The Increasing Role of Environmental-Labor Alliances in Climate Policy in US States: Examples from New York and Illinois
by İrem İnal
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 invests over $390 billion in federal programs toward the energy transition in multiple sectors, the expansion of the market for clean energy technologies, and the decarbonization of the US economy.1 It has been considered a significant shift in US climate policy, substantially increasing the role of government spending (Krugman, 2022; Sargent, 2022; Chu, 2023). Beside this change in the federal climate policy landscape, another important shift has been taking place in the US at the level of states, which set precedents for ambitious climate policy. At the center of this transformation are broad, environmental justice and just transition-oriented coalitions of grassroots organizations, which have played an active role in state politics and promoted equitable climate policies in state legislatures. As a consequence, some of the most populous states in the US, such as California, Colorado, Illinois and New York, have legislated the most progressive climate laws, setting a high bar for the environmental justice provisions of climate policy at the federal level. These laws differ from what came before not only in their heavy focus on just transition, but also in terms of the political coalitions that have advocated for them.
In the sections below, I will first describe the principles of environmental justice and just transition as they pertain to climate policy. Section two will then provide a brief overview of the history of climate policy in the US in order to situate climate policy advocacy’s shift in focus from the federal to the state level. In section three, I will elaborate on two example cases of ambitious just climate policy and the role of environmental-labor alliances in making them possible, based on ongoing collaborative research with Dr. Sam Trachtman on the role of different interest groups in climate policy in states governed by Democratic trifectas. While a just energy transition is not straightforward due to economic losses experienced by fossil fuel-dependent workforce and by communities that rely on tax revenues from carbon-intensive industry, environmental justice-oriented groups are forging ever-stronger alliances with labor coalitions in pushing climate policy forward. We also find that the Democratic Party’s control of state senates, assemblies, and governorships is a critical factor in the legislation of such policies.
Just Transition and Environmental Justice in Climate Policy
The impacts of the energy transition are not necessarily distributed equally along race and class lines. While the benefits include reduction of environmental pollution from fossil fuel-intensive industrial activity as well as revenues from clean energy investments, it is crucial that these benefits target racially stigmatized populations who have historically suffered the most from environmental hazards and industrial pollution (Bullard,  2019; Taylor, 2014). Guiding the response to environmental racism, environmental justice is the principle that “all people and communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations” (Bullard, 1996). In addition to addressing disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards, it is concerned with self-determination, sovereignty, human rights, social justice, and equitable access to natural resources (First National People Of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, 1991).
The energy transition also has negative consequences – except when they are addressed by just transition policies and planning. The trade-offs between transition to a low-carbon economy and the material interests of workers in fossil fuel-intensive sectors as well as communities that are economically dependent on fossil fuel generation have long been recognized by trade unions, environmental justice organizations, and scholars (Newell and Mulvaney, 2013; Healy and Barry, 2017). The framework of “just transition” was initially developed by labor unions in the US as a response to job losses in pollutive industries in the aftermath of new environmental legislation passed in the 1980s (Leopold, 2007).
As the labor movement forged alliances with the environmental justice movement, the definition of just transition expanded beyond the economic transitioning of workers in fossil fuel industries. Over time, it became more comprehensive, so as to include equitable and community-driven processes of transition to a healthy environment, as well as practices of building economic and political power toward energy justice (Jenkins et al., 2016; Henry, Bazilian and Markuson, 2020).
Beyond different policy frameworks, economic and political interest mobilization guides the process of energy transition. In the US, diverse coalitions of labor unions, environmental and climate advocates, as well as community organizations are exerting increasing influence over justice-oriented policymaking. Thanks to decades of organizing, advocacy, and scholarship, the notions of environmental justice and just transition are now part of core policy debates (Cole and Foster, 2001; Newell, 2005; Newell and Mulvaney, 2013; Bullard et al., 2014). The laws that these alliances helped to pass through state legislatures mark a departure from years of stagnant or narrowly-focused climate policies.
Federal and State-Level Climate Policy in the US
Until very recently, the primary focus of the US climate policy had been at the state level. Legislative support for climate policy at the federal level had largely been determined by partisanship since the early 1990s and there had been no federal legislative success apart from the Waxman-Markey Act of 2009 despite earlier efforts. Between 2016 and 2020, the Trump administration was altogether hostile to federal policies enacted during the previous administration as well as to US commitment to global climate agreements. Therefore, climate policy advocates – composed mainly of large environmental organizations and business coalitions supporting the energy transition – turned to states (Cha et al., 2019; Mildenberger 2020).
Initially, most climate change policies at the state level consisted of renewable portfolio standards and emission trading schemes. These policies are limited to the power sector or mainly rely on market based solutions. The renewable portfolio standards mandate increasing the share of renewable sources in the procurement of electricity, while the emission trading schemes set a cap on the maximum level of carbon emissions and set a price on each unit of the allowed emissions. These policies have spread across the US since 1999, but remained regionally clustered in the North East and in California and Washington on the West Coast. While these programs succeeded in reducing emissions regionally, unintended consequences of complementary programs and concerns of carbon leakage into other regions have raised concerns about their effectiveness (Schmalensee and Stavins, 2017; Stavins, 2020). These policies did not involve strong environmental justice or just transition provisions at first: they did not guarantee that their benefits would be distributed equitably or that the disproportionate impacts of environmental pollution would be property addressed, nor did they mitigate the losses sustained by carbon-dependent labor.
National environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) led climate advocacy in the US due to their experience with regulatory policymaking. They have typically formed alliances with business coalitions with stakes in the transition to renewable energy resources, led by electric utilities. However, industrial labor unions remained neutral or even opposed to most of these policies, despite their formal commitment to supporting clean energy investment (Mildenberger, 2020). On the other hand, grassroots organizations that focused on environmental racism and climate injustices did not have the agenda-setting power that these larger organizations had, hence their participation in this process was limited.
According to several interviewees involved with the environmental movement, environmental organizations also shifted their focus to state legislatures because of the lack of ambition concerning decarbonization at the federal level. They perceived the existing climate laws, or climate-related provisions in federal legislation, as insufficient on the emission reduction side. Mildenberger (2020: 129) also suggests that these either included too much compromise with the fossil fuel industry or focused more heavily on clean energy investments that did not necessarily bring down overall GHG emissions.
In addition, one grassroots environmental justice organization representative we interviewed recognized that larger environmental organizations in the US failed to build stronger ties with the labor movement, noting that this was a negative example they tried very hard to not repeat in their own coalition.
This resulted in a failure to develop and advocate for just transition policies prior to the early 2010s, the work of groups such as the Blue Green Alliance, Labor Network for Sustainability and Just Transition Alliance notwithstanding (Henry, Bazilian and Markuson, 2020).
Policy Wins of Coalitions for Environmental Justice and Just Transition
In a reversal of the setting described above that largely defined climate policymaking in the US, two specific bills that I will outline below emerged as leading examples of environmental justice and labor organizations coming together to successfully advocate for just climate policy. The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in Illinois2 and the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in New York,3 in addition to the earlier SB 535 in California,4 demonstrated what strong climate policy with an emphasis on environmental justice and just transition could look like. The of the Biden Administration’s Justice40 initiative5 transforms part of existing and new federal programs so as to direct 40% of benefits from these programs to communities disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution, following the examples of California and New York. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 also contains similar provisions as the state bills above, while the systemic inequalities not addressed by the bill – the prioritization of the private sector in financial incentives, the level of ambition of environmental justice provisions, and the strength of labor standards in the bill – are still under debate (Bigger et al., 2022).
The examples below will demonstrate that environmental justice-oriented groups are forming ever-stronger alliances with labor coalitions in pushing climate policy forward. While the party affiliation of legislators or governors is not a perfect indicator of support for such policies, our examples also suggest that Democratic trifectas are an important feature of the political setting that enables such policy.
As our research does not include a deep dive into the case of California, I will elaborate on the cases of New York and Illinois. However, it is worth noting that our interviewees from New York pointed to the dialogue between California and New York advocates, and how the environmental justice provisions within the CLCPA were inspired by California’s SB 535.
- New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019
In 2019, New York state passed one of the most ambitious climate legislations in the US, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, after years of failing to push similar versions of the bill through the state senate. The final bill set goals of 70% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity in the state by 2040. It also aims for 100% economy-wide net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. Most importantly, it mandates that a minimum of 35% of the program’s benefits should be invested in disadvantaged communities. It also created two important institutions: the Just Transition Working Group and the Climate Justice Working Group. The former is chaired by the Commissioner of Labor and advises state agencies on training and workforce related issues, while the latter is tasked with developing criteria for determining disadvantaged communities.
According to our interviews with the environmental justice advocates in the state, the People’s Climate March in 2014 helped raise political consciousness around climate and environmental justice in New York, especially among low-income and Black and Brown communities that suffered pollution, extreme climate events, and loss more directly. It generated momentum for addressing climate change and environmental justice simultaneously, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which raised awareness of the disastrous consequences of the climate crisis on communities. The march brought environmental justice organizations, community organizations, labor unions, and faith-based groups together in a coalition called “New York Renews”. Clean energy advocacy organizations such as Alliance for Clean Energy, New Yorkers for Clean Power, and Renewable Heat Now also joined the coalition in their legislative efforts.
A representative from NY Renews emphasized that the coalition was organized around the Jemez Principles of organizing and adopted a legislative platform based on the principle of unity. Accordingly, the people who are most affected by a problem – in this case environmental racism – needed to be part of fashioning the solution. Similarly, the coalition centered the just transition-related parts of their legislative proposal on their labor partners’ input. In addition, the principle of unity enabled persistent collective advocacy around the provision channeling 35% of the funds from the state’s climate programs to disadvantaged communities.
While the pro-clean energy and environmental justice coalition worked toward the bill together under NY Renews for several years, the support by the Democratic trifecta was crucial to its final legislation. Members of the coalition also helped to shape this political opportunity itself: some partners in the coalition campaigned to substitute in new Democratic senate members for a group of senators called the Independent Democratic Conference, which caucused with Republicans against climate bills. As a result, the formerly Republican majority state senate flipped to a Democratic majority in 2018 and was able to exert stronger pressure on Governor Cuomo to approve the bill, which had never passed the senate before.
Even after the trifecta, the Governor was inclined to negotiate with larger environmental organizations such as the NRDC, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and the Nature Conservancy to scale back the proposals of the NY Renews coalition. Fossil fuel industry actors also shifted their focus to the Governor in attempts to block the bill. However, members of the NY Renews coalition managed to keep pressure on the Governor to sign the bill into law by showing up to the state capitol in large numbers to make their voices heard, by continuing to strongly lobby the senate, and by running a media campaign on the desirability of an environmental justice-focused climate bill. In the end, they managed to push the bill over the finish line.
- Illinois’s Climate and Equitable Jobs Act of 2021
Before the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), The Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) of 2016 in Illinois helped to pave the way for employment opportunities in clean energy sectors, as well as it helped to address utility injustices for low-income consumers. The legislation was ushered by the Energy Foundation and mainly included input from environmental justice and clean energy advocacy organizations. It played a significant role in highlighting the energy efficiency concerns in the state and the employment losses from potential closures of nuclear and coal plants. Nevertheless, labor organizations were largely left out of the policymaking process due to the Republican governor’s anti-labor stance at the time. As a result, the final legislation was still lacking just transition measures. Its provisions related to investments in disadvantaged communities were also insufficient, according to interviews with representatives of the environmental justice coalition.
Once the Democratic Party won the governorship in 2018, there was an opportunity to address these issues with a new climate bill. Industrial labor unions emerged as more prominent actors in policy design after 2018, partially due to their allies in the Governor’s office. The Illinois chapters of various unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Building and Construction Trades Council, and the AFL-CIO coalesced under Climate Jobs Illinois (CJI) to advocate for stronger labor standards, training programs, and local workforce requirements within climate laws. They also wanted to make sure that the closure of nuclear- and fossil fuel-powered plants would not destabilize their material conditions.
Community and environmental justice organizations were also more heavily involved after 2018. The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition (CJC) (financially supported by the Energy Foundation) consisted of over 300 consumer advocates, student organizations, faith-based groups, businesses, and environmental advocacy organizations in addition to the environmental justice and community groups. Leading up to the CEJA, they ran media campaigns and ceaselessly lobbied the state legislature. These efforts increased the focus on addressing environmental justice concerns and supporting communities by taking advantage of opportunities written into the legislation.
When the legislative session started after the election of Governor Pritzker, CJI and CJC joined the policy debates with their own agendas. Over the course of the next two years, they managed to negotiate and agree on some major provisions of the bill, including the timeline of coal plant closures, prevailing wage standards in renewable energy, and electrical vehicle charging infrastructures. The final law, called the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA), passed in 2021 and included project labor agreements with local labor unions, clean energy workforce development programs in Black and Brown communities, and reopening of solar incentive programs to support jobs in the solar energy sector. In addition, $40 million worth of investments were channeled to communities affected by power plant closures. Without the advocacy and support of the aforementioned coalitions, one of the most progressive climate laws in the US would not have been possible.
Conclusion: The Future of Just Transition in the US
In the US, support for climate policy at the federal level had largely been determined by partisanship since the early 1990s. This mostly worked against legislative success. After 2018, the Democratic Party’s control of state legislatures and governorships created opportunities for climate justice movements in states governed by Democratic trifectas. However, it was only a necessary condition in facilitating progressive influence of the aforementioned alliances in policymaking. Building on decades of work by labor and environmental justice movements, coalitions formed at the level of states significantly influenced the content and success of two of the most ambitious climate laws in the US: in New York and Illinois.
Although the Inflation Reduction Act cannot match the ambition of the CLCPA or the CEJA in terms of environmental justice and just transition, there is room to work toward these principles as the IRA materializes in the next few years. The implementation of highest-level labor standards in jobs created by clean energy investments necessitates going beyond compliance requirements. Labor union federations such as the IBEW and AFL-CIO are already mobilizing on unionizing jobs created by federal investments (Weisman, 2023). The implementation of environmental justice provisions of climate laws is also at least as critical as the legislation. The role of planning and consultation between state and/or federal agencies and stakeholders, as well as coordination between different actors, is going to be critical in getting the most just outcomes possible out of federal investments. Building on the leadership of environmental-labor alliances in climate policy in the US in a way to address climate change, environmental injustice, racism, and material inequality simultaneously is going to depend on continuing collaboration and coordination between union partners, researchers, community organizations, and governmental agencies.
1 – “H.R.5376 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.” August 16, 2022. (https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/5376/text).
2 – “SB2408 – 102nd General Assembly (2021-2022). Climate and Equitable Jobs Act.” (https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/102/SB/PDF/10200SB2408lv.pdf).
3 – “SB6599 – 2019-2020 Legislative Session: Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.” (https://legislation.nysenate.gov/pdf/bills/2019/S6599).
4 – “SB535 – Chapter 830.” (http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/sen/sb_0501-0550/sb_535_bill_20120930_chaptered.pdf).
5 – “Justice40 Initiative | Environmental Justice.” The White House. Retrieved June 4, 2023 (https://www.whitehouse.gov/environmentaljustice/justice40/).
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