Doing What We Can: Climate Change and Inequality

By Mark Gamba, Mayor City of Milwaukie

The last time carbon in our atmosphere routinely exceeded 400 ppm was three million years ago. At that time temperatures were 3.6 to 5.4 degrees warmer, and the ocean levels were 15 to 25 meters higher. Imagine if, instead of being above 80 degrees the last week in July, we were well above 90 degrees, and in August if we exceeded 100 degrees for weeks on end. With summers that hot in the Northwest, the probability of wildfires and forest fires increases. Energy usage would skyrocket as more air conditioners were installed, and our air pollution would rival or exceed Los Angeles.

These are not predictions; they are all already happening. Climate change isn’t something happening in some distant future; it is already here.

Climate change caused by human-triggered greenhouse gas pollutants such as carbon dioxide cannot be addressed by any one country, let alone a municipality the size of Milwaukie. That is just one reason why the Paris Climate Agreement, despite all its shortcomings, is so important. The Paris Agreement created a framework for the world to come together and reverse the damage already done and yet to be caused by greenhouse gas pollution.

While the rest of the world is taking steps to reduce per capita carbon pollution, the U.S. has abrogated its global leadership position. This not only creates a vacuum of leadership globally but also denies critically needed resources to states and cities. Instead of funding research for innovative climate smart technologies, instead of developing the next generation of climate smart buildings, energy grids, and transportation networks — all of which could produce family-wage level jobs — the U.S. is surrendering the future to China and others. This is not how we Make America Great Again.

Into this crisis are stepping a number of cities. Milwaukie is one of them. We have placed a modest tax on ourselves, dedicated to the future. With these revenues, we are developing a plan for the future with more energy efficient buildings, placed in locations that will reduce commute times, travel congestion, and be connected by public and pedestrian transportation. We are working with TriMet, the single largest consumer of diesel fuel in Oregon, to develop energy efficient alternatives. Buses purchased today will still be in service a decade from now when our environment will be very different. Our goal is to give our children and their children a stable and nurturing environment, literally.

The city is using our building codes and zoning to incentivize planned development that includes affordable rentals located close to jobs. We are going to plant more than 25,000 trees in Milwaukie. Trees are nature’s most efficient carbon storage devices.

Each one of these actions will create jobs for our citizens, jobs that must pay enough for our citizens to afford to live in our city. Solar retrofitting of existing buildings, especially in our industrial zoned areas, can create hundreds of family-wage level paying jobs and be cost efficient, even in Oregon, where moss grows on all sides of the tree.

In order for us to succeed we will need the support of our citizens. Our citizens see the rise in rents and the stagnation of their wages. They experience rapidly rising health insurance premiums from the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act at the same time as the quality of their medical care declines. The end result in a small school district such as ours is that we have more than 400 children whose families are homeless. We have thousands more who are one medical emergency away from being homeless.

The huge gap between the 1% and the rest of us drives these and other economic and social costs. It creates distrust and a loss of faith in government at all levels. This loss of faith undermines the trust required to create the political consensus needed to tackle issues such as climate change.

There are several alternative futures. We can do nothing, as most Republicans suggest, and suffer dire consequences today and tomorrow. Today’s Republicans are little different from Republicans during the Hoover Administration. In the midst of a national economic crisis they counseled “do nothing.” Or we can do something, just as FDR did by creating the New Deal and rebuilding the foundation of our economy and defending our democracy.

As Democrats, we chose to do something. But what?

The options are many but they all must deliver a similar outcome: a lower carbon economy with much greater economic equality then we have today. The massive proportion of the benefits created by carbon pollution have accrued to the 1%; thus it is only fair that they pay their fair share of what it will take to mitigate greenhouse gas pollution.

The private market of multinational corporations is wonderful at creating economic efficiencies if you do not measure the costs it shifts onto the public in the form of water, air, and carbon pollution, congestion, and concentration of wealth. Our transition to a low carbon economy must be done in a way that reins in the most dangerous aspects of unregulated greed. When governments partner with the private sector, we must ensure that the outcomes are reasonable profits for the private partners and net social gains for our citizens. When the private sector is too risk adverse to try a new innovation, then it falls to government to either socialize the risk or provide the service directly.

As was reported in prior articles in this series, the top tax rate for the 1% was above 90 percent for decades. Corporate taxes were double what they are today. Yet this was a period of great economic growth and perhaps the golden age of the middle class. One reason for this was that the government had money to provide critical infrastructure which included: the interstate highway system, the GI bill, and education grants that actually covered most of the cost of a higher education.

Mitigating the harshest aspects of climate change will require all citizens to work together. In order to have the trust required for such a consensus, we must have a society that values humans more than markets. Government must act today to restore a reasonable balance between the 1% and the rest of us. If we fail to create a fair economy for all, then we may well have no life for any.