Reflections on the Climate Emergency Declaration

That the Portland City Council has voted unanimously (finally) for a climate emergency resolution is encouraging. The official recognition and declaration of our dire situation is a good place to start. But, will this turn into real action that achieves the stated goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050?

When reading the resolution it is hard not to think that it is based on the assumption that such goals can actually be accomplished without fundamental systemic changes. That somehow incremental tweaks to what are currently largely market-based approaches will lead us out of our predicament. For example, clause 19 of the resolution states:

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that Portland is calling on investor-owned utilities, Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp, to deliver 100% clean, renewable energy to all Portland residents and businesses no later than 2030, and to prioritize efforts to protect low-income customers”

For anyone who understands the necessity of making systemic changes to respond effectively to climate change, this should raise red flags. The market is very much a part of why we are in this mess. Time after time, when it comes to legislating climate policy at the state level, the for-profit utilities have consistently put their shareholders’ interest over the common good. They will resist and drag their feet when it comes to conversion to renewables and block efforts to create more resilient and sustainable community-based energy projects. Even when they implement renewable energy projects, they tend to be massive plants that they alone control for the purpose of increased profits. It leaves rate payers, who end up subsidizing these megaprojects, at their mercy.

So, instead of making “Oh, pretty please?” requests to for-profit utilities to act responsibly in the face of this emergency, an effective resolution with teeth would call for investor-owned energy utilities to be municipalized.

As far as the other investor-owned utility, NW Natural, they and their product should be abolished. In the US, 67% of our natural gas—mostly comprised of methane—is produced from fracking. Fracking is an environmentally disastrous process even before considering how much methane leakage there is during extraction and distribution. Since on 10-year timescales methane has approximately 80 times the global warming effect of CO2, it is just as bad for the climate as coal. A meaningful and effective emergency declaration would call for the rapid phaseout of its use.

The resolution can be applauded for speaking to job loss resulting from a transition to renewable energy, as well as addressing the problem of gentrification by way of an Anti-Displacement Action Plan. However, in both areas we will need fundamental systemic changes. By now we should recognize that job loss is inevitable under capitalism, especially as technology changes. A just emergency resolution would demand that all workers be guaranteed the ability to live in dignity via guaranteed universal basic income and through “reemployment” programs that create public sector jobs. That way, anyone losing their job in the private sector can still earn an income and contribute meaningfully to society.

Regarding displacement, a just emergency resolution would recognize the historic role of wealth and income disparity between Black and white Americans, and also that that disparity is result of the unfinished business of Reconstruction. Hence, the resolution would call for reparations and programs that put Black, Indigenous, and all marginalized communities on an economic footing equal to white people.

The problems of job loss and displacement ultimately must be addressed at the state and federal levels. Still, the City of Portland should resolve to implement whatever concrete measures it can to help implement the systemic changes required, while lobbying the state and federal governments to do the same.

In summary, an effective climate emergency declaration would explicitly recognize the systemic causes of our predicament and call for fundamental changes like those mentioned above, along with many others. The quote attributed to Albert Einstein comes to mind: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

About Wendy Emerson

I ride my bike. I roller skate. Don't drive no car.


The Fourth Demand

Tri Sanger’s Climate Emergency Declaration Testimony