Editors’ note: This article is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s summer 2023 issue, “Movement Economies: Making Our Vision a Collective Reality.”
Steve Dubb: Could you talk a little bit about the background of the current state of Green New Deal advocacy in the US, and how the Climate and Community Project emerged from this political moment?
Johanna Bozuwa: The Green New Deal officially came onto the legislative scene in 2019. Since then, we have survived an ongoing pandemic, and now we are contending with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s both the biggest and most polarizing climate bill to ever be passed in the United States, because it has investments in homes, retrofits, and renewable energy, but lacks investments in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities, disadvantaged communities, and environmental justice communities, and continues to prioritize incentives rather than infrastructure. It’s all carrots, very few sticks. This was a moment of reckoning within the climate movement: environmental justice advocates were rightfully mad at the ultimate outcomes done behind closed doors at the last minute, and other folks who are far more focused on carbon reduction were lauding the bill.
“Our research is oriented toward shifting the frontier in terms of big, visionary policy….It’s fundamentally an effort to link cutting-edge research with progressive policymaking and community organizing nationwide.”
But we do, in fact, have $370 billion coming in. 1 It’s not everything that we need, but it’s an incredibly important moment to prove that climate investments change material reality for people on the ground. So, we need to be advancing visionary uses of that money at the local and state level, saying: “Now that we have retrofit money, how do we actually use that for the most comprehensive example of a transformed school that’s going to ensure that students, teachers, and communities are cared for?”
We also have to keep fighting at the federal level, especially since we don’t have Democratic control of the US House. We have to show people the realities of climate change and the benefits of community investment, so that we can get more progressives in Congress and ultimately win legislation that is more transformative when the moment returns.
Daniel Aldana Cohen: The Climate and Community Project essentially emerged out of the same moment as the Democratic primary campaign, and then into the 2020 national election. Basically, a group of us got together when the pandemic began and said: “This is going to be economically devastating, it’s going to be horrible for people, and we’re going to need to respond economically and in a way that meets the needs of folks. At the same time, if we’re going to inject a huge amount of funding into the economy, we should do it in a way that greens the economy, to protect our health and economic well-being long-term.”
So, we produced a call for a green stimulus and got thousands of signatures from folks. We then formed the Climate and Community Project, which has turned into a progressive climate policy think tank that does research and works with community groups and policymakers. Our research is oriented toward shifting the frontier in terms of big, visionary policy—like the Green New Deal for Public Schools. We’re also doing a lot of work on policy implementation, such as the IRA, and supporting frontline communities and environmental justice groups who don’t have our research and policy expertise. It’s fundamentally an effort to link cutting-edge research with progressive policymaking and community organizing nationwide.
We’re in this very complicated moment for climate policy. What’s happened is that a certain form of climate policy is doing very well, which is big investment in big companies that are incentivized to do decarbonization. We’re shoring up the progressive end that has been left behind—without which it will not be possible to have effective decarbonization, never mind climate justice, in the years ahead.
Rithika Ramamurthy: Your mission states that you situate your work at the “climate and inequality nexus.” Why is this an important framing for social movements today?
DAC: In my research on climate policy and climate politics, I’ve found that the most effective climate policy is equitable climate policy. You can’t build a base to transform the economy with just a few renewable energy companies, some very smart people working in policy schools, and some well-meaning politicians. It’s just not enough to push change in American politics—which requires big, strong, solid coalitions. If you’re going to make major, disruptive change, you have to bring a large number of people along with you. And to do that, you have to show them the economic benefits.
The best analogy for this is the New Deal coalition that came together in the 1930s. There were big problems with this coalition, obviously, injustices regarding gender, race, and citizenship. At the same time, we saw over the next decades that this coalition created the possibility of targeted federal policymaking. And that was the basis of, in fact, the civil rights movement, including its economic justice agenda, which was the beating heart of the civil rights agenda. The  March on Washington was a march for jobs.
Our fundamental theory of change is that there is no opposition between intelligent climate policy on the one hand, and social justice on the other. In fact, those two belong together. There are going to be trillions of dollars spent on the built environment, and a justice-centric approach will make that funding popular, sustainable, and politically expansive.
JB: We also need staying power. Republicans are working very hard to roll back progressive measures. We see community investment and multiracial coalitions as the counter to that, to ensure that we have the power to stop right-wing attacks and build something better that will last as the political wind swings.
SD: One way you have described Green New Deal campaigns is “climate policy you can touch.” It’s a good phrase. Can you expand on what this means, both as a messaging strategy and a foundation for movement efforts?
JB: We say “climate policy you can touch” because, for decades, climate organizing has focused on molecules. This makes climate change feel far away, but the reality is that it is hitting communities right now. It is touching their lives. People’s houses are being wrecked by catastrophic hurricanes; people are unable to get to their jobs. We are looking to and focusing on the most visceral experience of the climate crisis.
“For us, the measure of success in climate policy is when different people—working-class, Black, Indigenous, Latino, White—hear the words ‘green investment’ and think, ‘That’s for me.’”
Take housing, for instance—an area where so many intersecting crises come together. If we can install heat pumps to ensure that people have air conditioning on extreme high heat days and warmth during cold snaps, people will see the benefits of decarbonizing and adaptation in their homes. We want people to be able to experience positive differences in their communities as they’re going to school, as they’re commuting to work—making it as accessible, affordable, and as transformational as possible. By focusing on the built environment, we think we have the opportunity to be in direct relationship with communities on the ground as well.
DAC: That bring us to the political question. One of the things that’s really inspired me in thinking about housing and climate policy is the record of social housing in Vienna, which is the social housing capital of the world. 2 It has more residents living in social housing than anywhere else. The Social Democratic Party, which is associated with social housing policy, has won every single fair election in the last 100 years—because its signature policy initiative is literally tangible. About half the city lives in social housing, and they can physically touch the most important policy of the city, which creates extremely high-quality housing—far higher quality than the vast majority of private housing construction in the United States. Another way to emphasize the benefits of decarbonization is to talk about better schools, which affects 50 million students, three million teachers, and around 50 million parents.
We emphasize things that touch everybody—like school, transit, and housing—and that they can physically touch themselves. It’s not just the harms of climate change that are physically devastating; you can touch and feel the benefits of better climate policy, too. I think we’ve sometimes taken too much comfort in the growing popularity of climate policy, when it’s often low down the list of political salience. For us, the measure of success in climate policy is when different people—working-class, Black, Indigenous, Latino, White—hear the words “green investment” and think, “That’s for me.” We can win through tangible policies, which make people see that.
RR: Could you talk a bit about some of the key projects that climate justice advocates you work with are spearheading—in transportation, schools, forests, housing, and elsewhere—that we touched on in our “Green New Deal on the Ground” series, published this spring? 3
JB: One of the examples that we give in the series is in Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu created a fully fare-free bus line when she took office. It not only helps people by limiting transit costs but makes commuting easier. People are experiencing transit more positively because it is easier and faster to use buses. It really speaks to the benefit of investing in our economy to make it public, accessible, and decommodified. And these benefits also have ramifications throughout the supply chain. We recently released a report, which examined different transportation horizons in the US, looking not only at decarbonization opportunities but also the material needs to make it happen. 4 What we found is that investing in more public transit, the way that Mayor Michelle Wu did in Boston, limits lithium extraction. It both helps people commuting to work and people whose communities are degraded by lithium extraction. One city’s transportation policy has a ripple effect on others.
DAC: We’ve talked a lot about urban issues, but one of the exciting things about housing policy is that it unites urban and rural constituencies, which is important in American politics. That’s one reason we’re so excited by the work done by [State] Senator Nikil Saval (D) in Pennsylvania—building an urban–rural coalition to pass progressive climate policies in a purple state. Energy insecurity levels between rural areas and inner-city Philadelphia are identical. That’s very crucial for the kind of coalition we’re trying to build.
Let’s start in Philadelphia. Let’s say you are a Black woman in your late 60s living in the city on a fixed income. You own your house, but it’s in very bad repair. There are two kinds of help you would typically be offered. On the one hand, someone may try to buy your house to fix it up and flip it, which you might accept and then move to the suburbs, because you can’t cover your monthly bills in the city. On the other hand, there are federal or state incentives for retrofits, to put a solar panel on your roof or install a heat pump. But the problem is that the roof needs to be repaired, or the electrical wiring in your home can’t handle the heat pump. It can’t even handle an electric stove. And the electrical repair alone is almost $7,000, which is higher than the low-income housing retrofit award you will likely get from the Weatherization Assistance Program. And if you want your roof fixed, that could be tens of thousands of dollars more.
Now there’s a policy that addresses this problem from downtown Philly to rural Pennsylvania: Senator Saval’s Whole-Home Repair program. The Pennsylvania government is creating a one-stop shop which will pay for all necessary repairs and retrofits, so that you can dramatically improve your house—which will lower your bills and let you stay in your habitable, comfortable home. We helped Senator Saval write his housing and climate policies when he was running for office. Now that it’s a reality, I think we will be spending the next months and years analyzing and explaining how it was created, how it works, and how coalitions in other states can create their own to take advantage of IRA funding and build the kind of urban–rural coalition that Senator Saval was able to build in Pennsylvania. Both our transit and housing projects show the sprawling supply chain changes and granular, local transformations that can happen through policy diffusion and grassroots organizing.
SD: The austerity regimes of recent decades brought massive public disinvestment. Many Green New Deal efforts focus on investment in green infrastructure, such as trains and education. Why is the demand for public ownership so critical?
JB: We are at this moment where green investments could mean benefits for private interests and corporations, or for the public sector and the solidarity economy. When companies extract profits or slough off the top of green investments, they are not being used in ways that benefit the person who cannot afford housing or pay their utility bills. They are going into the pockets of CEOs and shareholders.
“The goal is not just to expand public ownership, but also to change it and democratize it….That opens the door to a very different kind of economy—one in which ordinary people will have much more power.”
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One of the biggest things that the IRA did is expand the tax credits for renewable energy. In the past, the tax credits have operated as a backdoor subsidy to Wall Street. To access these tax credits, you need what is called tax equity—which is hard to do whether you’re a new renewable energy business that’s not paying enough in taxes, a government entity, or a nonprofit trying to put solar on top of your roof. This means that Wall Street jumps in with these complicated deals called tax equity financing to make it all work. But they’re taking a cut out of that funding. With the IRA, government, local municipal utilities, and nonprofit entities can get those credits for the first time, which could open up the opportunity for unprecedented, publicly owned renewable energy.
It really is up to organizers at the state and local level to go after those incentives. That’s why we’re inspired by the work that’s been happening in New York, where a coalition pushed the state to pass the Build Public Renewables Act, which will expand the New York Power Authority so it can build the infrastructure needed for a massive amount of renewable energy. These efforts are trying to take advantage of this new opportunity within the Inflation Reduction Act to expand public ownership in our energy system, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the New Deal.
“The fossil fuel industry, as you describe, is one of the major reasons why we have not been able to achieve a just transition. They are CEOs. They are stakeholders who have a vested interest in the expansion—not just continuation, but expansion—of fossil fuels.”
DAC: The goal is not just to expand public ownership, but also to change it and democratize it. This is not an opportunity for a handful of people in Washington, DC, to take control of a third of the economy, but to have public and nonprofit entities at every scale all across the country. That opens the door to a very different kind of economy—one in which ordinary people will have much more power.
JB: Absolutely. When we talk about public ownership or community ownership, we’re talking about democratic public ownership. We have seen a lot of undemocratic public ownership in the past, but there are better models. Paris recently remunicipalized their utilities and instituted more opportunities for community involvement when doing so. 5 They have what they call a “multistakeholder board,” where they have environmental advocates, housing advocates, and others on the board. That’s the type of cogovernance that we are looking for in the future of public ownership in the United States—because otherwise, we will perpetuate the inequities we’ve seen since the New Deal. We have a chance to reshape the future of public ownership in this country.
RR: Speaking of democracy, as you both have noted, the fossil fuel industry has a death grip on democratic systems. Ending their stranglehold on the current political system is imperative to achieving a just transition. What will it take to radically reorganize the nation’s carbon infrastructure?
JB: We need to nationalize these entities. The fossil fuel industry, as you describe, is one of the major reasons why we have not been able to achieve a just transition. They are CEOs. They are stakeholders who have a vested interest in the expansion—not just continuation, but expansion—of fossil fuels. We need an actor that can come in and actually plan and manage that decline. It’s incredibly imperative because what we have seen is a massive amount of unmanaged decline.
“You have to build an alternative civil society infrastructure, which is not so much about a party per se, but about a way of seeing the world, sets of relationships that people have with each other, and a narrative understanding of the crisis we’re in and its solutions.”
Take fossil fuel communities, for instance. If you look to many of the companies that are in West Virginia, Tennessee, or Texas, we see them skipping out on their environmental commitments and worker protections. They pocket bonuses through bankruptcy trials as they get out of paying pensions to their workers suffering from black lung. They keep operating on thinner margins—and that’s not the type of transition we want. We think that public ownership both eliminates the profit imperative and benefits the folks embedded within a system that does not work anymore. It would also allow us to take these workers needed to build renewable energy systems, redirecting them into more productive parts of our economy while ensuring that if they want to retire, they get pensions. That’s why we’ve been thinking a lot about how to strategically nationalize the fossil fuel industry and ensure that workers and communities directly affected by the environmental pollution are at the table.
DAC: Also, since the early 2000s, the fossil fuel industry has shifted from just funding the Republican Party to funding the entire infrastructure of civil society on the conservative end of politics. The most famous example, of course, is the Tea Party being funded by Koch money through Americans for Prosperity. From that same period to the present, Republican support for climate policy waned. The lesson there is that just supporting one particular party at the polls isn’t sufficient to take on an industry like fossil fuels. You have to build an alternative civil society infrastructure, which is not so much about a party per se, but about a way of seeing the world, sets of relationships that people have with each other, and a narrative understanding of the crisis we’re in and its solutions.
We’re trying to build connections between grassroots groups, policymakers, and researchers to develop an alternative sense of what it means to live in this country and to face its crises. We’re just one small part of that, but this project of rebuilding a progressive civil society with its own view of and plan for the crisis is essential. And if we want to understand why the fossil fuel industry is powerful, we must look beyond elections to the broader efforts to stake out influence in social life. A lot of us in progressive circles need to take on this challenge within our own narratives, our own research, our own relationships. That kind of bottom-up movement is a key part of how we get the type of policies to guide the transition.
SD: Recent analyses of climate inequality—such as Reconsidering Reparations by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò—talk about how debt is a major driver of the climate crisis at the global level. 6 How do you see debt figuring into the broader conversation around both climate and economic justice?
JB: One of our more recent reports looked at reparations and debt elimination as a key act of international solidarity for the climate. 7 We’re also looking at the debt associated with small island states, specifically the Caribbean, to understand their debt holdings and what can actually be done about them. We’re speaking with folks on the ground about the millions upon millions of dollars in additional adaptive capacity small island states would have if they were able to be free of this debt, which is totally unjust—especially considering the context of the United States’ ecological debt to the rest of the world. That has been a crucial component of our work, as a US-based organization trying to engage in Global South solidarity, research, and activism.
DAC: Generally, economic data is about extremely powerful financial actors controlling what other people can do in the future. Debt cancellation for Global South countries and working-class people in the United States is essential to freeing up resources to tackle the real emergencies, which are not the profit levels of banks but horrible inequalities of race, class, gender, and the climate crisis. Lessening the burdens of debt will increase our fiscal capacity to build a better world.
Our brilliant member Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò asks this question in his book Reconsidering Reparations: What if reparations is the project of remaking the world, physically reconstructing it to withstand the ravages of climate change and ultimately create more freedom and prosperity for the folks who’ve been damaged so much by the history of global racial empire?
Debt raises long-standing questions of finances, not just fiscal policy on investment, but who has power over whom. Global South debt is an expression of the enduring weight of colonialism. Interest rates are much higher in the Global South than the Global North, which is one reason why renewable energy deployment is so much lower in the Global South. This is why we need to start canceling debt and revisiting our global financial arrangements—to free up resources for other countries to take on climate change.
Reparations is about the past, the present, and the future. There absolutely needs to be compensation for historical injustice. But, as Táíwò has persuasively written many times, there’s another component to it—which is world making, confronting global racial empire at scale in the same way that we can fight climate change at scale. That is a constructive project, which includes financing green investment and canceling debt, as part of a multipronged strategy of reparations.
SD: The issue’s theme is “movement economies.” Climate justice movements operate on a terrain that involves many struggles. What are the possibilities and challenges for building the kind of mass movement required to act at the intersection of racial, economic, and climate justice? How do we build coalitions that reach both grassroots organizers and legislators?
DAC: One of the tragedies of the IRA is that in the passage from the Green New Deal through Build Back Better to the final version of the bill, the idea of a big, intersectional climate-plus-inequality policy push was shaved away to a large degree, until it became what was read as an energy and electric vehicle bill. Our challenge is to rebuild that intersectional coalition, where the folks working on housing justice, racial justice, and environmental issues all see themselves in the same place. That would be made much easier by federal investment that touches all those things at once, so that you can organize jointly around programs. And we can use research, organizing, and policy advocacy to restitch that coalition together.
With big spending bills, you can bring everybody into the fold. For example, our Green New Deal for Public Schools bill is both an investment in school support staff, teachers, and maintenance workers, and an investment in school retrofits, which touches a whole different sector of labor, the trades, and a different set of concerns. 8 Within that broad framework, we can put together a coalition—of folks in education, building, labor, and even the green building sector—and bring them all together. And folks in these various movement spaces have to make sure they understand and think about the kinds of connections that they can draw in their organizing. That’s really hard work for a lot of organizations that don’t have the money to do long-term, big-picture strategy. It’s also our responsibility to distribute resources from better resourced groups, like environmental groups, to bring tenant rights or racial justice into their work, to invite them into a process and make sure we’re putting our resources in a place where we can all use them.
“Beginning around Occupy Wall Street , the idea began to spread that maybe there isn’t just one economy to protect ourselves from—maybe social movements have a different vision of how to run the economy.”
JB: The other thing I want to lift up is bringing together unlikely combinations of people. This speaks to the housing work that we’ve discussed—bringing urban and rural communities together, seeing their shared future, and their shared benefit. It explains why we wanted to explore the futures of transportation and lithium, to bring together anti-extraction folks who have been at the foreground of climate activism, doing anti-pipeline and anti-mining work, with transportation advocates who want investment in EVs. The reality is, we are at a mid-transition moment, where the rubber is hitting the road in terms of transportation policy. We wanted to use our research to show that these two groups—clean transportation and anti-extraction—could come together and demand investments in mass transit, to both limit the extraction necessary for clean transportation and also decarbonize as rapidly as possible. Finding those moments of convergence between movements through our research and policy development is a critical piece of the puzzle as we move forward.
RR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JB: I’ll end on a positive note. I think one of the exciting parts about working at the Climate and Community Project is that our work is filled with hope. We are charting a future that communities can live in. We have built multiracial coalitions. The future of green social housing, people being able to pay their bills, are things that we get time to think and explore with our members on a daily basis. I think that there are massive possibilities when we build these types of movement coalitions and work alongside the frontlines to develop and define policy.
DAC: I’ll just make a biographical reflection. I’m 40, and for the first 25 years of my life, the idea in politics was that you had people in the social sector who were trying to make society better, and then you had economists who were experts on the economy. And there was a tension between them. Beginning around Occupy Wall Street , the idea began to spread that maybe there isn’t just one economy to protect ourselves from—maybe social movements have a different vision of how to run the economy.
Today, that’s really come to the fore with the climate movement. After decades of the conversation being about taxes and prices, we are now talking about investment. And we are asking: What kind of investment? Is it just governments and companies doing a very narrow set of things, or is there a broader project of equitable transformation?
This feels like an auspicious time for social movements to really enter the debate about political economy and how to reshape it. It feels like we’re in a moment where people on the ground are thinking hard about the political economy of climate transformation, what it should be, and what we can do to change it. We, at CCP, are trying to support that conversation. I love that we’re finally at a stage now where we are having a full debate about different economic visions. And the question is: which will prevail, and which one will deliver the most for folks needing the benefits?
- See the guidebook to the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, accessed June 30, 2023, www.whitehouse.gov/cleanenergy/inflation-reduction-act-guidebook/.
- Francesca Mari, “Imagine a Renter’s Utopia. It Might Look Like Vienna,” New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/05/23/magazine/vienna-social-housing.html.
- See NPQ’s webpage on “A Green New Deal on the Ground,” May 25, 2023, nonprofitquarterly.org/series/a-green-new-deal-on-the-ground/.
- Thea Riofrancos et al., in partnership with the University of California, Davis, Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining, Climate and Community Project, January 2023, www.climateandcommunity.org/more-mobility-less-mining.
- 5. “Leaving Water Privatisation Behind. Paris, Grenoble and the advent of the water remunicipalisation movement in France,” European Network of Corporate Observatories, June 25, 2020, corpwatchers.eu/en/investigations/cities-versus-multinationals/leaving-water-privatisation-behind-paris-grenoble-and-the-advent-of-the-water.
- Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Reconsidering Reparations (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).
- Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò and Patrick Bigger, Debt Justice for Climate Reparations, Climate and Community Project, April 2022, www.climateandcommunity.org/debt-justice-for-climate-reparations.
- See Green New Deal for Public Schools Act of 2021, H.R. 4442, 117th Cong. (2021), www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/4442.