President's Perspective

From 2014 To 2015: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back And a Giant Leap For Humanity

Denise Fairchild

Tis the Season!  Family, Food, Festivities, Rest and Reflection.  Don’t you love it?

I settle into this holiday season pensive about the past year and what’s ahead for 2015.  My assessment?  When it comes to our high-road goals – environment, economy and democracy – it’s been a bittersweet year. We took two steps forward and one back. We made strides related to climate change and energy policies. We lost ground on issues of the economy and equity. 

The progress on the climate and energy front is encouraging:  

  • The People’s Climate March, the largest climate march in U.S. history, galvanized 400,000 Americans, along with global citizens in 162 countries to demand climate change action from UN countries.
  • EPA’s Clean Power Plan -- requiring states to produce a plan to reduce their carbon emissions --is stimulating innovative climate solutions.
  • An increasing number of states ranked higher scores on ACEEE’s energy efficiency scorecard. 
  • The emergence of state-level carbon tax legislation (I predict that it will become as seductive a revenue generator as legalized marijuana) that is driving new models for carbon reduction.
  • The United States is back at the table with world leaders to strike a global accord on climate change for the 2016 UN Climate Conference. 

And beyond the people and policy initiatives, market mechanisms are working in favor of clean energy, including:

  • Better, cheaper renewable technologies, including solar storage;
  • Clean energy financing is re-emerging;
  • The business case for utilities to migrate to clean and distributive energy is strengthened by expiring fossil fuel facilities, coupled with cheaper clean energy technologies;
  • The transmission/distribution bottlenecks (e.g. pipelines), peak load challenges and expiring facilities are among a variety of factors putting distributive generation on the map.

And yes, the economy is gaining traction. Many of our cities are now back into the construction business, working on a range of resilient infrastructure projects. This opens up channels for our young people to get into apprenticeship programs that pay well and build careers. 

And how can we not wonder what’s up with the dramatic drop in gas prices? Politically-charged conspiracy theories run large, with some suggesting that this may be a seven-year run. The fact is, however, there are potentially good and questionable consequences. If you drive, you are loving it. If you are an environmental or climate change advocate, you know that puts a damper on hydraulic fracking, pipeline projects and all oil-producing enterprises (global and domestic). But it might also hinder energy conservation and renewable energy. 

ECC Makes Strides Locally
Closer to home, the Emerald Cities team scored major wins in our local markets. We welcome a new partnership with the City of New Orleans and her extended family.

Thanks to the Ohio team, there is a new office of sustainability, innovative financing platform and a pipeline of municipal projects in Cuyahoga County. 

The California team is working on statewide school retrofit projects under three separate Prop. 39 contracts. A new anchor institution partnership was formed in Oakland. Innovative financing for a 1,500 unit affordable housing project was established with Mission Housing in San Francisco. Our first E-Contractor academy graduate won a $1 million solar installation project in LA. 

Seattle beat back a utility rate hike, launched an affordable housing initiative and is working with the utilities to create labor and community standards. 

Portland continues to work toward institutionalizing its community benefit agreement in citywide projects.

Providence is a semi-finalist in a DOE-sponsored sustainability competition and is in line to, hopefully, win a $5 million grant for its projects.

New York City is moving on an exciting faith-based and community energy district project. 

And we have had a number of national policy wins. 

I am proud of the hard work of our ECC family.

Without question, a huge shift is occurring around climate change and energy policies and actions.  But of course, these are just the battles. We need to keep pushing for these changes and ensuring that they will support, not harm, low-income communities. We have a long way to go to win the war.

Building a Just Society
The flip side of the good news is the troubling stuff. In sharp contrast to the environmental progress are the challenges in building an economically just and democratic society.    

On the economic front, we witnessed a regression back to the old “jobs versus the environment” paradigm (as opposed to ECC’s focus on creating large-scale green jobs projects).  EPA’s Clean Power Plan has threatened the livelihood of many in the fossil fuel industry. The natural, but unfortunate, response of many of our allies is to fight to hold on to what is becoming a dying industry and abdicating the push for a clean energy future.

Then, of course, we still are struggling with building a more just and democratic society. The recent Green 2.0 report documents the lack of diversity among major environmental organizations, including nonprofits, as well as in government and philanthropy.  This is despite another report released this year by Green for All showing that communities of color overwhelmingly support – by even greater percentages than white communities – efforts to address climate change and environment. 

There is no question that if there is to be an environmentally-sustainable future, communities of color must be a part of the planning, design and implementation of that future. The good news is that there has been a commitment among the Big Greens to do better. NRDC is modeling the way with the hire of Rhea Shun as its new president.

Racial Wounds and Resilient Communities
But this challenge is part of the larger issue of democracy rocking the nation. The treatment of young men of color by the police in Ferguson, Mo., New York, Cleveland and other urban centers is emblematic of the challenge of building a society that is truly democratic and resilient.

It is heart-wrenching to see the pain and anger in one community contrasted with the callous disregard as a response in many others. At its extreme, it seems not far removed from the days when lynchings were considered a justified, publically accepted means of social control for people of color.

These racial wounds and challenges are not distant from our work in building resilient communities. They are illustrative of the deeper conversations needed to build the kind of relationships and society that not only protects and improves our environment, but also engages its citizens in a fair way through a truly just  democratic process. (I’m not sure that the grand jury process can be called just and democratic.) 

These are, in fact, the roots of resilience, shared: RIGHTS, RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY FOR PLANET, PLACES AND PEOPLE.

All things considered, we are one step ahead of last year. And given the growing power of two new, multi-racial people’s movements – climate change and hands-up – we are making one giant leap forward for humanity. So, I predict 2015 will be a very good year.

Here is wishing you and your family the best of holidays. We look forward to working with you in the New Year ahead.

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