The Clean Energy Jobs Bill and the Danger of False Solutions

It’s the start of another legislative session in Oregon and one of the supposedly must-pass bills up for consideration is the Clean Energy Jobs Bill (CEJ). Renew Oregon has been heavily promoting it and giving the impression that it’s a comprehensive climate bill that will lower emissions, greatly reduce pollution, create good paying jobs, and protect Oregon’s forests and rivers. All of those things sound wonderful, and with marketing like that, they’ve gotten a lot of people to sign on in support. Unfortunately, it has been greatly oversold and is nowhere near the solution it’s made out to be.

At its core, the Clean Energy Jobs Bill is a Carbon Pricing scheme known as Cap and Invest. The idea is to cap emissions on the biggest polluters and slowly lower the cap over time. In addition, these companies will pay a price per ton for their emissions, thus creating a financial incentive for them to lower emissions. The money brought in from the pricing scheme will then be invested in a wide array of projects that will usher in solutions to climate change. That is the promise, at least. In reality, Clean Energy Jobs does almost nothing to change the course we’re on.

Even though Renew Oregon claims that “the largest emitters will pay for every ton of climate pollution they put into our air,” there are some huge exemptions in CEJ. Clearcutting represents up to 32% of emissions within Oregon, on top of destroying valuable carbon sequestration capacity, yet the timber industry is completely exempt. Other exemptions include concentrated animal feedlots, chemical-intensive agriculture, developers, the semi-conductor industry, marine and aviation fuels, and all consumption related activities. Clean Energy Jobs also fails to account for the full emissions of new projects and would let major fossil fuel infrastructure projects, like Jordan Cove, off the hook for most of their emissions. Claims that the largest emitters will pay for their pollution are outright false. That is some shamefully dishonest advertising.

In addition to the long list of industry exemptions, Clean Energy Jobs allows for the use of Carbon Offsets. Offsets are essentially pollution credits. Companies can pay for theoretical emissions reductions that occur elsewhere instead of lowering emissions at the source. Purchasing offsets allows industry to continue polluting above the cap but make it appear on paper as if they are lowering emissions. Whether these offset credits represent real reductions in emissions is highly questionable. In the rare event that they do, such offset projects are likely happening in some far-off forest, not in the communities that need pollution reductions most. This is a prime example of environmental injustice. At the behest of big business, the people on the frontlines of the crisis are thrown under the bus by policy-makers while companies get to paint themselves as climate champions and continue polluting mostly low-income communities and communities of color.  

Furthermore, the entire basis of this bill, Carbon Pricing, has been identified by many as a false solution to climate change. According to a recent report published by the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Climate Justice Alliance, Carbon Pricing: A Critical Perspective for Community Resistance, Carbon Pricing has been “heavily promoted and in large part built by the World Bank at the behest of the biggest polluters on the planet.” Fossil fuel dependent industries have no intention of putting themselves out of business and they are proponents of Carbon Pricing for that very reason. They have ways to counter the costs while they continue to pump oil and gas out of the ground. Big business is actively promoting the idea that we should “put a price on it” in order to avoid direct regulation and redirect organizing effort into developing exploitable market mechanisms that allow them to maintain business as usual.

But it’s business-as-usual that’s to blame for climate change in the first place. Our economy is based on the (il)logic of limitless growth and resource extraction, exploitation of labor, and the concentration of wealth and power. Decisions about the resources we extract, what we produce, how we produce, and how we distribute goods are determined by wealthy CEOs with profits as their prime consideration. As a result of this runaway growth and greed, we are consuming renewable resources much faster than they can be replenished, poisoning rivers, destroying the oceans, exhausting nonrenewable resources, and continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the air at alarming rates despite being well aware of the dangers. We can’t price our way out of this mess. It’s the logic of capitalism itself that is the problem. Unless we develop a new economy that doesn’t depend on growth and exploitation, we will hit planetary limits and the current system will collapse.

The great news is there are already people leading the way and developing new ways of organizing the economy. But those system-changing solutions aren’t coming from the big green nonprofits, and they certainly aren’t coming from big business or neoliberal institutions like the World Bank. The solutions are coming from grassroots movements on the frontlines of both climate change and capitalism. They are part of Just Transition initiatives, which require moving away from an extractive economy driven by profits and competition toward a regenerative economy centered around cooperation and well-being. Central to these initiatives are re-localization and democratization of production and consumption.

Re-localizing means building up small-scale, local production as an alternative to producing and shipping goods halfway around the world. One piece of this is building up healthy, local food systems. Another is building up decentralized, community-controlled energy. Big energy companies profit most from large-scale, centralized distribution systems, but small-scale decentralized systems, like rooftop solar networks, are an integral part of the solution. Not only are such networks more efficient, they allow communities to more easily manage their own systems, thus shifting power from big energy companies into the hands of the people who operate and depend on those systems.

It’s this shift in power that is crucially important. We must democratize the economy if we want to make economic decisions based on what people truly need. Economic self-determination, deep democracy, direct democracy, participatory economics, cooperative economics – it doesn’t really matter what you call it, the idea is basically the same. Workers and communities should have control over the decisions that affect their daily lives. We can already see examples of such decision-making structures taking root in places like in Jackson, Mississippi, where Cooperation Jackson is developing a cooperative network of worker-owned, democratically managed businesses that center the needs of workers, community, and the environment.

Democratizing the economy also requires that we democratize capital and finance. While Clean Energy Jobs might result in money for some community projects, it is politicians and future administrations that ultimately have control over who will get that money. Instead, we could take a cue from the Climate Justice Alliance’s Reinvest in Our Power campaign, which is pushing for funds divested from the fossil fuel and prison industries to go into a democratically-governed financial cooperative that supports, and is managed by, frontline communities. These are the types of policies we need in order to pave the way to a new economy. And such policy ideas will likely never come from groups who concern themselves with maintaining the status quo.

If we are going to develop real solutions to climate change, we need to stop inviting big business to the table. Their way of doing things is what created this problem in the first place. Instead, we need policies at the state level to come from those who are on the frontlines and already leading the way, like the newly formed Oregon Just Transition Alliance. We need bold action to end the bad while building the new. Instead of tinkering with questionable pricing mechanisms, we need to draw hard lines in the sand. We need to end the construction of all new fossil fuel infrastructure, immediately. We need to craft policies that directly support workers while mandating emissions reductions. We need to address our addiction to consumerism and intentionally ramp down wasteful and unnecessary production.

There is so much we need to do, and the sad truth is that the Clean Energy Jobs bill barely scratches the surface. At best, it will generate revenue from some polluting businesses that can go toward some good projects. But business as usual will continue. The timber industry will continue clearcutting our forests for profit and eliminating important carbon sinks. Industrial agriculture will continue poisoning workers and waterways. Fossil fuel infrastructure will continue devastating communities already targeted and marginalized by the system itself.  Emissions will likely remain untouched. And no steps will be taken to begin the transition to a sustainable economic system. We can’t afford to settle for this.

False solutions like Carbon Pricing are dangerous. They can’t act as a band-aid to do something while we work toward something better. They are false because they further concentrate wealth and power and ultimately fail to prevent climate catastrophe. And if we are led down a dead-end path, it will likely be too late for the millions if not billions of lives that are at stake. Either we take steps to transition to a new economy, or the current system will collapse on its own and the results will be devastating. It’s time to think outside the box. And it’s time to stop putting our faith in business-backed campaigns like Renew Oregon and start directing our energy and resources into the real, system-changing solutions created at the grassroots.

 

Resources:

Clearcutting Our Carbon Accounts, Center for Sustainable Economy: http://sustainable-economy.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Clearcutting-our-Carbon-Accounts-Final-11-16.pdf

A Message to Clean Energy Jobs Bill Supporters: This Is Not a Comprehensive Climate Solution, Center for Sustainable Economy: http://sustainable-economy.org/simple-message-clean-energy-jobs-bill-supporters-not-comprehensive-climate-solution/

Carbon Pricing: A Critical Perspective for Community Resistance, Indigenous Environmental Network and Climate Justice Alliance: http://www.ienearth.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Carbon-Pricing-A-Critical-Perspective-for-Community-Resistance-Online-Version.pdf

From Banks and Tanks to Cooperation and Caring: A Strategic Framework for a Just Transition, Movement Generation: http://movementgeneration.org/justtransition/

Climate Justice Alliance: http://www.ourpowercampaign.org/

Cooperation Jackson: https://cooperationjackson.org/