Michelle Wu's Victory heralds a new age of climate politics

Michelle Wu recently became the first woman and the first person of color ever to be elected mayor of Boston. In a diverse and unequal city with a legacy of white men dominating politics and power, this election represents a transformation that is so much more than representation and Mayor-elect Wu’s identity: it reflects support for a new type of American climate policy.

Wu is not only a 36-year-old Asian American who has served on the Boston City Council for the past seven years. She is also an innovative, inspiring leader who brings optimism and hope with a new approach to climate justice. The cornerstone of her policy platform is her detailed plan for a Green New Deal and Just Recovery for Boston.

Her win is the first time a candidate for executive office at any level of government has won on a Green New Deal platform. This is big news for climate action in the United States, because the Green New Deal approach is a new kind of climate policy. Moving beyond climate policies that rely on technology mandates, emission standards, or carbon taxes, the idea behind the Green New Deal is to invest in climate action in a way that reverses social inequities. Rather than seeing climate action as a daunting expensive proposition, the Green New Deal reframes the climate crisis and the need to accelerate decarbonization as an opportunity to invest in both physical and social infrastructure including an urban climate corps and workforce training for green jobs, green municipal bonds to finance renewable and efficient energy projects and free public transportation to reduce transit injustices.

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Unlike the Green New Deal proposed in Congress in 2019 that provided a broad policy framework without implementation details, Wu’s plan for a Green New Deal in Boston consists of a series of interconnected policies and actions including expanding cooperative and community-owned housing and land trusts, growing the urban tree canopy, and divesting public pension funds from extractive industries as well as private prisons and gun manufacturers. It also calls for making city data public, expanding equitable access to affordable, nutritious, culturally appropriate food, harnessing coastal and ocean resources for clean energy and sustainable food, as well as building partnerships and expert coalitions to inform policy implementation.

Wu’s successful campaign in Boston shows us that progressive climate justice leadership can be a winning strategy. Wu is a self-described policy wonk with a comprehensive policy agenda, and the scale and interconnected scope of her plan for a Green New Deal for Boston demonstrates her vision for achieving a more inclusive, resilient Boston. By linking climate investments and job creation with a just COVID-19 recovery, Boston’s new mayor won on a platform that connects clean and resilient energy with jobs, transit justice, affordable housing, workforce development, food justice and more. Across all these areas, social justice and equity are prioritized. Rent control, small business recovery and a justice audit of city government are among the unique aspects of her plan.

By centering economic justice, racial justice and climate justice throughout her priorities for the city of Boston, Wu is among a growing cohort of new diverse leaders who are leveraging opportunities for larger change by linking problems together rather than addressing issues separately.

Wu joins her “sisters in service” in Congress, sometimes referred to as The Squad, including Reps. Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyMcCarthy faces headaches from far-right House GOP House progressives urge Garland to intervene in ex-environmental lawyer Steven Donziger's case GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE (D-Mass.) with whom she formerly served on Boston City Council, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarDemocratic caucus chairs call for Boebert committee assignment removal War of words escalates in House Mace chief of staff steps down during turbulent week MORE (D-Minn.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibPelosi: Democrats can't allow 'indecent' Boebert comments to stand Omar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats September video shows Boebert made earlier comments suggesting Omar was a terrorist MORE (D-Mich.) and others who are explicitly linking the climate crisis with economic justice and jobs, health and wellbeing, the criminal justice system, transportation justice and the need for public investments in housing.

While Boston is now a clear leader in this new approach to climate action, Green New Deal-type policies linking climate resilience and social justice are now being proposed in multiple cities, states and regions around the world. Momentum is building for investing in social equity while slowing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate impacts.

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While international and national action on climate remains contentious and uncertain, Boston is now paving the way for other cities to follow, demonstrating how to tackle climate injustice at the municipal level. With her victory, Michelle Wu is demonstrating in Boston how to build multiracial and multigenerational coalitions in climate and energy policy by centering climate action on the need for public investments in people and communities.

Pressley has said “anyone who is in building a more equitable and just world is a part of ‘The Squad.’” Under Wu’s integrated and inclusive approach to climate policy, Boston will now be positioned to become a global leader in climate justice action.

Alaina Boyle is the lead author of the recent analysis “Green New Deal proposals: Comparing emerging transformational climate policies at multiple scales.” Boyle previously worked as a climate policy fellow in Michelle Wu's city council office and as a clean energy valuation research project manager for Boston-area non-profit E4TheFuture.

Jennie C. Stephens is a professor of sustainability science and policy and director of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. She is the author of “Diversifying Power: Why We Need Antiracist, Feminist Leadership on Climate and Energy” (Island Press, 2020).