In the wake of the Great Recession, it’s easy to forget that the American economy can be a powerful engine for opportunity.
But as the economy sputters back to life, it faces two great threats to broadly shared prosperity: Extreme inequity and disruptive climate change. We can tackle both by tackling them together. That’s our goal in working with a wide spectrum of community, business, labor, utility, and environmental leaders on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Carbon Emission Reduction Task Force.
America’s prosperity is threatened in part because it is so concentrated. The richest 1 percent of Americans own about 35 percent of the country’s total wealth, while the poorest 40 percent own less than 1 percent. The wealthiest 400 people own more than do 50 percent of the population.
You don’t need to be an economist to know that this is bad for business and people. Extreme inequity is devastating to the poor, disproportionately impacting communities of color and dismantling the middle class. In some Washington communities, 30 percent of our children live in poverty. This erodes our sense of community, democracy, and shared values. It saps economic vitality from our state. It’s not right and it doesn’t have to be this way.
Climate disruption also represents a clear and present danger to our prosperity. Our future is being sacrificed to protect fossil fuel industry profits. In 2011 and 2012 alone, extreme weather disasters linked to climate disruption inflicted $188 billion in damages in the United States. To see the human consequences, look no further than Okanogan County, where fires this summer have ravaged whole communities. Global warming makes events like this more frequent and devastating.
And climate disruption itself is an equity issue: The people who have done the least to cause it are the most at risk from its impacts. Working people struggling to make ends meet and our children and grandkids will suffer the most as water levels rise and storms intensify. They have the least power in this debate, and the most at stake.
Responses too timid
Our leaders have been too timid in their response to date. We need to tackle the climate and inequity challenges aggressively and confidently. The transition to a clean-energy based economy can create more family-wage union jobs and shared prosperity, if we do it right and lean into it.
Energy efficiency is powerful proof of this proposition. Washington state has produced thousands of good local jobs and saves over $1 billion on our power bills annually through investments in the energy performance of our homes, businesses and industries over the past 20 years. Taking energy efficiency to scale and upgrading existing buildings provides an enormous opportunity to create jobs and reduce climate pollution.
Building healthier communities and stronger economies is at the heart of the agreement to phase out the Centralia coal plant. As we phase out coal, we should phase in clean, locally sourced energy that produces more good jobs and keeps more of our energy dollars at home. Additionally, the agreement’s $60 million for community transition will help attract new sustainable family-wage jobs to Lewis County.
A better future is coming into view: By reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and developing affordable alternatives, we can deliver broadly shared prosperity, now and for the future.
Gov. Inslee’s Carbon Emission Task Force can address our equity and climate challenges by developing a fair, responsible climate policy that drives toward this vision — a future of clean energy, greater equity, and greater security for working families and low-income citizens.
The task force includes a wide spectrum of perspectives. But the urgency of the climate and equity challenges compel us to find common ground. We don’t have the luxury of letting denial and division stand between us and the solutions that our kids and grandchildren deserve. With a clear-headed, pragmatic sense of determination and cooperation, we can create good jobs, equity and climate solutions. Now.
K.C. Golden is Senior Policy Advisor for Climate Solutions. Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council. They co-chair Washington State’s BlueGreen Alliance.