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‘Can our politics rise to the climate challenge?’ » Yale Climate Connections

Dear Sara,

Do we need a new kind of politics to help us through the years ahead? If so, what does that look like? I wonder what governments would look like if they centered the vulnerable and politicians didn’t bow to corporate pressure. Does that seem possible? Where? How? How fast?

— Emily M. via Twitter

Dear Emily,

Yes, it does seem possible to create a different kind of politics.

Consider the case of Illinois.

This midwestern U.S. state generated nearly half of its electricity from coal as recently as 2008. It still has substantial coal reserves and is a major refiner of crude oil.

Yet Illinois residents worked together recently to pass the 2021 Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, an ambitious piece of legislation that puts the state on an equitable, justice-focused path away from coal, oil, and natural gas and toward a zero-carbon economy by 2050. All politics is local, of course, so the lessons from a single state aren’t always applicable to other places. Still, there’s much to learn from the way residents approached the effort.

How the Illinois law addresses equity and justice

An economic transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will create thousands of new clean energy jobs. But so far, on a national level, the renewable energy workforce, and national policy leadership, has been disproportionately dominated by white men.

So the Illinois law includes provisions intended to ensure that people from marginalized groups will have access to employment opportunities related to clean energy.

“Every section in the bill at some level addresses equity,” said Delmar Gillus, Jr., chief operating officer of Chicago-based nonprofit Elevate, and one of the negotiators who worked with government officials, labor unions, and other advocates to design the legislation.

In fact, the new law includes provisions intended to:

  • prioritize the closure of fossil-fuel plants located in communities that have been disproportionately harmed by pollution
  • support the retraining of displaced energy workers
  • ensure clean energy workers are paid prevailing wages
  • hold renewable energy companies accountable for recruiting a diverse workforce
  • vastly expand the number of renewable energy businesses owned by people of color

“As far as I know, this gives Illinois the most stringent labor and equity requirements of any state clean energy program,” David Roberts of Volts wrote of the law.

To find out how this legislation came into being, I spoke with several people who are part of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, a coalition of state groups and community organizations that was instrumental in the passage of the new law. They shared what it looks like to craft a bill aimed at the interests of vulnerable and marginalized people. And they offered their thoughts on the lessons that others can take from their work.

Lesson No. 1: They built a powerful and unified coalition

More than 200 community and environmental groups, labor unions, faith organizations, and others across the state banded together as the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. They worked closely to negotiate guiding principles and share ideas.

And they agreed not to let opponents of equity or climate action divide them.

Rev. Tony Pierce, co-pastor of a Peoria church and president of Illinois People’s Action, a faith-based organizing group, helped negotiate the legislation. He recalled appealing to coalition members not to trade away provisions that would address justice and equity in order to get a climate bill passed.

“We are stronger if we hang together,” he remembers telling the group’s members.

They listened.

The coalition’s mantra became, “No justice, no climate, no bill.”

It worked.

“The environmental community was a tight coalition,” Gillus said. “So we were able to negotiate from a position of strength.”

Lesson No. 2: They learned from the past

The predecessor to the 2021 law was the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act, known as FEJA. At the time of passage, that law was hailed as “the most important climate bill in Illinois history.”

The 2016 law incentivized solar installations, which contributed to a growth in solar installations in the state. But Gillus, who is Black, said he and others were disappointed by inequities in the results.

“What we were seeing was that unfortunately, there were not a lot of projects that were, one, in Black and Brown communities,” Gillus said. “And two, there weren’t a lot of contractors that look like me that were working on these projects.”

In response, members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition decided that the next state energy bill should focus on equity. The coalition held hundreds of listening sessions around the state to gather the perspectives and ideas of Illinois residents, and they incorporated what they heard into drafts of the bill.

They crafted provisions, for example, to create training centers where marginalized people can learn the skills necessary to become part of the clean energy and energy efficiency work forces. The law also includes support and funding for minority-owned businesses in the sector.

“So what we really tried to do was to create a scenario,” Gillus said, “where we made sure that the future growth of new jobs and opportunities in Illinois was accessible to everybody.”

Lesson No. 3: They seized a politically favorable moment

Supporters of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act chose an opportune time to get the bill passed. Democrats had captured the governor’s office in the 2018 elections, giving the party unified control over state government. The new governor, J. B. Pritzker, had campaigned on the promise to put Illinois on a path to 100% clean energy.

But Gillus said he’s optimistic that change is possible even outside of Democrat-led states. “There are things in this bill that benefit everybody regardless of party and constituency,” he said. “If you’re interested in economic development, there are hundreds of millions of dollars of new jobs that are being created.”

“There were a lot of things in there that a lot of our Republican partners were very excited about,” he added.

Meanwhile, the state’s energy utilities, which had previously driven the legislative process, were largely sidelined as a result of a bribery scandal implicating Illinois utility ComEd and the state’s former House Speaker Michael Madigan. The result: Environmental and justice advocates had much a bigger voice in crafting the legislation than they had in the past.

Lesson No. 4: They were persistent

Although the bill had many factors working in its favor, passage was never guaranteed. As Roberts of Volts writes, “by all accounts, negotiations were difficult; the bill was declared dead several times. Senate President Don Harmon (D) said several times that it is the single most complex piece of legislation he’d ever worked on. There were uncertainties and impasses right up through the final week.”

I asked Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts, who serves on the steering committee for Clean Power Lake County, one of the groups involved in the bill’s passage, which factors set the legislation up for success in the end.

“This is going to sound ridiculous,” she replied. “I think it was the willingness of people to — even in COVID — form relationships and get to know the people at the table as human beings.”

“It involved small committee work over the last two years, small committee work over Zoom, where people actually get to know each other,” she added. “You see their kids pop in, you see where they live … And you actually get to know what people are dealing with, and why these things that don’t seem relevant to you in your area are incredibly important to the lives of the people around them.”

I asked Shanley-Roberts for her advice for others wanting to achieve something similar in their own areas. “The key is to stay at the table and continue to work for shared goals,” she said. “And listen. Listen and ask questions. Because when we keep doing that, we can usually work through the difference and find those points of commonality and remember what our shared goals are.”

Wise words, indeed.

— Sara

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

Got a question about climate change? Send it to [email protected]. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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