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12 states and Washington, DC are teaming up on the Transportation & Climate Initiative, but critics from Newark and Baltimore say the program excludes frontline voices and depends too much on market forces

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DHARNA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.

Transportation is the single biggest source of carbon emissions in the United States. Well, twelve northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and Washington, DC have created a program to cap transportation emissions and fund infrastructure for electric vehicles. They’re calling it the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI, and it’s being overseen by Georgetown Law’s Climate Center. The states aim to develop a more detailed policy plan by the end of 2019. On Monday, 59 environmental, public health, business and scientific organizations wrote an open letter backing the proposal and asking state leaders to prioritize equity. But critics say that cap and invest programs like TCI are inherently flawed. Activists with the Climate Justice Alliance and other grassroots groups disrupted a press conference about the initiative in Baltimore here on Tuesday, shouting “TCI is a lie.”

CLIMATE JUSTICE ALLIANCE ORGANIZER What we want to see is this process completely halted until the voices of the communities most impacted are at the table in a meaningful way.

DHARNA NOOR Now joining me to talk about this are two guests. Melissa Miles is an organizer with the Ironbound Community Corporation, an environmental justice organization based in Newark, New Jersey. We’re also joined by Samuel Jordan. He is the President of Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. Thanks for being here.



DHARNA NOOR Samuel, let’s start with you. Maryland announced its commitment to this program in 2018. Our Governor, Larry Hogan, has been criticized fiercely by environmental justice advocates both here and otherwise, essentially for not committing to a really equitable transit proposal. Talk about how a program like this could impact Maryland and what kind of program you’d like to see to promote transit equity here.

SAMUEL JORDAN I would begin with noting that the climate crisis is a crisis for everyone and we all have a stake in its resolution with urgency. The announcement of the TCI project was important to our coalition, the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, because we support an effort to make substantial reductions in the harmful emissions generated by the transportation sector. As advocates for the completion of the Red Line Light Rail project, we are advocates for a higher profile, higher use and value given to mass transportation, public mass transportation. It actually answers a number of questions that we raise. One, the protection of the environment, the public health implications of improved public transportation. That is, cleaner public transportation. We advocate for replacement of any vehicles in the fleet with non-emitting vehicles. We see that the role of the agency— that is, Maryland’s Department of Transportation, Maryland’s Transit Administration— should be to address these issues of greatest concerns to the ridership and to the public generally.

Our reception of this idea was to welcome an effort to reduce emissions. However, we don’t endorse TCI. We challenge TCI because TCI is dependent upon market forces to reduce emissions. The experience we’ve had already in this nation comes principally from the, what’s called the Western Climate Initiative. California and ironically Quebec are the sites of the most work under that initiative. And what we’ve found what has actually developed is that the emissions reductions have centered mainly in the electricity sector, not the transportation sector. In fact, in a number of areas in California where it has been actually implemented, emissions in transportation have increased in the transportation sector. We see, one, that market forces will not save us, but the alternatives are pretty strict. That is, if there is no market attraction to reduction of emissions, then we have to have legislative mandates. And the political atmosphere at the moment, we think, doesn’t support political or legislative mandates without, one, a more informed general public and electorate, but also an electorate willing to fight for the future.

DHARNA NOOR And for viewers who aren’t in Baltimore or Maryland, again, the Red Line was a light rail proposal, a more equitable light rail proposal that was here in Maryland that was supposed to be funded, but Larry Hogan actually cut funding for that and actually sent the funding back. But to pick up on something that you mentioned Samuel, Melissa, your group also has found issue with the very model of the cap and invest plan that TCI has built into it. This cap and invest plan is essentially a way to cap emissions over time. Polluters have to buy pollution credits and then they can sell them to other polluters. The government auctions off the credits and then uses the money to invest in sustainable transportation alternatives. What’s wrong with that kind of model? And why is that kind of market-based mechanism inherently not equitable and not just?

MELISSA MILES By urgency, we don’t mean a rushed process. That’s first of all. Because of the urgency of climate change and the fact that climate disasters are happening as we speak around the world, really what we don’t have time to do is to get it wrong, is to go down the wrong path and then realize five years from now that the emissions reductions were not met, that the capital was not generated. And that is quite the possibility with a scheme like this. So, yes, we do start from a position of seeing these carbon-centric models generally as false solutions for many reasons.

For one, they’re not calling on an end to fossil fuel infrastructure and in some ways, basically are a way to keep it alive and going for the next 20 or 30 years. Also, we are aware of the impacts that our carbon markets here have on the Global South. As part of the Climate Justice Alliance, we are a network of groups that span both North and South America and other continents as well. And so, we have firsthand accounts of what carbon markets look like in the Global South, and our brothers and sisters there asked us not to do it. We also were taking our lead from Indigenous folks on the front line of extraction who are saying, keep it in the ground. And so, because we listen and we value the input of those most impacted, that’s the place we start from.

What that looks like in Newark is housing a chunk of the region’s energy infrastructure in the form of power plants and an incinerator that burns trash to make energy, one of the most polluting ways to create energy. Being the community that hosts the largest port on the East Coast and now the second largest in the country in terms of volume, we see the trucks and the cranes and the ships and the impact of diesel pollution on folks, both the labor and the community on the fence line. And so, we definitely understand the urgency of changes in the transportation sector that will allow for fleets to turn over. Living also in a city like Newark that has aging infrastructure, including bus fleets that are polluting and including—Luckily we have much more access to public transportation than cities like the one we’re in, but at the same time, we see that there’s quite the need in communities like ours, which are communities of color and low-income communities, for more transportation options.

The thing that most concerns us about TCI is the complete lack of real inclusion of communities that are most impacted by the pollution generated by the transportation hubs. We want this process to be halted, to be slowed if not completely halted, and for there to be meaningful inclusion of community voices. Not just mine. I get paid to do this work. I live in Newark, yes. My children live in Newark, yes. But, ultimately, it’s my job to be here in the middle of the day to advocate for my community. Real community engagement doesn’t look like holding events at elite institutions where the majority of the folks attending are also paid to be there and are bringing one little piece of the puzzle— their own. What it looks like is states going to communities, going to the people, sitting down with them, and making sure that their concerns as well as their solutions are uplifted first and always. And that has not happened here.

DHARNA NOOR So the Georgetown Law’s Climate Center did take some steps to at least talk about including equity in TCI’s proposals. They held a symposium on equity in May. They held what they called regional listening sessions to hear from front line communities working on environmental justice issues. Talk about those measures for equity and why essentially you don’t think that they’re enough.

SAMUEL JORDAN I think they should take their cue from the grassroots organizations, not give instructions to the grassroots organizations. Essentially, the problems I believe are that, one, you have to do equity; you don’t just speak of equity. They have a lot of — we have tons now. Equity is a mini industry, not only the use of the word. I mean, there are poems about equity, but no equity. We first want to make sure that people understand the issue of equity as something concrete, in movement, in motion, with concrete impacts and results for communities. What we’ve seen from Georgetown is at best aspirational. That is, aspirational only if they intend that result to actually be achieved. You can be paid to write a ton of stuff about equity and not really mean to do equity.

What we first don’t see is any real, concrete, on-the-ground programs that have come from Georgetown at this point. We can give an example what this means for us. We’ve suggested that all the states in the TCI compact conduct substantive transit equity analysis in the entire state. Now, don’t just leave it to an organization like ours that is under-resourced, doesn’t have the power of a research institution behind it, okay? If this is to be serious, then it has to be resourced and it has to get to a factual basis. The cap and invest— which is actually a euphemism for cap and trade— but the cap and invest system hasn’t yet, with Georgetown’s help and insight, determined how to identify then direct investments to the communities most in need.

For example, in Maryland there is no mapping yet of the communities where pollution is a serious problem. Not even all the communities, just where the problem has been actually recorded or documented or denounced. We think a more equitable approach would be to have to invite, to make certain, not only invite, but make certain that representatives of the environmental justice community, the climate justice community, the transit equity activists and advocates, people want fairness in transit are present to discuss the sites, the areas that are in most need. That should go on a list that’s approved by those organizations for investments in that calendar year, for example. Right now, there’s no such mechanism. What we’ve seen today, this program today was actually oriented toward the business sector.

DHARNA NOOR Melissa, your organization, Ironbound Community Corporation, has been working on environmental justice transit equity in Newark for a long time. And you said off camera that actually your organization wasn’t directly invited to participate in any of these regional listening sessions. Could you talk about what your response was to that as an organization, and what you saw at these kinds of meetings where the TCI states and Georgetown were supposedly supposed to be reaching out to frontline communities and getting input?

MELISSA MILES Again, like I mentioned, they weren’t directly reaching out. They were utilizing another organization, Green for All, to basically be an intermediary. Had they really understood the relationship between environmental justice and environmental organizations, they may have been a little bit more sensitive to the fact that green organizations continue to get funding to do work in EJ [environmental justice] communities when there are groups on the ground who have both historical, cultural, linguistic significance in that community. And so, right from the start, that was a misstep that still actually hasn’t been corrected. Just today we had an action at a press conference that was called by some of these groups where none of us were invited to be a part of the press conference. Samuel, as a native here, was invited to be part of that press conference, but we have been very present in this process.

And so, what it looks like is exclusion for the purpose of moving this cap and invest model forward with as little resistance from environmental and climate justice advocates as possible. We don’t have the luxury of looking at a piece of this. We are not single-issue organizations. We come from communities where folks are being deported in front of our eyes, where people are going missing, where children have asthma, where the incinerator’s plume was hot pink for two days because of what we believe was medical waste being burned over our community. There’s so many pressing—We live in a community where after ten minutes of rain, it can flood to the point where people need to be rescued from their cars. This just happened recently. So we don’t have the luxury of just looking at one piece of this.

We also live in a place that is under threat of gentrification. We are very aware that any efforts to change anything for the better can potentially lead to displacement. These are not things that Georgetown or Green for All can adequately address. Climate change is impacting everyone, but not in the same way, right? If there’s a flood, there’s some folks on yachts and there’s some folks in dinghies and there’s some people who will just have a life preserver. That is the reality of climate change. Some communities are going to be impacted worst and first. And so, we know that sea level rise is happening. We have our brothers and sisters in the South here along the Gulf Coast who are really fighting for their homes. And so, we just don’t have the luxury to sit in a room and pontificate and imagine and project in a way that is divorced from the reality.

DHARNA NOOR We’re going to pause the conversation here. Please join us for part two of this conversation on the Transportation and Climate Initiative. I’m Dharna Noor. Thanks for watching.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.