Boston Progressives Expand the Green New Deal to Include Justice Concerns and Pandemic Recovery

City Councilor Michelle Wu’s plan is ambitious and far-reaching, calling for citywide carbon neutrality by 2040 and creation of an Urban Conservation Corps.

Sep 8, 2020
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu thanks her supporters at her Election Night watch party on Nov. 5, 2019. Credit: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu thanks her supporters at her Election Night watch party on Nov. 5, 2019. Credit: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A year and a half ago, after the Green New Deal resolutions were introduced in Washington, Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu posed an ambitious question to the large local climate community: "What could the city do in the vacuum of federal leadership?"

By the time she and her activist coterie finished answering that question this summer, the scope had grown exponentially. 

"Looking at 2020," said Nina Schlegel, a Boston climate activist on Wu's staff, "we were like, 'Wow, we really need to think about racial justice and make that really explicit," and "we need to respond to the pandemic because cities are the government closest to the people. We need to be responsive, and there's no reason why a local green new deal cannot incorporate all of that." 

The end result, released by Wu's office last month, is called the Boston Green New Deal and Just Recovery plan. Wu, who plans to run for Boston mayor in 2021, said the document, while inspired by similar blueprints produced by cities like Seattle, Los Angeles and New York, is unique in its scope, thanks to circumstance. 

Its climate ambition is clear in its section on accelerating decarbonization: the plan calls for citywide carbon neutrality by 2040, 10 years ahead of the deadline established by Boston's 2019 Climate Action Plan, in addition to 100 percent sustainable electricity by 2035, and net-zero municipal buildings by 2024.

It's scope is clear in its call for issuing municipal bonds to fund solar installation on city buildings, divesting municipal funds from private prisons and gun manufacturers, expanding Boston's canopy of about 300,000 trees, and creating an Urban Climate Corps for training and employing youth to install green infrastructure. 

"We really want to zoom out a little bit and talk about how we can seek policy change that also dismantles and rectifies past injustices," said Schlegel. "That means looking at housing and displacement and looking at the proliferation of luxury development. It means looking at unequal access to transit, and where our heat islands are located."

The proposed Urban Climate Corps, inspired by the New Deal's Conservation Corps, could become a year-round complement to the city's summer youth jobs program with a focus on youth and adults working on GEDs and formerly incarcerated members of the community. Corps members would work on weatherizing older buildings, installing rooftop solar arrays, building zero-waste infrastructure like composting facilities, and restoring wetlands.

"It's really exciting to see these plans engaging young people especially to do this really exciting productive work that centers around community," said Maya Mugdal, political organizer for Sunrise Boston.

Sea Level Rise, and a Local Blue New Deal 

Boston, a low lying city, sits partially on man made land that could soon be reclaimed by the rising sea, which could increase three feet by 2070 and over seven feet by the end of the century. 

Massachusetts has also seen increased rainfall over the past 100 years. And like other urban centers, the city of nearly 700,000 residents faces the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon where concrete surfaces and a lack of trees cause the inner city to be several degrees warmer than surrounding areas.

Unless the city meets its ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions, the plan says, Boston could have 40 days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030, and 90 such high-heat days by 2070, virtually the entire summer—and 33 days would reach or exceed 100 degrees.  

In this city with many different climate vulnerabilities, racial and economic inequities can be exacerbated, Wu said, especially now that they are being compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and the economic collapse it has triggered. 

"The very communities that were already most at-risk when it comes to displacement and flooding and intense heat are the same families who are grieving the loss of loved ones from Covid, more likely exposed to the virus, more likely to have lost jobs in the economic fallout of the pandemic," Wu said. "We are seeing that very much center on communities of color."

Her plan also includes a local Blue New Deal, addressing ways in which the city—beyond being threatened by sea level rise—can harness the power of ocean for wind energy, carbon capture and food programs such as regenerative ocean farming, a method of sustainably farming shellfish and seaweed.

The local Blue New Deal is predicated upon better stormwater management, which means less pollutants flowing into the ocean. It proposes creation of start-ups that connect local fishermen to Boston restaurants and food distributors, even creation of a municipally-owned wind farm. 

"Clearly we're going to have to live with rising seas and increased vulnerability to storms," said Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation. "But at the same time the oceans are a significant factor in our regional economy. The ocean has to be a centerpiece of our thinking in addressing climate change, and that's reflected in this report."

The Least Welcoming Major City for Blacks

What makes Boston's plan distinct from other cities' green plans, in Campbell's eyes, is it's comprehensive inclusion of climate justice. 

"Although it obviously follows in the wake of the federal Green New Deal, it really covers a broader range of issues and much more explicitly ties the climate crisis to social justice issues," Campbell said. "In New England in particular, those issues have been brought to the fore by the pandemic."

The plan calls for a comprehensive "justice audit" of city programs and spending. "The results from a nationwide survey of Black individuals shows Boston is considered the least welcoming of eight major American cities, and only 4 percent of households earning $75,000 or more across Greater Boston are Black," the plan says. "Air pollution and related illnesses are more prevalent in communities of color and result from government decisions about zoning and transportation infrastructure. City approvals for development continue to shape structural inequities as Boston misses opportunities for equitable wealth creation and justice."

One notable example of city priorities going awry, the plan says, is Boston's Seaport district, where $18 billion in development has "created the least diverse neighborhood in Boston: a climate-vulnerable coastal neighborhood marked by its lack of schools, civic spaces, transit access, and affordable housing—where housing costs are sky-high, and only three percent of residential mortgages went to Black homeowners.  City government must take corrective action and also set the tone for other sectors."  

On the other hand, the pandemic also serves as an example of how governments can quickly adapt to serve people in need during an emergency. In Boston, like many other cities, Covid-19 relief included free public transit, evictions moratoriums and free meals for those in need. 

"We've gotten a glimpse at the scale of action that's possible when our government and society chooses to address a crisis head on," Wu said. "There's many actions that were taken during this pandemic that community members had advocated for and fought for and had always been told that they were impossible."

The city level is prime for this kind of climate action, Wu said, because of its proximity to the people and ability to quickly fulfill community needs. 

"When cities take action. we have a platform to really connect residents with planning processes and connecting issues through action in a way that follows the community's lead," she said. "That's how you get policy solutions that match the scale of need."

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