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Climate Resilience IV: Climate Resilience Must Be Grounded in Economic Democracy

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(This is the fourth in a series of posts based on Emerald Cities Collaborative’s June 12 forum in Washington, D.C., on climate resilience.)

The Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC) recently convened a half-day forum in Washington, D.C., to explore how to build a climate-resilient economy that combines sustainability with equity for low-income minority communities.

“The High Road to Climate Resilience in American Cities” drew about 100 participants from the ECC board and staff, community and environmental organizations, business, labor, government and academia. Speakers – and then all participants, in roundtable discussions following each panel – addressed three aspects of resilience: infrastru

cture, economies and civic societies.

Resilient Economies
Moderator Diane Ives, fund advisor at the Kendeda Fund, noted that just as the impacts of climate change are driving changes in energy generation and use, financial crises are driving efforts towards more resilient economies. This session explored where the two efforts converge, and how a more resilient economy can address the causes and impacts of climate change.

Robert Asaro-Angelo, U. S. Department of Labor regional administrator – and former member of the President’s Sandy Rebuilding Task Force – advised the federal government to coordinate services with county and local governments before storms or other disasters hit and to find more robust ways to reach out to local elected officials.

He added that “Labor needs to be at the table,” and reminded “the feds” that states are their “clients.” 

Community in the Room
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) Director Dayna Cunningham said that in some situations, marginalized communities have the advantage, a their residents as their residents are used to living in “conditions of scarcity.”

The question then becomes, “Who decides, and how, what the limits will be?” She added  thatwhile “We tend to separate democracy and the economy,” that’s a false dichotomy. Asserting that resilience is grounded in economic democracy and the capacity of communities to make empathetic decisions, she cited these examples:

  • Stanford University’s decision not to buy coal-powered energy.
  • Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s mission to both improve the lives and livelihoods of miners and protect the environment.

“Let the neighbors deliberate in the room about what is best for our community, based on stewardship and clean energy,” she said.

Anchor Institutions, Worker-Owned Companies
Gar Alperovitz, the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, asked, “What is emerging, and what are the trends that we can build on?” One trend is collaboration he said, noting that “worker-owned companies don’t move [away]” – they stay and anchor communities. 

Moreover, Alperovitz continued, the purchasing power of anchor institutions can green and stabilize communities and even “change the ownership of wealth.” But in what he called “throwaway cites” such as Detroit, where half the housing and other infrastructure (highways, hospitals, schools) is no longer useful, these anchors must be rebuilt at huge costs of capital and carbon – costs that are rarely calculated.

Citing the example of Case Western Reserve University in a poor Cleveland neighborhood of some 40,000 residents, Alperovitz advised using institutional purchasing power to help stabilize struggling cities. 

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