A Santa Cruz Green New Deal: Yes to Social Justice! No to Green Capitalism!

Ecosocialist Working Group - 03.06.2021
Proposed as a green jobs and justice program for the next ten years, the Green New Deal is both a social movement to unite diverse social justice struggles and a comprehensive platform for addressing climate change.

Proposed as a green jobs and justice program for the next ten years, the Green New Deal is both a social movement to unite diverse social justice struggles and a comprehensive platform for addressing climate change. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced it in Congress in 2019, where it failed to gain traction in the Republican-controlled senate. But endorsed by organizations including the Sunrise Movement, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Climate Mobilization, Bernie’s Our Revolution, and DSA, the GND remains a powerful vision to organize around for a world worth living in.

Warning of an unfolding climate holocaust, massive loss of life, suffering, and financial devastation, AOC and Markey’s GND resolution notably joins decarbonization to social justice and equity. It proposes infrastructural renewal, economic investment for the wellbeing of all, and guaranteeing clean air, water, and land, in ways that repair the “historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.” In 2019, AOC narrated an amazing short video (brilliantly animated by Molly Crabapple) that pictures what a GND-inspired future might look like.

DSA’s Ecosocialists (national) have added their own priorities, including democratizing control over major energy systems and resources; centering the multiracial working class in the just transition to an economy of societal and ecological care; demilitarizing, decolonizing, and striving for a future of international solidarity and cooperation; and decommodifying survival by guaranteeing living wages, healthcare, and affordable housing for all. As such, they join Indigenous and environmental, and racial justice social movements that stress the need for a bottom-up, inclusive, and democratized approach, rather than top-down governmental policy directives.

Joining the GND to the decolonial Red Deal, as proposed by The Red Nation, also makes compelling sense. As Nick Estes argues in Jacobin, “The GND has the potential to connect every social justice struggle—free housing, free health care, free education, green jobs—to climate change. Likewise, the Red Deal places anti-capitalism and decolonization as central to each social justice struggle as well as climate change. The necessity of such a program is grounded in both the history and future of this land, and it entails the radical transformation of all social relations between humans and the earth.” And while such a program must not only be intersectionalist but also global in scope, it’s less clear what the GND would mean on a local level and how it might offer a useful instrument to connect diverse regional struggles. But it’s on the local scale that we can most meaningfully engage with this all-encompassing struggle, in support of its national and international horizons.


A Santa Cruz Green New Deal

Like many other cities around the US, Santa Cruz’s City Council endorsed the GND in the summer of 2019, as “a thorough, albeit aspirational, guide to effectively combating climate change while addressing social justice.” The resolution, passed unanimously, outlined goals for “decreasing energy use and switching to carbon free energy sources, improving water use efficiency, increasing urban tree canopy, [and] reducing waste” as well as “keeping the considerations of regional vulnerable communities central to all emergency climate action planning.” The resolution notes that “City property and infrastructure exposed to coastal climate hazards by year 2100 is valued at nearly $1 billion”. Yet, that said, “through an endorsement of the Green New Deal, the City recognizes the need to address climate change in an equitable manner, including the inclusion of frontline and vulnerable communities in decision-making processes.” The City further resolved to align its “Health in All Policies” program—which emphasizes “public health, equity and sustainability”—with its commitment to the GND.

But like many non-binding climate accords (including the UN’s climate agreements) that have failed to halt the steady growth of greenhouse gas emissions over the last two decades, the City’s resolution may appear as symbolic posturing without substantial commitment—in other words, liberal greenwashing (providing a marketing spin’s green sheen, rather than meaningful action). Not surprisingly, the City predicted the “fiscal impact” of its Green New Deal resolution to be “none,” indicating its zero level of actual investment in the program. Indeed, its guiding commitments to social and economic justice, democratization, and equity may have fallen to the wayside following the reactionary 2020 recall of progressive Council members Drew Glover and Chris Krohn. 

“Health in All Policies” inspires the same suspicion, as it hardly seem to matter when the City continues to attempt to “regulate”—meaning criminalize—houselessness through cruel and legally questionable ordinances. Indeed, the “Health in All Policies” principles of “health, equity and sustainability” were painfully contradicted when the City recently directed its police force to violently evict an encampment of houseless folks during the raging Covid pandemic, without any plan for relocation, assistance, or care (thankfully that eviction attempt was halted by a court order).

Yet this hypocrisy does not have to rule the day. Rather than concluding that the City’s endorsements are nothing more than empty rhetoric—especially tempting given the current business-friendly majority on the City Council and its apparent hostility to social justice and equity—we should do everything in our power to continue organizing for a radical Green New Deal, in alliance with both likeminded organizations in town and DSA’s national priorities. Because the stakes are so high and concern our future wellbeing, there are only compelling reasons to continue our work toward realizing the GND, including locally, which means holding the City accountable to its social-justice commitments, and struggling for our own more ambitious agenda.

As part of our alliance-building efforts, DSA Santa Cruz’s Ecosocialist Working Group has been talking with various local organizations to learn about their own GND priorities, and to share our own approach to ecosocialist, decolonial values. This is what we’ve learned so far.

Public Transportation

All of the organizations we’ve talked to so far stress the need for improved and accessible public transportation. Santa Cruz’s Campaign for Sustainable Transportation views it as a matter of “transportation justice,” which for them is key to any local Green New Deal. That would require the City to support more sustainable public transport, for instance by expanding bus transit and offering free passes to UCSC employees and students, teens and the elderly (just as UCSC should subsidize bus passes for its students through campus parking fees). Opposed to the Downtown Library / Parking Garage project because it would violate sustainable land use and expand cars and toxic air, CST also opposes Highway 1 expansion (and equally, auxiliary lane proposals) as a false solution to traffic problems. Instead, expanded and accessible public transportation could support decarbonization, job growth, and reduce private automobile traffic.

Indeed, Metro transit—which provides bus service throughout Santa Cruz county—is in particular need of funding and has been hit hard by the pandemic, as James Sandoval of SMART (Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation) Local 23 points out. Riders are down 90% (including on UCSC routes and commutes over the hill to San Jose), and the future may be still worse. Now is the time to support public transportation workers as essential, in the name of climate and socio-economic justice, including by supporting an upgraded electrified fleet, greater city and county financial investment in transportation infrastructure and safety, and better pay and a secure-jobs guarantee for Metro’s approximately 150 fixed operators and 40 para-transit drivers. (For more inspiration on how the GND connects to labor, and how we can avoid the “jobs versus environment” dead-end, see Science for the People’s virtual teach-in on a Workers’ Green New Deal that links climate justice with empowered organized labor).

Sierra Club Santa Cruz, part of the Ventana chapter with approximately 5000 members, also prioritizes sustainable public transportation for GND decarbonization (including the local “rail trail,” bus electrification, and anti-highway widening). As does the People’s Democratic Club, for whom the number one issue is the environment. Sierra Club Santa Cruz’s website has many useful resources, including a range of critical “position letters” on local issues (including PG&E tree cutting, Santa Cruz’s Wharf master plan, and regional fracking). Its detailed analysis of the City’s plans for the $50 million Library/Garage Project, to be built on the leafy site of downtown’s farmer’s market, is exemplary: the 400-car garage would be a flagrant violation of the City’s own decarbonization goals, as mandated by California State SB32 that requires a 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, as well as a direct contradiction of the City’s “Health in All Policies” that calls for “accessible built environments that promote health and safety, mitigate emissions, [and] improve parks and green space.” Sierra Club argues it would be much better to support affordable housing downtown and manage existing parking better, by supporting and incentivizing sustainable public transportation for all.


Affordable Housing 

Santa Cruz Climate Action Network (with a mailing list of 1600) also supports the GND as a path to zero carbon by 2030 (or sooner) for city and community operations (buildings, transport, infrastructure). Better public transportation is crucial, which for SCCAN is also “an equity issue” for many low-paid Metro workers driving between Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Salinas, and beyond. But it’s not enough. As Campaign for Sustainable Transportation observes, transportation justice should operate in tandem with housing justice, as expanding affordable housing policy would reduce energy-intensive commutes and allow workers to live nearer to places of work, encouraging a more stable, healthy community. In fact, climate justice demands housing justice. As SCCAN highlights, areas such as the lower-income, socially diverse Beach Flats are among the most vulnerable to future sea-level rise; yet the City’s Resilient Coast policy doesn’t adequately consider how to address climate justice in this case, and many of its residents feel left out of discussions.

That said, local organizer Ernestina Saldana of Stop Evictions and YARR (Your Allied Rapid Response, which documents and resists actions by ICE or other repressive forces that would harm our fellow human beings) points out that confronting “climate change”  is a luxury many can’t afford to think about—especially if it’s detached from questions of justice. Organizing primarily with the region’s Latinx community, she explains that few have the time or capacity to consider seemingly far-off climate questions when struggling for everyday survival. While Monarch butterflies are suffering catastrophic population decline, symptomatic of the loss of pollinators that will wreak havoc on food supplies, Latinx migrant workers and their families are suffering austerity, eviction, housing overcrowding, and deportation threats. This is all worsened by four years of Trump’s ethno-nationalist xenophobia and border enforcement (with the SCPD serving as willing collaborators), as well as by Santa Cruz’s gentrification, skyrocketing rents, and lack of services for those in need. Fieldworkers and fruit pickers have been particularly hard hit by Covid, even as their ranks swell with newly jobless service workers who have turned to agricultural work to survive. 

Nonetheless, Saldana believes that the Green New Deal offers a critical framework that could be used to connect struggles—e.g. those of transportation, housing, migrant, and economic justice—and to build solidarity in the collective effort to protect the most vulnerable from climate and other environmental impacts. The answer is, in her view, to mobilize behind progressive governance that would support affordable housing, services for migrants and houseless residents, educational initiatives, public libraries, free internet, and green spaces like the Beach Flats Community Garden. All of which would grant the GND widespread support.

A Santa Cruz Just Transition

SCCAN recognizes that supporting progressive policies—including public banking, improving the Central Coast Community Energy plan (3CE), reducing plastics, and opposing the downtown Library/Garage project—will inevitably mean “challenging the city’s pro-development, pro-business agenda, and also democratizing city climate governance (for instance through citizen groups participating in the city climate action plan).” That’s clear to Extinction Rebellion Santa Cruz as well, which supports many of the above proposals, adding that the city should boost regenerative agriculture and soil management, do more to plant more trees, protect biodiversity, and include more effective regulations, public education, and public-sector funding for green jobs dedicated to habitat remediation and restoration work. This would also correlate with the demands of Safe Ag Safe Schools, which advocates for phasing out health-harming chemicals (including chlorpyrifos and glyphosate, or Roundup) from school grounds and residential areas and supporting agro-ecological solutions.

Without a comprehensive approach to a socially-equitable Just Transition, we’ll likely face a future of ineffective green capitalism, benefitting financial interests instead of environmental sustainability. In the words of XR Santa Cruz, the “current runaway capitalist system, with its worship of ‘endless growth’ on a finite planet is causing the destruction of the very life support system we need to survive as a species, along with all other species.” For them, “A ‘Green New Deal’ still based in unfettered capitalism will likely continue to degrade the environment and ecosystems for monetary gain (especially with a president-elect who, we understand, is filling his cabinet with corporate picks).” Recognizing that Santa Cruz City and County lacks the political will to challenge these powerful interests, XR demands the formation of a “People’s Assembly” to guide policymaking, because addressing what they see as the climate emergency requires inclusive democratic participation.


Santa Cruz’s “Climate and Energy Action Plan 2030”

Meanwhile, the City appears to be moving away from its 2019 endorsement of the Green New Deal, at least on the basis of its contracting a corporate consultancy firm to shepherd its “Climate and Energy Action Plan 2030.” Enter Rincon Consultants, Inc., who will be paid $219,996 to develop the plan over the next year. In their sales pitch responding to the City’s Request for Proposals—all accessible online—Rincon states that “when it comes to Climate Action, we do not take a one-size-fits-all approach,” yet then proceeds to list the many other projects they’re currently working on, among them: a “2030 Community Climate Action Plan and Environmental Impact Report” for the County of Santa Barbara ($517,000); a “Climate Action Plan Update” for Livermore ($24,835); a “Community Climate Action Plan” for Santa Clara County ($154,124); a “Community Climate Action Plan” for San Mateo County ($24,835); a “Climate Action Plan and Emissions Forecast” for Dublin ($75,000); and a “Pathway to Clean Energy” for Berkeley ($80,000). While one might view these deals as evidence of positive regional transformation, they also raise the specter of homogenized corporate climate services.

Rincon’s Santa Cruz services are neatly divided into 9 “tasks”: Task 1: Community Education, Engagement and Activation; Task 2: Report on Climate Action Plan 2020, Benchmarking and Other Commitments; Task 3: GHG Emissions Forecasting; Task 4: Goal Setting and Carbon Neutrality; Task 5: Strategy Selection and Carbon Neutrality Pathway; Task 6: Develop Short- and Long-Term Funding & Implementation Plan; Task 7: Develop and Analyze Plan’s Nexus with Related Topics; Task 8: Develop Tools for Monitoring, Tracking and Activation; and Task 9: Develop Draft Plan, Final Plan, and Environmental Document.

With the focus on decarbonization above all else, the City’s “Climate Action and Energy Plan,” in this version, appears largely technocratic, achieved by incentivizing homeowner-based solar energy systems and private electric vehicles, and encouraging green jobs largely within the private sector. As the City’s Request for Proposals states: “since most of local emissions come from private vehicles, the Plan needs to strongly focus on transportation.” Yet there appears to be no awareness of the green costs of this renewable energy transition. As many critics point out, electric vehicles will not save the planet, as EVs rely on fossil fuel energy for power, are resource-intensive and more polluting than gas-guzzlers to produce, and their batteries, like those storing solar energy, depend on metals like lithium, which means more resource colonialism in the Global South. Much better would be to pedestrianize streets, expand public transport, and create a car-free (decarbonized) downtown, all with appropriate policy to prevent the further gentrification of Santa Cruz (including rent control, eviction protections, and raising the minimum wage).

While Rincon mentions green jobs, their corporate-PR proposal includes collaboration with Hatch, an Oakland-based subcontractor, “who will leverage their extensive experience related to funding and financing climate-related investments.” Joining “economic growth” to “climate innovation,” Rincon proposes expanding green jobs “created from coastal and watershed resiliency and restoration projects, local climate incubators, electrification retrofits and business resiliency programs,” but with little detail, including on how the plan will “provide equitable economic opportunities to historically disadvantaged communities.” While the plan has yet to get off the ground and is too early to judge, it’s worrying that there is zero mention of the word “justice” in the City’s Request for Proposals and the word—so essential to environmental justice approaches—appears only once in Rincon’s 83-page proposal, while “equity” is mentioned, apart from the above, mostly in the same breath as “equity consultant.”

Optimum Buy-In?

Given these red flags, it’s hardly reassuring to read in the City’s document that the “Community Engagement Consultant” will operate to achieve “optimum buy-in” to the plan by “fully including community activation.” That activation comes through the City’s setting up a 10-person Climate Action Task Force, with members appointed by the Mayor and tasked with helping the City implement its Climate Action Plan, in coordination with Rincon’s management. But it’s unclear what input, if any, the Task Force will have to influence priorities, let alone think outside the green capitalist box, or whether what’s required is the rubber-stamping of the City’s already-formulated decarbonization goals.

As an initial attempt at community engagement, the City sent out a survey on social media asking respondents to select “4 topics” they would “like to know more about,” with possible choices including: “The Concept of Carbon Neutrality”; “Energy in Buildings and Infrastructure”; and “Circular and Regenerative Economies (Recycling and Reusing Products).” Meanwhile, “Transportation” notably excluded “public,” and “Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice,” and “Green Jobs and the Green Economy” were placed toward the bottom. The problem is not simply reducing community participation to a short survey, and restricting one’s choicse to four selections from a readymade list of categories, but also in presenting these “topics” as somehow distinct and unconnected to one another, rather than understanding them as inextricably tied together and therefore necessary to address through a comprehensive plan.

The City’s Climate and Energy Action Plan, in sum, is a far cry from its 2019 endorsement of the Green New Deal, particularly from the latter’s aspiration to “collaboratively and aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions” by joining those efforts to the needs of “frontline and vulnerable communities”—including those experiencing houselessness and precarity—that “are disproportionately affected by climate change, pollution, and environmental destruction.” Nor does the City’s current direction mention anything about its 2019 GND commitment to “ensure that future policy will help create high-quality union jobs which pay prevailing wages, hire local workers, hold training and advancement opportunities, and guarantee wage benefit parity for workers”—all of which seem antagonistic to Rincon’s and Hatch’s corporate interests.

A Santa Cruz Green New Deal Worth Fighting For!

In fact, the City’s hiring of Rincon signals a move to detach the City’s Climate Action Plan from real economic justice and social equity, and will likely only further the destructiveness and harm of its cruel eviction and anti-homeless policies visited upon the most vulnerable. Delinking decarbonization from social justice will leave us with a Climate Action Plan that amounts to more green capitalism and unsustainable growth. If it’s merely a matter of more solar panels and Tesla cars, recycling, ethical consumerism, individual responsibility, and private industry growth, the City’s plan will ultimately fail to win much “buy-in” from its diverse community, let alone to do much to address climate breakdown.

If the City, in its Request for Proposals, claims that its “plan and its vision will center around key community-driven principles,” then here is what we need:

  • A Green New Deal that is intersectionalist, joining decarbonization to social justice, environmental justice, anti-racism, and equity, where transportation justice entails housing justice and migrant justice, where green jobs are public sector union jobs, and where the most vulnerable have a seat at the table where climate solutions are agreed.
  • A People’s Climate Action Plan that is directed by a democratic and inclusive process, not stage-managed by a for-profit consulting corporation. This should also include the participation of members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, among the original inhabitants of this region, as a way to pursue the decolonization of Santa Cruz and the Indigenous-led environmental restoration of its lands.
  • A Santa Cruz GND that addresses people’s needs, not economic greed. As such it must reject fossil capitalism’s dedication to endless growth, exploitation, unrestrained extraction, policing and militarism, as the structural causes of the current climate crisis. In addition to reallocating police funding, this could begin with supporting a publicly-owned PG&E and collectivized neighborhood-based micro-grids, to oppose the privatization of energy and the accumulation of shareholder profits that lead to systematic dysfunction, rolling blackouts, and the failure to maintain infrastructure (meaning greater likelihood of catastrophic wildfires, for which PG&E has admitted guilt on numerous occasions in the recent past).
  • A Santa Cruz Climate Plan that responds to community demands specific to Santa Cruz—among the highest priorities being public transportation, affordable social housing (including rent control and rent cancellation), de-privatized energy, high-quality union jobs, diverse community care initiatives (such as Cahoots-style emergency response, educational initiatives, and California Medicare For All), and an end to gentrification by regulating real-estate speculation.
  • Finally, a Santa Cruz plan that confronts the City’s two biggest challenges: tourism and UC Santa Cruz growth. Both prioritize profits and expansion, and the special interests of developers and landlords, above sustainability, affordable housing, and community wellbeing. Clearly, like everywhere else, here too we face the ultimate contradiction of capitalism that’s behind climate breakdown in the first place: endless growth on a finite planet, and placing the profits of the few above the needs of the many. Any climate plan worthy of its name must address these challenges by foregrounding decarbonization and social justice, beginning with holding the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (and its owner, the Seaside Company), UCSC, and hotels responsible for their impacts.

Now that would be a Santa Cruz Green New Deal worth fighting for! 

If you’re part of an organization and would like to organize for local social and environmental justice, please get in touch! If you’d like to join our efforts, contact DSA Santa Cruz’s Ecosocialist Working Group!

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