When you picture an environmentalist, what first comes to mind? Probably an old, white former geoscience professor at your local university, with disheveled hair and a Prius. Maybe a middle-aged Sierra Club member wearing some combination of bike shorts, Birkenstocks, and expensive pants with removable legs. Most likely, you did not picture someone from the populations most affected by climate change and historical environmental degradation: low-income communities and communities of color. Their stories are consistently excluded from most environmentalist narratives because they require consideration of our environment not in isolation, but as an intersectional struggle with racial and economic justice. The privileged faces of the environmentalist community tend to be much more comfortable trying to save the polar bears or entire forests than people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
The conspicuous absence of the concerns of communities from “mainstream,” well-funded environmentalist movements should concern us, as it has real impacts on how climate activism is conducted. The most commonly touted solutions to climate change reflect the demographics of the establishment. Many proposals emphasize only carbon dioxide and do not address the other pollutants from fossil fuel production that have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of people of color. Chemicals like PM2.5, benzene, and sulfur dioxide contribute to thousands of deaths each year in New Jersey primarily impact low-income communities of color. Emissions-generating facilities know they will face less resistance from government permitting agencies if they are located in areas whose communities are systematically excluded from government decision making. Carbon pricing policies also often increase energy costs without compensating low-income households, whose energy costs account for a much higher percentage of their income.
Often, this disconnect between mainstream environmental groups and vulnerable communities stems from reliance on aggregate reports that ignore the disproportionate impacts of climate change and environmental degradation on the most vulnerable communities, rather than productive dialogue with those most affected by climate change. Better understanding the concerns of the people most affected requires extensive, intentional conversations with community members to find out in what ways their environment is affected and the full implications of policies abstractly designed by academics.
When thinking about how to combat climate change in New Jersey, the Princeton Student Climate Initiative experienced this disconnect firsthand. We began with a politically palatable market-based proposal, proven in modeling and other implementations to reduce per-capita emissions. However, after dozens of meetings with community leaders and activists to better understand their concerns, we radically reshaped the direction of our research. We realized that in real life, policy cannot simply regurgitate academic literature: policies must be both just and reflective of the real-life concerns of New Jersey communities. With a thoughtfully designed policy, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and promoting economic and environmental justice do not have to be mutually exclusive goals.
Our work is grounded in three key principles: any policy we support must reduce greenhouse gases and air pollutant emissions, protect low-income families in New Jersey, and be proven both effective and politically feasible. To build a proposal that satisfies those criteria, our research was informed by both extensive, fine-grain calculation of economic impacts, as well as direct outreach to New Jersey citizens to gain their perspectives on what issues are relevant to their everyday lives. We hoped to bridge the divide between the “ivory tower” research we typically shelter in at this institution and grassroots community activism that more accurately reflects the everyday needs of real people.
This process led us to propose a state-level pollution fee and dividend: a rising fee on polluters for greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions across the New Jersey economy that adjusts the price of fossil fuels to reflect the social costs of carbon pollution. This would make fossil fuels relatively more expensive than renewable alternatives, encouraging consumers and businesses to switch to sustainable sources and energy efficiency.
However, this proposal also protects low-income households by returning the majority of the revenue generated back directly back to households and vulnerable businesses, ensuring at least the bottom three income quintiles benefit on net. A portion of the revenue also funds programs supporting the communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These programs focus on adaptation, energy efficiency, and sustainable public infrastructure. We have to create viable alternatives to emissions-intensive activities, like improving public transit infrastructure and walkable cities; respond to the threats posed by climate change, like improving flood infrastructure and providing emergency heating and cooling centers; and repairing the historic harms done to environmental justice communities by fully funding efforts to clean up contaminated sites and providing assistance to low-income households with making necessary energy efficiency upgrades.
Ideally, this proposal would form part of a comprehensive energy plan for New Jersey. It addresses not only greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, but also the effects of climate change and sea level rise, the historical harm done to environmental justice communities, and the need for a just transition for a fossil fuel dependent labor force.
Our student team has conducted in-depth technical research on this policy for over 9 months, producing a 100+ page white paper commissioned by our state Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker that covers many complex policy details and extensive economic analysis. We plan to eventually lobby for comprehensive energy legislation including a pollution fee and dividend at the state level alongside a broad coalition of stakeholders representing environmental, labor, and social justice organizations.
This has not been an easy journey by any measure. Doing this well is hard because democracy is hard: policymakers rarely make the effort to personally reach out to the communities most affected by their decisions. In-depth technical research of the economic impacts of policy takes time but listening to the concerns of communities without the funding and infrastructure for large-scale lobbying takes even longer. This is not just about passing one bill: this is about a long-term reimagining of the environmental movement as one centered around the frontline communities disproportionately affected by climate change whose voices have been left out of the conversation for far too long.