Morgan Margulies is a staff writer at CPR and a sophomore in Columbia College studying Political Science and Sustainable Development. He is a Field Advisor at Our Climate, a member of the NY Renews coalition.

This article was originally published in the Columbia Political Review on April 1, 2020.

This year, the global community has been shocked by an unforeseen crisis and left in shambles with little infrastructure to support itself. While the COVID-19 pandemic ravages cities and neighborhoods alike, insufficient emergency response by the government has exacerbated the problem in the United States.

As states such as California and New York implement a “shelter in place” policy, local communities have seen the immediate effects of industrial degrowth within economic recession. Economic decline in the United States has left many vulnerable to unemployment and poverty, including service workers and laborers in the oil and gas industry. As millions are left jobless and without access to adequate resources, industrial decline has created major opportunities for environmental regrowth. Satellite data displays significant drops in pollution across major U.S. cities and a 25% drop in Chinese carbon emissions. Learning from this current catastrophe, legislators must work to protect those most impacted by economic downturn while embracing an environmentally sustainable future.

Specifically, New York State should make use of the opportunity presented by industrial paralysis and widespread unemployment in order to expand its investments in vulnerable communities, protect workers susceptible to the fluctuations of an unpredictable economy, and continue to move the state toward carbon neutrality. The state can do this by incorporating the mandates of the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in its upcoming budget.

As countries are forced to deal with the spread of COVID-19, economies have been shocked by a rapid decrease in production. From luxury goods to the manufacturing of cars, industries non-essential to sustaining life are becoming obsolete. Brian Davey, professor of religion and ecology at Dublin University, argues that the decline of these industries is a first step toward economic degrowth. Degrowth refers to a planned economic contraction because the economy has surpassed its biophysical limits. The concept of infinite growth is a farce; instead it is argued that the planet has a carrying capacity, referring to the limits imposed by finite sources of natural, human, and built capital. Proponents of degrowth argue that we have surpassed our carrying capacity and that every unit of non-essential production relies on exploitation, producing negative global impacts. To escape this, our economy must be transformed towards a system of sustainable production and equitable resource distribution.

The devastation caused by COVID-19 thus far has caused mass suffering that must not be ignored. Along with the thousands of deaths caused by the virus, economic decline has rendered service workers and industrial laborers extremely vulnerable to sudden economic downturn. In the United States, the number of unemployed has skyrocketed as the government scrambles to expand its social safety net. Without the infrastructure to provide for those most affected by a sudden recession, economic downturn has worsened the effects of the pandemic itself.

As the United States looks forward, climate change poses a threat of similar if not greater proportions. The IPCC report of 2018 describes a grim future given the continuation of industrial growth. Global warming of 1.5 degrees ensures ongoing and increasingly severe disasters poised to freeze local economies and displace millions of people. The global health impacts of climate related problems have similar implications for the economy as COVID-19. It is predicted that, assuming business as usual, development and climate change will cost the US economy $224 billion per year by 2090 in costs of healthcare, emergency response, and other economic externalities. This scenario reflects exactly what advocates of degrowth predict: a world where infinite economic growth collides with planetary boundaries, a scenario rife with inequality, resource wars, and economic depression.

To avoid the impacts of an impending climate crisis, industries reliant on exploitation and pollution must fall and local governments must make investments in sustainable production practices. Informed by the economic effects of COVID-19, including mass unemployment and inequitable healthcare access, legislators must invest in frontline communities to set up the infrastructure necessary for a transition to a sustainable and just economy.

As states look to rebuild and respond to our current crisis, it is essential for industry to be rebuilt sustainably and equitably. In 2019 New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) mandating a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 and 85% by 2050. The bill includes a provision ensuring that at least 35% of investments under the CLCPA be within disadvantaged communities. The effects of such rapid decarbonization will not bring economic suffering like COVID-19, rather sustainable and equitable investments envisioned by the CLCPA can create hundreds of thousands of good jobs and provide protections for displaced workers.

A NY Renews rally in the New York State Capitol in support of the CLCPA. Photo courtesy of NY Renews.

Since the CLCPA has already been signed into law, Governor Cuomo and all of New York State are obligated to actualize this vision for decarbonization and equity. Unfortunately, Cuomo’s proposed budget for 2021 neglects the investments necessary to achieve climate justice in the process of decarbonization. In response to the glaring budgetary gaps, the coalition responsible for crafting the CLCPA, NY Renews, is calling on the government to include $1 billion for climate justice. Such funding would include investments in sustainable energy, efficiency programs for buildings and transportation in low-income communities, and create a just transition fund. In addition to creating the infrastructure for energy justice and sustainable production, NY Renews is advocating for a Worker and Community Assurance Program which would fund retrainings and funnel support for displaced workers in the fossil fuel industry.

The proposals made by NY Renews should be implemented in the upcoming budget. As the world is preoccupied with the disheartening effects generated by COVID-19, local governments must deal with the problem at hand but also consider the long-term. We must learn from the present and use this as an opportunity to prepare for a just transition and work to create resilient communities. State legislators must invest in workers and continue to build the infrastructure necessary to absorb inevitable future economic disturbances caused by natural and climate-related disasters.

Published On: April 2nd, 2020 / Categories: Blog /