Oregon's Healthy Climate Bill Can Lead the State to Greatness

02/10/2016 01:29 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2017

Co-written with Maggie Tallmadge of Coalition of Communities of Color

The United States is on the threshold of greatness and Oregon may be leading the charge.

While attention is focused on one battleground state after another to see which political juggernauts will end up at the presidential ballot box, significant change is making its way through city and state legislatures -- change that has an opportunity to bring environmental and economic freedom, curb environmental tragedies, and provide justice to marginalized communities. More than anything else, it can provide a working model for the rest of the country.

On February 2nd, the Oregon state legislature held a hearing on the Healthy Climate Bill (SB 1574). The bill works economy-wide to limit climate pollution and account for its cost, accelerating the transition to clean energy and creating a healthy future for our children. What's perhaps most exciting, holding polluters accountable is a strategy built by many hands. Businesses, public health, faith communities, environmental advocates and communities of color have all made room for one another at the table to share priorities and concerns and promote action in Oregon.

The diversity of interests stepping up to support climate action makes sense: a proposal this transformative has the potential to deliver meaningful change in dozens of ways. There's room for people who value clean air above all, right next to those who put the highest priority on home-grown clean energy jobs, shoulder-to-shoulder with those committed to global climate action.

But in the give-and-take process of making policy, each of these advocates must decide on their bottom line: what fundamental principles must be upheld for the sake of meaningful change. Oregon has a truly powerful opportunity, in this proposal, to draw that bottom line in a way that ensures racial and economic justice. Only by ensuring justice can we reap the full environmental, health and economic benefits that this opportunity presents.

The reality is that policy never stumbles its way into equitable outcomes. More often, environmental policy creates larger disparities, and efforts to retrofit existing policy with equity band-aids is expensive and inefficient. By weaving into the very fabric of the proposal protections for vulnerable communities and methods to address existing inequities, we create a much more durable and effective policy.

The Coalition of Communities of Color and partner organizations have identified key principles to ensure that any climate bill is equitable: prevent harm, provide benefit, ensure inclusive and accountable decision-making. Oregon has an opportunity to shape the Healthy Climate Bill into policy that leads with these principles, truly addressing the disparities faced by marginalized communities.

The burden of pollution has been carried on the backs of low-income people and people of color for far too long. Building a clean energy economy gives Oregon a huge opportunity to reinvest in marginalized communities in ways that reduce disparities and create opportunities well into the future. Oregon's climate action community has taken important first steps to bring leaders to the table who know marginalized communities best; the community now has an obligation to share influence, resources and support to safeguard those seats at the table.

The tide is turning on Oregon's long history of exclusionary laws that have left people of color out of the decision-making process. Last year, Oregon passed 17 key pieces of legislation into law that will have a significant impact on equity. For example, the state voted to end profiling, streamlined the current process of voter registration, and passed the Toxic Free Kids Act. These bold, comprehensive moves provided funding investments and legislation with explicit racial equity impacts. This year, the state has a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate that equity should not be a partisan issue -- it should be integrated with every policy, especially the Healthy Climate Bill.

Overcoming racial and economic disparities and fighting climate change is not an either/or proposition. When policies uphold solutions for the needs of people with the least options, then all people will benefit. But when policies compromise at the principles of equity, low-income and communities of color lose, to the detriment of our state. Through this bill, the state can prove that justice is a process, not an afterthought. Oregon can lead the country not simply with climate action, but with truly equitable environmental policies.