Last week was supposed to be our 2020 NEEP Summit to address Decarbonizing Our Communities to be healthy, resilient, and affordable. We planned to meet in New Haven, Connecticut to explore pathways to accelerate building and transportation decarbonization that create opportunities and solutions for everyone. We had invited leaders from public health, affordable housing, energy efficiency, community and economic development, and investment to discuss how to advance low-carbon, healthy, resilient community decarbonization solutions that serve all populations, especially underserved and marginalized populations. This integrated, cross-cutting discussion is key to the sustainable, equitable future that is core to NEEP’s mission and vision.
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic quite literally kept us home. And the tragic murder of George Floyd snapped to our attention the urgent need to end the shameful racist U.S. history of exclusion and inequity for people of color. Meanwhile the Arctic continues to melt (100°F last week in the Arctic Circle – a historical high) threatening our communities with an increased likelihood of heat waves, hurricanes, and flooding.
All three of these – COVID-19, systemic racism, and climate change - disproportionately affect people of color.
We are at a crossroads. Either we continue to ignore the urgent need to change OR we decide that it is time for fundamental change to set things right – including reconciliation and reparation. It is time to give back to the people harmed by racism and economic exclusion, the very same who are most at risk from harm due to rapid climate change and the ongoing pandemic. This can and should take many forms supported by state and federal funding.
One pathway is to rebuild our communities to be healthy, resilient, and sustainable beginning with a focus on community and economic development with and for marginalized communities of color. As the U.S. economy slides into what could be the worst economic depression in history, imagine for example, that the next wave of federal COVID-19 economic stimulus funding is used to fund efficient, affordable housing, healthy schools, and clean, reliable transportation for those communities most in need, with the additional benefit of local jobs and business opportunities.
Even before the pandemic, at our 2019 Electrification Symposium: Pathways to Decarbonize in the Northeast last August in New York, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams opened our gathering of 400 participants with a clarion call for decarbonization solutions that reduce the energy and environmental burdens of low-income communities of color to improve their lives with clean air and comfortable healthy homes that provide local jobs and business opportunities.
If we had been at the 2020 NEEP Summit last week, we would have opened with an address by Holyoke, Massachusetts Mayor Alex Morse, who at 22 in 2012 was elected as the youngest mayor of a racially diverse and economically depressed post-industrial community with the promise of community development to create opportunity for all. Elected three times since, Alex has made Holyoke a leading Green Community including partnerships with community groups like Nueva Esperanza to rebuild safe, efficient, affordable housing for Holyoke’s vibrant Puerto Rican/Afro-Caribbean community.
We would have focused attention on decarbonization solutions combined with economic development for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, including efforts lead by Joylette Portlock of Sustainable Pittsburgh to empower decision making that builds a fundamentally equitable, resilient, healthy, and prosperous region – including providing economic development alternatives for surrounding communities economically dependent on but suffering from natural gas fracking. A 2019 study found that minorities, especially African Americans, disproportionately live near fracking wells.
Rebecca Davis, Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission, would have talked about the financial needs and options to fund and finance community building and transportation decarbonization solutions including programs such as MAPC’s support for equitable community development initiatives such as Upham’s Corner in Dorchester.
We would have heard from Ted Trabue, Managing Director of the Washington DC Sustainable Energy Utility, about how the District – a national leader in carbon emission reduction goals – has successfully prioritized serving low income neighborhoods with resources for building efficiency and solar PV installations that reduce energy burdens, improve the health and comfort of homes, and reduce carbon emissions – while also creating local jobs.
We need more of such leadership and stories - an excellent inspiration for the reconciliation and reparations needed to heal and end the ravages of racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change.