Urge to Be Heard

Defunding the Police Is Good Climate Policy

Budgets are about to get tight. States and cities should direct money to programs that truly make communities more secure.

Kate Aronoff / June 4, 2020/ The New Republic

Late Thursday, California’s Air Resources Board announced the results of the most recent auction of carbon allowances from its cap-and-trade program. It was the first such auction since the coronavirus landed fully on American shores. It brought in just $25 million worth of revenue, down from the more standard $618 million made in the prior auction held in February.

As the state faces a pandemic-driven budget crisis, the programs that cap-and-trade revenue funds— including climate and environmental justice programs, investing in jobs and climate mitigation in black and brown communities—could now be at risk. There were bigger stories over the weekend, of course: namely, a nationwide uprising against police violence sparked by the killing of another unarmed black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd. As more and more videos emerge of violent, chaotic police responses to largely peaceful demonstrators, more people are joining calls from black organizers for governments to defund police departments, reallocating budgets toward the types of things that promote genuine physical, economic, and other forms of security in communities of color.

Climate experts and campaigners—especially those dismayed by California’s lackluster carbon auction results— would do well to listen. Allowances in California’s carbon-pricing system, which are a centerpiece of the state’s cap-and trade law, correspond to the “cap” on the amount of pollution the state’s largest emitters can put into the air overall. They’re each awarded a number of allowances for how much they can pollute. In theory, if one company pollutes less, it can trade its leftover allowances with another company looking to offset its extra pollution. The idea is to make it more expensive for polluters to pollute and encourage them to make investments in low-carbon fuels, thus lessening their need for credits meant to grow more scarce over time. The revenue generated from these credits’ sale is a key resource for the state’s climate and environmental justice priorities. The revenue flows to a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund distributed to various state agencies, whose investment priorities are set by the state legislature.

Thanks to a successful push from California’s climate and environmental justice groups, 35 percent of auction revenue is now dedicated toward broadly defined investments in “disadvantaged communities.” But many of the groups who fought for these funds say that the presence of the cap-and-trade revenue has been used as a cudgel against the push for additional funding. In addition, tracking how allocated money is actually spent can be difficult. Organizations including the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment opposed the program’s extension in 2017, observing that its copious allowances for polluters, exclusion of California’s massive agricultural sector, and dubious use of offset credits—which allow big emitters to pay to reduce emissions elsewhere— do little to reduce either greenhouse gas emissions overall or the local health impacts from refineries and power plants that are frequently and inordinately sited in black and brown communities.

Also worth noting is the fact that the extension that was eventually passed strongly resembled the one pushed for by the region’s oil and gas lobby, the Western States Petroleum Association, over a more progressive and stringent alternative that would have curbed allowances and offsets alike. “Polluter pays” is a mechanism well-loved by climate wonks, and in some ways a logical one: Since state and local governments lack the ability to deficit spend, revenues have to come from somewhere: Why not saddle the people who created environmental problems with the cost of remedying them?

But this also ties the future of critical climate programs to the fate of an industry that should be wound down as quickly as possible. Revenue collapsed dramatically in the most recent Western Climate Initiative auction in part because there was less oil being used; progress toward a central goal of climate mitigation, then—reducing fossil fuel demand—ends up draining climate programs’funding. Even the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, both historically bullish on California’s carbon-pricing regime, admitted after the most recent auction that a more steady source of income would be needed to keep climate programs afloat in the long term. But finding funding isn’t about to get easier, even in the places ostensibly committed to climate action.

California Governor Gavin Newsom is already proposing to scale back the state’s spending by a whopping $5.6 billion to reckon with its $54 billion deficit. Environmental programs—for electric vehicles, new oil and gas regulations, wildlife protection, and more—are on the chopping block, as is funding for K–12 schools and the University of California system, in-home assistance for seniors and the disabled, and low-income housing. Those are just a few of the areas that could face deep cuts in the coming months.

Cuts are coming at the city level, too. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a Fiscal Year 2020–2021 budget last week that scales back several services from last year’s budget, and would see city workers furloughed. One line item, though, got slated for a $120 million boost: the Los Angeles Police Department, whose total budget will balloon to $1.86 billion. A coalition led by Black Lives Matter-LA, after months of consultation with thousands of Angelenos, proposed a People’s Budget for the city, focusing on a framework they call #CareNotCops, allocating just 5.72 percent of unrestricted funds to law enforcement and policing, as opposed to Garcetti’s 53.8 percent.

Ongoing pressure appears to be having an impact: On Wednesday, the mayor announced he wouldn’t authorize an increase in the LAPD’s budget after all and would move to reallocate $250 million to black communities to address health and education issues, albeit offering few specifics. Similar demands have taken root around the country. Organizers with the Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis have called on the city’s mayor, Jacob Frey, to cut $45 million from the police budget and expand “community-led health and safety strategies.”

As The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant explained over the weekend, the coalition Durham Beyond Policing, last year, won its campaign for the North Carolina city to invest in “life-affirming services, not an unjustified expansion of the police force.” And the Movement for Black Lives has long pushed an “Invest-Divest” policy platform demanding “investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.”