations whose innovative climate solutions are exactly the kinds of projects the Justice40 Initiative was born to fund: infrastructure of, by and for communities affected worst and first by climate change. The Justice40 Accelerator was launched by Partnership for Southern Equity along with fellow nonprofits Elevate, Groundswell and The Solutions Project, with support from The Hummingbird Firm

The Justice40 Accelerator will offer information and guidance on identifying Justice40 funding opportunities and navigating the federal bureaucracy. Through grants, workshops, partnership opportunities, technical support, and sharing existing expertise, the Justice40 Accelerator is designed to set community-based organizations up for success as they apply for federal climate-related contracts and grants.

When people see their own neighbors creating positive change, bringing in new technology, and creating jobs, they have tangible reasons to hope. And if the Justice40 Initiative scales up this kind of investment, people with a long history of being kept out of some neighborhoods by redlining and pushed out of others by gentrification might finally feel as if their fellow Americans are trying to understand that unjust history, and beginning to repair the damage done.

For a long time, environmental justice advocates have talked about a “just transition” to a clean-energy economy. By repairing the damage done to communities by dirty energy and climate change and investing in their future, the Justice40 Initiative represents a real opportunity to jump-start a just transition to a more sustainable, more equitable, more prosperous nation.

Nathaniel Smith is founder and chief equity officer at the Partnership for Southern Equity, which works for racial equity and shared prosperity in Atlanta and across the American South. 

Tags Climate change Climate justice Environmental justice Joe Biden Nathaniel Smith Pollution

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