What A Green New Deal For DC Could Mean For The City’s Working-Class Residents

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Above Photo:  By Chris Kain

The Green New Deal first entered U.S. political discourse during Howie Hawkins’ 2010 Green Party campaign for New York governor. Jill Stein, the Green Party’s candidate for president, later invoked the idea in her 2012 and 2016 campaigns. Implementation of a Green New Deal is now being vigorously discussed at all levels of power: On the international stage, where the deal was first put forward by the United Nations Environment Program in 2009; in Congress, where New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have pushed for its inclusion in a new domestic agenda; and especially at the state and city level, where programs like DC’s recent clean energy legislation already invoke its precepts.

Full implementation in DC, however, could offer much more to our residents. As an environmental scientist, an ecosocialist and a political activist, I’d like to offer my thoughts on what implementing a Green New Deal in the District — a GND in DC, if you will — could entail. Let’s have a healthy discussion and debate about these issues.

Since environmental rights are inseparable from social and economic rights — especially in DC, with its history of environmental racism, income and wealth inequality, and racial disparities — we should recognize the justice in the demands of Black Lives Matter DC, Stop Police Terror Project DC and Occupation Free DC. These campaigns already confront international issues, specifically by working to end DC police ties to the Israeli repressive apparatus and backing the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Israel (BDS) movement. Mayor Muriel Bowser previously signed onto an initiative of 50 governors opposing BDS and recently visited Israel to encourage tech investment. A broad coalition opposed this trip.

Besides the obvious fact that the leadership center of imperial power is found in the Washington area, we must also recognize that transnational capital is now a major player in this region’s real estate market, accelerating gentrification and displacement of long-term residents.

Given that the District became the nation’s first Human Rights City in 2008 — pledging to adhere to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights — our elected government should fulfill its commitment by eliminating the human rights violations occurring in our community, starting with the most egregious: child poverty and homelessness. We can generate the revenue necessary to accomplish this goal by ending the many so-called tax incentives that subsidize gentrification and displacement. DC can also tap into its more than ample tax base of wealthy residents and the corporate sector, starting with recovering the huge federal Trump tax cuts. Meanwhile, DC must strengthen our status as a sanctuary city.

Although achieving DC statehood would increase the possibility of fully realizing these objectives, nevertheless many initiatives can start now.

Here is my outline of steps to make a GND in DC a reality:

  • Renovate family housing that now sits vacant, and provide state-of-the-science green public/social housing for all residents in need. These residents should pay no more than 30 percent of their income, as described in Jacobin’s recent article on this topic.
  • Curb air pollution and carbon emissions by building on our great achievement — 2018’s Clean Energy DC legislation — and addressing the transportation sector in order to accelerate the transition to fully renewable energy supplies (wind and solar).
  • Fund the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority via a DC congestion charge in the downtown business district and progressive taxation of regional wealthy residents and businesses that profit from proximity to Metrorail and Metrobus service. We should transition rapidly to free, fully electric Metrorail and bus service and work toward a downtown without cars. (Note that a congestion charge program is achievable even without statehood, while establishing progressive reciprocal taxation of commuting workers in DC and its surrounding jurisdictions is not.)
  • Take over utilities supplying electricity and natural gas, transferring them to public ownership — an idea that gained attention during the struggle to block Exelon’s takeover of Pepco.
  • Given the fire hazards and greenhouse gas footprint caused by leakage of natural gas into the environment, implement a rapid phaseout of its use in DC, replacing it as an energy source for cooking and heating with heat pumps fueled by renewably generated electricity.
  • Promote a regional coastal ocean wind farm.
  • Increase the budget subsidy for urban farming and green manufacturing cooperatives.
  • Implement a DC Public Bank by 2020 — already the subject of a feasibility study that we should be pushing Mayor Bowser to release.
  • Implement 100 percent recycling of food waste so it can be converted to compost for DC’s urban farms.
  • Implement comprehensive apprenticeship programs in DC high schools and in high-poverty neighborhoods for 21st-century employment, especially in the renewable energy and agroecology/organic agriculture sectors.

Fulfilling all of these goals will require a broad, bottom-up mobilization of the residents most impacted — namely DC’s working class — as well as their allies. These same people must likewise be actively involved throughout the planning and implementation.