Passing strong and equitable climate policies across the country necessitates the creation of diverse and inclusive coalitions that bring to the table a wide variety of perspectives. In the past few years, many successful climate coalitions have resulted in important policies getting passed across the country, each of which offers a great example for emerging efforts. On our August Deep Dive Webinar, we invited three successful coalition leaders to join us and discuss how it’s done.
In 2018, Camila Thorndike spearheaded the campaign to pass the 2018 Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act, which expanded Washington, D.C.’s renewable energy standards to be completely renewable by 2032, created a fund for equitable, sustainable energy investments through a small charge on fossil fuels, updated building standards, and authorized initiatives within the transportation sector to reduce emissions.
Then, in 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed in New York due to the work of an exciting coalition led by Maritza Silva-Farrell and ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York. One of the most ambitious climate policies on the planet last year, the law set strict emissions reduction targets for the state, 40% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2030 and no less than 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels, and created the Climate Action Council, which develops recommendations to ensure the state can meet those targets.
Lastly, earlier this year, Shilpa Joshi led the state of Oregon in adopting a comprehensive climate plan through her work building a progressive coalition at Renew Oregon. Although the bill the coalition was built around, which would’ve created an equitable cap-and-invest program, did not pass due to a Republican walkout, the Governor subsequently signed a sweeping Executive Order that creates overarching climate solutions for the state.
All three women display tenacity, strength and dignity in their efforts, proving that with hard work and sound leadership, it’s possible to overcome fossil fuel interests and pass policies that create a cleaner, more equitable country for all.
Clean Energy in Washington, D.C.
Camila Thorndike grew up in Ashland, Oregon, a community very at risk from climate impacts that has witnessed increasing extreme heat and droughts in the past few decades. For years, she worked in her local community to mobilize young people to care about climate change, co-founding the organization Our Climate in doing so.
In 2015, this work spurred Camila to move to Washington, D.C., when an opportunity arose to push for a carbon fee and rebate along with other climate reforms through the DC Council. Along with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Camila helped to mobilize thousands of individuals in a coalition to sign petitions, attend rallies, lobby, and organize their communities to fight for the policy.
The key to the success of the coalition was its diversity. Businesses, unions, social justice organizations, and non-profits were just some of the many groups involved in the coalition. Hundreds of middle school students and other young advocates were also involved, testifying directly to lawmakers about the impact climate change will have on their lives.
“The coalition really is everything. There is no one group, lawmaker or organizer that can win alone. We’re up against an incredibly entrenched status quo, fueled by the most profitable industry that has ever existed — the fossil fuel industry,” Thorndike told us.
Four main pieces went into building the DC coalition which made it especially successful, including:
- Forging a steering committee to push the coalition forward and give it direction;
- Directly involving lawmakers in the process;
- Conducting economic analysis; and
- Building grassroots power.
Another important factor that contributed to the coalition’s success was its adaptability, and ability to find consensus on contentious issues. At the beginning, Camila’s coalition was focused primarily on a carbon fee and rebate program, but there was lots of diversity in opinions about what that could look like across the country at the time.
“It really made us take a step back to focus on building consensus through understanding each other and the coalition, and finding common ground through compromise on the policy design before launching in a really big way to the public, so we could go forward together,” said Thorndike. Eventually, a slightly modified policy design was created, with funding going towards community investments instead of only rebates.
“I’m really proud of what we did there, and the result, because everybody could see themselves in the policy, and that’s the most important thing,” Thorndike added.
Setting ambitious goals in New York state
In New York State, Maritza Silva-Farrell works with ALIGN, a community and labor alliance organization, to build justice and equity through the coalitions they build to support sustainable and just policies.
After Hurricane Sandy caused destruction to the state in 2012, the issue of climate change became even more prominent for a diverse array of groups, causing more and more New Yorkers to view climate change as a serious threat.
“For us here in New York, the experience of Hurricane Sandy and the disproportionate impacts on low-income people, along with lessons learned from organizing in response with this, really gave a new meaning to our organization,” said Silva-Farrell. This perspective has really informed the coalition that ALIGN has built to pass strong climate policy in the past decade.
ALIGN, alongside New York Renews, has worked to build a coalition in the past five years of over 200 organizations in order to pass the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo last year. At the beginning, many of the provisions of the bill were “a no-go,” according to Silva-Farrell. But with the work of her coalition, ambitious policies, including an 85% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 and the creation of a Just Transition working group, were included in the final version of the bill.
Similar to the DC coalition, creating steering committees and bringing diverse groups into the conversation has been essential. This has also meant bringing together groups that may not usually collaborate, such as environmental justice and labor organizations, to ensure policies have broad support.
In any diverse group, the key to success for Silva-Farrell also relies heavily on one factor: compromise.
“Sometimes you cannot get everything you want as a coalition member, you have to find ways to work together. Folks have different interests in coalitions, and it’s not easy to allow for some give and take,” she told us.
The coalition’s work did not come without setbacks or roadblocks.
“The week before the session ended, the Governor was saying he was not going to move this bill, because he did not want to risk it,” Silva-Farrell said. But, the massive mobilization of diverse groups of people across the state, especially in that last week, proved to policymakers and the governor the importance of this bill, allowing it to pass into law.
While the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed last year, Silva-Farrell’s coalition continues to fight for climate justice.
“This coalition is not only looking to just pass legislation and influence decision making, but to really influence the systems and get to the transformation that needs to take place,” said Silva-Farrell. Now, her coalition is really focused on getting to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible, while ensuring the communities most impacted by climate change are supported, along with placing a fee on carbon polluters that continue to damage community health and well-being.
A Comprehensive Climate Action Plan in Oregon
Shilpa Joshi, the coalition director of Renew Oregon for the last four years, put all her effort into diversifying the Renew Oregon coalition, leading to a successful push for strong climate policy in Oregon this past year.
“Renew Oregon was founded by three urban-based, white-led established non-profits with a lot of paid staff. And that was it. There was no labor voice, or environmental justice voice, or tribes, and those elements are critically important,” Joshi told us. Her work in building the coalition involved changing that demographic, and ensuring that every voice was offered a seat at the table.
“Our struggle is shared, and our liberation is mutual,” she added.
In climate policy, Joshi described, building coalitions is essential due to the massive power and influence the fossil fuel industry has over politics. On top of resources and capital, fossil fuel industries have increasingly used misinformation campaigns to stop environmental policies from passing across the country. Therefore, having a really diverse group of individuals that display support for climate policy from a wide variety of perspectives is crucial.
“Our opposition is truly remarkable in its tenacity to be evil,” said Joshi. The diversity in the coalition enabled a really dynamic public response to fossil fuels misinformation campaigns.
Joshi’s coalition to support Senate Bill 1530 in Oregon brought in many groups from across the state. Of particular importance was the inclusion of farmer’s unions, which are often paid off by fossil fuel companies. Environmental justice groups, rural organizations, tribal organizations, labor unions, public health organizations, youth organizations, and college campus groups across the state were all involved to some capacity.
In ensuring all the groups felt as if they were being heard, Joshi would directly ask them what they wanted to see out of their involvement in the coalition, and what they wanted the bill to look like. This allowed Renew Oregon to craft a document of principles that enabled policy to be inclusive and helpful for all groups.
“Coalitions are really about building a two-way street,” she said.
Although Senate Bill 1530 did not pass through the Senate due to Republicans fleeing the state and refusing to vote on the bill, Joshi’s coalition was still very successful in building a diverse group of climate supporters. Governor Kate Brown of Oregon also committed to many of the principles of the bill through an Executive Order.
“We could not have gotten to this point without building the coalition and all our work,” said Joshi, adding, “There were a lot of the equity principles and labor considerations that made it into this Executive Order. We made great strides in this Executive Order.”