Green in Black and White

It’s Time to Show Up

My favorite opening line from any Earth Day speech ever was this: “Today, black and white, yellow and brown, we are all green.”  The speech was delivered three decades ago; the place was Times Square; and the speaker was David Dinkins, New York City’s first (and to date, only) African-American mayor.  How I wish his words were, then or now, description rather than aspiration. That our common earth-saving cause created a bridge across chasms of race and class that threaten our long-term collective prospects on this marvel of a life-supporting planet in all its glorious inter- and intra-species diversity.  And more immediately, that this shared planetary cause bridged the chasms that threaten our today-and-tomorrow-and-next-week prospects for coinhabiting our city streets and town squares and rural landscapes without rage, fear, or mutual suspicion.

With blood staining the sidewalks, carbon spewing unsustainably (still) into the atmosphere, and a pandemic spreading most virulently among the least advantaged, it seems fitting to connect the Great Green Project to inequality in America, and most specifically, to racial inequality. For as people of color frequently and helpfully remind: when race is staring us in the face and we talk about other things, we are choosing not to engage with it. As in elections, nonparticipation is a choice with consequences.

Let me provide one example—which is grounding in its specificity, and provides the requisite environmental law-and-policy hook—before looping back to the general condition it signifies. This week, in selecting among possible new client matters, our Environmental Law Clinic is choosing to position itself at the uncomfortable, high-friction interface between Traditional Environmentalists and Environmental Justice activists by taking on evaluation and critique of a celebrated climate change mitigation program known as Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE).  In brief, our working hypothesis, based on clients’ lived experiences (and subject to disproof if further data suggest otherwise), is that PACE is a great idea that has often gone badly wrong in implementation, because of inattention to equity.

The sensible premise of PACE is that the high up-front costs of installing alternative energy sources (such as rooftop solar), or efficiency improvements (like insulating a drafty attic), prevent broad-scale uptake of these available and necessary climate protection measures. PACE programs promise to solve this problem by initially providing green improvements to home or building owners for free.  They then recoup the cost over time through increased property assessments. Taxpayers can afford these increases, the theory goes, because of cost savings from lower utility bills.

In practice, however, it has not always turned out so well.  And specifically and overwhelmingly, it has not turned out well for many residential program participants at the socioeconomic bottom, who are—unsurprising—preferentially black and brown.  Marketing and installation of home energy improvements in most jurisdictions’ PACE programs are left largely in the hands of poorly regulated for-profit home contractors.  Predictably, abuses appear to be routine.  For example, PACE improvements are often sold to elderly homeowners for whom the economics of energy upgrades could never pencil out even on paper (such as where an energy-sipping 80-year-old is sold a fancy rooftop PV system), or promised green improvements like insulation are so poorly installed (if indeed installed at all) that energy savings never materialize, even as tax bills rise. These math problems manifest for low-income homeowners as unpayable debt, underwater mortgages, and increasingly, home foreclosure.

To date, however, even minor attempts to curb PACE abuse in California through legislation have met intense political resistance and achieved at best partial success.  The refreshingly bipartisan state consensus on our climate emergency (more on this below), coupled with insufficient empirical data on PACE abuse, has allowed an exhaustingly familiar narrative to prevail: PACE implementation problems in the hands of the home-contracting industry and the resulting victimization of people of color and the poor are—you guessed it—the fault of “a few bad apples.”  Our Clinic looks forward to a deep data dive (into both statistics and PACE participants’ stories) that we expect will confirm our clients’ view: that PACE’s problems are pervasive and systemic.  What happens thereafter is up to all of us.

Widening the lens: PACE—like so much in current climate discussions—forces us to consider, and ultimately choose between, competing moral claims. Traditional Environmentalists urge, correctly, that we must reduce greenhouse gases as fast as possible, and by all means available, to have any chance of planetary salvation. They further note, again fairly, that those at the socioeconomic bottom will benefit most from climate correction. It is the classic “a-rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” argument, bolstered by classically technocratic proposals.

Environmental Justice activists claim, in sharp contrast, that we will never have the broad societal buy-in necessary to scale climate solutions if we do not both include and shift power to those who have historically been excluded from energy decision-making (read: black and brown and poor people).  And further, without a fundamental societal reordering in the direction of equity, we will not have disrupted the racism and wealth disparities that produce not only unfair, but universally bad energy policy.  (It is here worth noting a nascent and, I hope, expanding literature on how environmental racism also hurts whites, such that, e.g., racially segregated areas have more air pollution in white neighborhoods than do well-integrated areas.)

What is a planet-concerned person of conscience to do?  Schooled mostly but not wholly in Traditional Environmentalist ways of problem framing, in recent years—with the help of students, colleagues, and clients like those we will represent in our PACE reform project—I now subscribe strongly to the “All of Us or None” view held by Environmental Justice activists. Specifically: I vow, going forward, to abandon climate-first apologist narratives, under whose logic issues of race (and class, and other oppressions) can always be deferred for another day . . . meaning, the day when we have—fat chance on our current trajectory!—solar-celled and EV-ed and carbon-captured and energy-stored and geo-engineered our way below the 350 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 (or, whoops now, course correction, that number is already in the rear-view mirror. . . ) that we are told will permit us the luxury to engage with social justice.  Predictably, that day remains perpetually on the next calendar page.

I therefore hope that in light of this week’s chilling events, all of us, whatever our environmental subfield, will commit to tithe some time to explore the anti-racism materials now widely web-available and even curated (this video provides a thoughtful perspective on recent riots; here is a wide-ranging anti-racist reading listthis book provides wise counsel for navigating issues of race in the classroom and beyond).  And I hope we may all from there consider—in the privacy of our own homes (thank you, Covid?), our own heads, and most especially, our own hearts—how we might find some points of connection between racial inequities and our own domains of expertise.

We will make mistakes. And we should welcome correction, whether or not it comes where, when, and how we would prefer.  The most potent, pernicious, and nonobvious aspect of white privilege, I have come too slowly to realize, is the permission it provides to choose not to engage.  But now more than ever before, we are past the point where we can say of race that it is not “my issue.”

In the paragraph preceding her most famous line, poet Audre Lorde wrote that “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that those differences do not exist.”  Rather, says Lorde, our collective survival and well-being entails learning “how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

Simply put: It’s time—indeed long past time, good green friends— to show up for black lives.






Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Green in Black and White”

  1. I’m curious how to include the example of EVs and other clean tech successes into the argument that climate advocates can’t just be “climate first.” High-income earners’ purchases of electric vehicles helped bring the cost of batteries down almost 90% in the past decade, making electric trucks and more affordable EVs (including electric transit) now possible, in turn addressing a major source of pollution in EJ communities. And similar declining cost curves of previously expensive clean tech like solar panels and energy retrofits (i.e. LED bulbs), initially purchased by predominantly high-income earners, have helped avert construction or relicensing of fossil fuel power plants, which are often sited in EJ communities. There may have been other paths to get to these outcomes that didn’t involve subsidizing high-income people or companies, but I think these successes are worth acknowledging, with the major caveat that more is of course still needed to address environmental injustices and a focus on equity should be embedded and represented in all climate-related decisions.

  2. Ethan,
    Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I agree with you completely that the “1%” in America confer many positive environmental externalities in their role as early adopters of green tech (and also, green chemistry) innovations that drive down costs—which benefits everyone—while also nontrivially and preferentially decreasing pollution and toxic exposure burdens for POC and poor people (i.e., those who preferentially live near pollution sources/work in hazardous occupations). My complementary point is simply that our technocratically effective strategies have been in important ways a political failure, in that they are myopically “1%-FIRST,” rather than “1% AND.” By this I mean that we have (a) failed to get society’s least empowered (POC + poor people) excited about and politically mobilized around green-tech/green-chem, and (b) created unproductive and unnecessary fault lines between Tesla owners and the socioeconomic bottom, which largely regards them as a*holes and elitists, rather than as green saviors. This can all be fixed relatively easily if Tesla-owners (and even the less fancy but comparatively privileged, BOLT-leasers) spend more time talking with BLM activists to discuss how to get in better alignment. But as in chess: the white piece must move first.

  3. Two thoughts come to mind on this thoughtful piece. In regard specifically to the PACE example, I would also point out that many of lower income Californians, which will include people of color, cannot afford homes of their own. Consequently, they are reliant on the willingness of their landlords to bring down energy costs. As a renter myself, albeit not poor or a person of color, my experience is that this is not something that is likely to happen. I would imagine it is even more true for those who do not have my privilege.
    I think that there are truths on both sides of your climate argument, but I would be cautious about an all or nothing approach for the simple reason that, again in my experience with water regulation, polluters and vested interests will “hide” behind the costs to low income and disadvantaged communities to ensure that we do not set water standards that protect all Californians. They thereby attempt to hold the entire population hostage to perpetuate the status quo. Our solution has been to push for stringent protections but find resources to ensure that all communities can comply with them. But the reality is that this is not always possible or doesn’t work out as we envision. What we hear from communities however, is that environmentally associated disease is costly too (let alone tragic), so we continue to struggle with the balances needed to ensure affordable water along with safe water. I agree that we must break the cycle of inequity in environmental protection, including climate change. Nothing less is success. But the on the ground reality is that we must always be vigilant as polluters understand that tension very well and use it to their own advantage.

    1. Andria,
      I appreciate your reflections on the tricky tradeoffs in our efforts to make environmental progress, which I know are the product of long environmental movement experience. A few responses:
      1. As to your PACE-program-specific point, you are absolutely right that low-income Californians, including POC, are typically renters, and as a society we have not perfected policy solutions to address the so-called “split incentives” between building owners and tenants that conspire against investments in clean residential energy (such as solar cells and heat pump cooling) and energy efficiency (such as installation of insulation)—although many smart people are working on this. Unfortunately, the home contracting industy’s abuse of PACE in the residential context does nothing to address this problem. So, I do not think this is the other side of a “both sides” argument about how to address climate change; I think it’s simply a different (albeit important) topic.

      2. Regarding regulation of water quality: you are likewise right that as to setting appropriately stringent, health-protective regulation, “vested interests will ‘hide’ behind the costs to low income and disadvantaged communities to ensure that we do not set water protection standards that protect all Californians,” and that “the one ground reality is that we must always be vigilant as polluters understand that tension very well and use it to their own advantage.” I have two responses. First, polluters’ self-serving, wholly pretextual expression of concern for those at the socioeconomic bottom—-and even more cynically, their ability (through deception or economic incentive) to get the occasional POC to advocate for clearly corporate interests——are incredibly old moves in the corporate playbook, albeit with ever-new manifestations. The case of sugary sodas (“SSBs,” sugar-sweetened beverages) is a perfect example: historically, companies like Coke and Pepsi offered money to the student councils in underfunded public school districts if the councils would advocate for school soda machines. This is an important part of the history of youth soda addiction in low-income and POC communities. Fast-forwarding a few decades, soda companies used black and brown front people to defeat the soda tax in Richmond, CA by emphasizing its economic regressivity at the convenience-store level of individual soda litre purchases. Left out of this totally rigged cost-benefit analysis was any consideration of the massive health costs of obesity and Type 2 diabetes that hit communities of color and the poor so disproportionately, and to which high soda consumption is an important contributor. Fortunately, a different political outcome is possible, if environmental advocates head my advice to focus FIRST–not last–on equity, by creating broad and deep and meaningful (not purely symbolic) coalitions. In the City of Berkeley, public health advocates learned this critical lesson from the Richmond SSB policy failure, and by involving POC not only as participants but as co-leaders of the soda-tax movement, they prevailed at the ballot box. They not only “prevailed” – they trounced!! Berkeley’s soda tax measure passed with 75% of the vote, becoming the first such successful measure in the U.S., and inspiring much replication. A few years later, the measure had decreased soda consumption by a whopping 52% in diverse and low-income neighborhoods, redounding to the benefit of health (and possible also, pocketbooks). Meanwhile, soda tax revenues were used to support programming that directly benefitted POC and low-income communities: nutrition education and gardening programs in schools, and grants to local organizations working to encourage healthy behaviors. This is what elevating equity achieves—it’s not just morally right; it’s wickedly effective! I see no “both sides” moral of this story; it is, insstead, a story of the complete alignment of interests in environmental health and social equity.

      One final thought, Andria. As highly educated people working in polarized political spaces that militate against creating consensus around shared values, such as “we all want our children to be healthy” (a larger topic for another time), it is easy us (myself emphatically included) to fall reflexively into a “both sides” discussion mode. But some issues — like the need to tackle climate change and, I urge, the need to center issues of race and equity in all we do going forward—-do not have a “both sides,” because they are simply TRUE. I think this is the right moment for us all to try better to understand the depth of peril in “both-sider” narrative frames—-even in contexts far less objectionable than Trump’s heinous, infamous “good people on both sides” remarks at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. In this connection, I commend to you this article on “bothsidism” from the Columbia Journalism review: Rose Aguilar’s On the Media NPR show also had a fabulous recent segment centering accomplished black journalists discussing the problem of bothsidism and its pernicious (if unintended) effects in the context of our current situation of racial unrest and outsize possibility for social transformation.

      Thank you again for taking the time to share your experience and perspective, Andria. I hope some of what I’ve written is useful as we stumble together on the rocky path to improved performance as white environmentalists engaging planetary and human ills, and their intimate interrelation.

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About Claudia

Claudia Polsky

Claudia Polsky joined Berkeley Law in July 2015 as the first Director of its Environmental Law Clinic and Assistant Clinical Professor of Law.…

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