Speech at Climate Justice, Jobs Event sponsored by 350 Philly.
As a kid who grew up in the shadows of a nuclear reactor outside of Philly, I didn’t know much more about our energy system other than the fact that I knew electricity came from there. That, and my dad who worked in the industry, always telling my sisters and I “to turn the lights off and keep the fridge closed” – electricity isn’t cheap.
As a Catholic kid, my parents constantly challenged us to understand that everyone had dignity and that we need to see God in all things – both creation and humanity. And by treating either one without dignity, we aren’t upholding our roles as Christians.
And now, as a father, I have become acutely aware of the desecration by an extractive energy economy on our planet that we have called home– what world will my daughter Anna inhabit?
So I find it fitting that years later my faith and my work on policy to create Energy Democracy are merging together at a time when Pope Francis’ released his profound encyclical, Laudato Si and is coming to our great city this week. But before I talk about Pope Francis, a little bit on the work that I am privileged to be a part of.
I mentioned that I work on Energy Democracy, what do does that mean? For me, and the Center for Social Inclusion, where I work, it means positioning communities, particularly communities of color and those on the frontlines of climate change, as innovators, planners, decision-makers and owners of our energy systems.
Yet, it also means that we cannot look at energy solely as a response to climate change. Because it’s also about democracy – in the truest sense of the word. And that means we need to build the critical pathways into dismantling the complex web of institutional and structural inequities that have created the racially inequitable and economically unjust society in which we live today. Energy Democracy simply is one road towards building the just transition that prioritizes what Pope Francis’ calls the “cry of the earth and the cry of poor” that must be at the center of any political and economic decision and process. And that is sorely needed here in Philly, in the US and across the globe.
When we arrived at Energy Democracy as a pathway to justice seven years ago, we were working with Black landowners in the South who were trying to identify strategies to stem the loss of land, salvage an agricultural economy that had fallen apart, and face the pressures of incorporation and much needed infrastructure – from broadband to water to energy. A farmer asked us, “why can’t we pool our land together for community-owned wind? If we own our energy, we can create wealth, we can build political power, we can save our land, and we can do something about the changing climate that is ruining our agricultural economy.”
We set out to find the policy solutions that will enable us to create such an opportunity.
We may not have found key solution– but we did find multiple models, innovations, and policy ideas that are creating more opportunities for a more socially and racially just society. For example, in Kentucky – the center of coal country, communities are working with their electric cooperatives to do an on-bill financing program to help residents retrofit their homes – save on energy costs, reduce the use of power, and transition off of coal. In Richmond, CA – communities are fighting the disastrous Chevron refinery that has exploded multiple times poisoning the air and threatening the health of Black, Latino, and Asian American children, by not just advocating for the shutting of the refinery, but building the transition to something new –a prioritization of public investments to build community owned solar, expand the urban agricultural efforts, and create affordable housing programs that are both energy secure and stem the tide of gentrification that is rapidly spreading in the Bay Area.
Models like these give us hope and courage to build the new. And here in Philly and the state of PA, we must learn from these models, as we are not immune to the challenges of a dirty energy system that people in Kentucky and Richmond CA have faced.
Philly is the picture of what lies ahead for our nation. We are a majority people of color city – yet the disinvestment in our public schools, our housing, land, and our children are starkly drawn on racial lines. While we all suffer from the failure of equitable policy, people of color are more likely to bear the burdens.
Take for example food insecurity in Philly, which strikes over 32% of Blacks, 42% of Latino, 16% of Asians compared to 9% of Whites. And where there is food insecurity, energy insecurity and housing insecurity issues often follow. Research by Drexel’s Center for Hunger Free communities shows that a household struggling in paying rent, struggle to pay energy and afford good food. In 2012 research shows that Philly families in Congressional District 1, over 28% of the families faced some energy insecurity and overall nearly 60% had some cumulative hardship in water, energy, food and housing challenges.
And consider this: in 2014 over 15,000 households had their water shut off. In 2013, 28,000 households had their gas terminated by PGW and over 83,000 households in the PECO territory had their electricity shut off. A majority of whom are low-income and people of color.
So what can we do about this? We need to focus on solutions that both make termination unconscionable but also allow for communities to have more of a role and partnership in how their water, food, energy, and land is utilized, distributed, and focused. And that is where Pope Francis’ message resonates so strongly. He calls on us to literally build new wineskins – an economy and political system that can hold a new future where outcomes and opportunities are not predetermine by race or place of birth – and where our environment and planet we call home are given the same level of dignity. The Pope calls on us to eschew carbon schemes to address a crisis that is not just environmental, but economic. He challenges us to realize that green growth through technology is not nearly enough when the development of human responsibility and empathy lags behind. And he urges all of us, not just Catholics or people of faith, but all residents on this planet to see how we are deeply connected with one another. The call in Laudato Si is not just about protecting the climate, it actually addresses a systemic failure in our economy, our government, and our society. If we are going to successfully address climate change, we need to plot forward a just transition that creates a better economy for workers, a participatory government for all, and a society that values the dignity of each person.
We can’t embrace the false solutions, the short-sighted schemes that will continue to leave the planet in peril, the most marginalized in our city suffering, and the rest of us sitting ducks to a climate catastrophe. If we are going to take this climate challenge on wholly, we need to build new wineskins – a new structure that where community is at the heart of planning, decision-making processes, and ownership of the future. And when we can do that – we will be on our way to a better future not just for us, but for our children and those who come after.