clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The 4 best ideas from Jay Inslee’s new climate justice plan

With his five-part climate proposal, Inslee has generated a fully fleshed-out Green New Deal.

Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at a protest on President Trumps immigration policy outside of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Washington on Friday July 12, 2019.
Inslee, trying to make some noise.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

On Monday, the Jay Inslee campaign released the fifth part of its comprehensive climate policy agenda. Cumulatively, the package of policies, called the “Climate Mission Agenda,” is close to 170 pages. Here are the five parts, all together:

Let’s take a look at this latest piece, the climate justice plan.

This is the premise: “Governor Inslee is committed to ensuring that every American working family and community is included, and none are left behind, as the U.S. transitions off of fossil fuels and builds a 21st century clean energy economy.”

A lot of the elements in this plan are drawn from the other four plans, all of which have a heavy climate justice component. There’s the guarantee that 40 percent of all new federal clean energy investments will go to frontline communities, the “polluter pays” fees on big polluters, the huge push for building and efficiency upgrades in frontline communities, using federal procurement to steer business to women- and minority-owned businesses, creating a fund to help energy workers with the transition away from fossil fuel economies — all that stuff was scattered through the previous plans.

And, like the other plans, this one is incredibly detailed, with an acronym soup of federal agencies and programs that could be deployed in the effort.

I’ll just cover my four favorite topline ideas introduced in this plan for the first time, and one big caveat I see: the plan’s reliance on a competent, high-functioning federal bureaucracy. I’ll also argue that Inslee has now generated a fully fleshed-out Green New Deal, with ideas the winning presidential candidate, whoever it turns out to be, can draw on when the time comes to make policy.

1) Mapping environmental impacts to inform federal policy

It is well understood that environmental impacts are both a driver and a reflection of economic injustice. To put it simply, frontline (low-income, people of color, tribal) communities tend to be dumping grounds. They are the ones next to the refineries, highways, landfills, and coal plants, the ones suffering from heightened levels of heart and lung ailments, the “cancer alley” of Louisiana or the black lung concentrations in Appalachia.

cancer in Appalachia Appalachian Voices

They have suffered most from industrial pollution and are projected to suffer most from the effects of climate change. Alongside them, “this economic transformation will require changes in many communities that have come to rely upon fossil fuel production, transportation, or combustion, for employment, tax base, and economy.”

Looking out for these communities through the transition — making sure that this time, unlike in so many other chapters of our history, they are given opportunities to participate and a fair share of the fruits — is what advocates mean by a “just transition.”

But looking out for them begins with information. It begins with knowing who is vulnerable, in what ways, and where.

To that end, an Inslee White House would “lead a major interagency initiative to identify Census tract and community-level information on pollution hotspots as well as patterns of economic inequality, racial demography, and vulnerability to climate change.”

This “equity impact mapping” would allow a more accurate and detailed assessment of the equity impacts of federal policies.

Inslee would use the information to establish an “equity screen” on all big federal policies, “to analyze and make decisions about how major federal actions interact with communities’ different environmental and pollution legacies, economic and racial demographics, as well as community capacities and climate vulnerabilities.”

The equity screen perspective would be propagated to all federal agencies, at both the headquarters and field level, in part by strengthening Executive Order 12898. (President Clinton ordered federal agencies to take disparate environmental impacts into account.)

The goal of the equity screen is twofold: to prevent policies that create concentrations of environmental harm and to allow targeted efforts to address America’s long history of environmental injustice.

I like this idea a lot. Even if it only involved gathering and organizing the information, information alone often spurs policy. It will be easier to take action on environmental justice when the geography and socioeconomics of environmental impacts are better mapped and understood.

2) Rooting environmental justice in the White House and DOJ

Inslee would establish two important new, or modified, agencies in the executive branch.

First, he would transform the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) into a Council on Environmental Justice (CEJ) “that will for the first time center federal environmental policy around equity, justice, and inclusion.” The CEJ would maintain CEQ’s traditional functions, but with a “new, revitalized mission.”

Second, Inslee would create an Office of Environmental Justice inside the US Department of Justice (“DOJ-EJ”) that would “aggressively pursue maximum civil and criminal penalties under environmental law — in particular against repeat offenders.” Along with a fully funded EPA Office of Enforcement and DOE-EJ, these enforcement agencies would “protect all communities from pollution, especially those most-vulnerable and worst-impacted.”

Among other things, Inslee’s enforcement agencies would support lawsuits brought against fossil fuel companies by local communities, shareholder groups, and others.

A gavel over a smokestack.
Climate lawsuits, basically.
Javier Zarracina/Vox

And elsewhere in the plan, Inslee vows to better enforce the Clean Air Act, to enhance and better enforce chemical safety laws, and to better fund and enforce the Superfund program.

I love all these ideas because accountability is a potent theme for the 2020 elections. If there’s one populist idea that unites the working class across racial lines, it is holding the wealthy and powerful accountable for abusing the system and crapping on the little people. (It’s a promise Donald Trump made and broke repeatedly.)

Accountability includes, for instance, wealthy fossil fuel investors like the ones currently leaving behind a wreckage in Appalachian and Western coal communities.

A candidate who promises to use the federal government’s power to defend the little people from corporate polluters and vulture capitalists could link environmental enforcement to a broader populist backlash.

3) Helping low-income Americans with their energy bills

Inslee would create a Universal Clean Energy Service Fund (UCESF) — modeled on the Universal Service Fund established in 1997 to promote universal access to telecommunications services in the US — to reduce electricity costs for low-income families, through “power bill reductions, building energy retrofits, and also distributed energy resources like solar.”

solar installation
Reducing energy bills.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The UCESF would partner with similar state public benefit funds and the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to ensure that every household has reliable access to clean electricity.

Inslee would also direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to ensure that its grants and rental assistance to low-income housing developers are tied to strong incentives for “building owners and property managers to invest in cost-saving building retrofits that improve living conditions, green energy use, the environmental impact of buildings, and permanently lowering bills for tenants and homeowners.”

Both of these are things the federal government ought to be doing anyway, for simple ethical reasons, but such measures will be especially important during a visible and concerted national energy transition.

4) Creating sustainable cities

To my delight, there’s a ton of stuff in this plan about urbanism, transit, the housing crisis, affordable housing, and gentrification. There’s a whole coherent sustainable-urbanism strategy buried in the climate justice plan (which itself is buried in the larger climate plan — it’s a fractal plan!).

This includes “a massive federal investment in public transit buildout with zero-emission technologies to reach marginalized communities,” investments and resources devoted to transit-oriented development, a revival of the HUD-EPA-USDOT Sustainable Communities Initiative, and investments in electric vehicle infrastructure.

Electric light rail in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Electric light rail in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

It includes new investments in affordable housing, new protections for renters, and new sources of financing to encourage low-income homeownership.

It includes the creation of a “National Housing Stabilization Fund” to “offer temporary rental support and financial assistance to families facing economic dislocation or short-term financial challenges due to lost wages, bills for medical care, transportation, and child care.”

But here’s where the campaign really won my heart:

The Inslee Administration will work with local and state leaders to create strong federal incentives to lift restrictive local zoning measures that limit density and new affordable housing construction, and instead work with cities and states to foster increased housing density, while protecting against gentrification and displacement.

Yesss. Inclusionary zoning plus increased density ought to be a top national priority, but it is virtually never discussed in presidential politics. I love that Inslee is tying it to climate justice.

One big caveat

One thing kept striking me as I read this plan — something that’s true of all Inslee’s plans, but this one in particular: It would rely on a competent, high-functioning federal bureaucracy.

Something like an equity screen is not just going to be a matter of issuing new orders to agencies. It’s not a switch you can flip. Each agency leader and employee will end up needing to use judgment on these matters. They will need to engage in good faith, to puzzle through and persist (even as powerful incumbents inevitably and furiously lobby against reforms).

Infusing a concern for environmental justice into federal policymaking is only going to work if support for it, if the spirit of it, is reflected at the personnel level.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 28: US President Donald Trump makes remarks prior to signing an Energy Independence Executive Order at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Headquarters on March 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. The order reverses the Obama-era clim
You gotta find people that share your vision.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images

That’s no small thing. Consider the devastation that Trump has wrought on the federal bureaucracy in his term so far, not just through the corrupt hacks he has put in charge of agencies but through attrition, the demoralization and retirement of scores of career federal employees who take their accumulated wisdom and experience with them.

The next Democratic president will need to build a robust and competent bureaucracy almost from the ground up. It’s difficult to know in advance whether Inslee, or any of the candidates, would be good at that kind of thing, but it will absolutely determine what they are able to accomplish in office.

The climate justice piece makes it official: Inslee has written a Green New Deal

With this climate justice plan, Inslee has now generated a fully fleshed-out Green New Deal, a transformational program that would not only reduce emissions but make structural reforms to the economy to protect and invest in vulnerable communities, boost innovation and job growth, empower workers, and hold polluters accountable.

I’ve been saying all along that GND supporters — lacking any other concrete policy plan to rally around — should simply adopt Inslee’s climate agenda. His 170 pages of policy are about as detailed and thorough as any plan is likely to get (at least until he releases the next bit). The plan draws almost all its ideas from policies successfully road-tested at the state level. It is progressive in its goals and practical in its means. Above all, it is actionable. The next president can draw ideas from it on day one.

Student activists with the Sunrise Movement occupy Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that she and the Democrats act on climate change
I found it.
Sunrise Movement

The most important part of any presidential campaign is never going to be policy details. As political scientist Mark Schmitt is fond of saying, it’s not what a candidate says about policy but what policy says about a candidate that matters. What Inslee’s voluminous policy says about him is that climate change is his top priority and overwhelming focus.

Despite his eloquent arguments to the contrary, there’s reason to doubt whether that’s a successful strategy for a presidential bid in 2020.

But that makes the development of a comprehensive policy blueprint all the more remarkable. This is more policy than Inslee needs, by any conventional reckoning. It’s a lot of employee hours that could have been devoted to, I dunno, fundraising. There’s not much evidence that hyper-detailed policy proposals are rewarded by voters or political pundits.

So it seems there’s a real element of public service in all this, for which the campaign deserves credit. This is a thing that badly needed doing; they’re doing it, and well.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.