Multistate decarbonization compact offers window for ecosocialist activism

MDC DSA ecosocialists, organized and otherwise, have been working on many fronts to improve public knowledge about climate change and sharpen collective responses in the public and private spheres as well as at the individual, behavioral level. A recent Socialist Night School session on Ecosocialism laid out the landscape of activism as well as the daunting forces (including the decades-long propaganda campaigns of the fossil fuel industry and property capital in general) arrayed against those efforts.

Environmental activism by MDC DSA has more broadly been hampered by the different jurisdictions in the DMV and the need to focus on and amplify or oppose local government actions as they come up. But a singular, multi-state public initiative announced recently with relatively little notice could allow MDC DSA to engage in cross-jurisdictional ecosocialist work at a much higher and more effective level. As the struggle for a functional Green New Deal plays out in Congress, the dual initiative – committing the Atlantic seaboard states to serious decarbonization of electric power sources and local transportation – should provide an existing, exemplary framework for it.

In mid-December Virginia, Maryland and D.C. were among nine northeastern and mid-Atlantic states (and one colony) announcing that they would couple their current collaboration in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (or RGGI, to decarbonize electric utility sources) with a new initiative to tackle the biggest source of local carbon emissions of all, transportation. The Transportation & Climate Initiative explicitly joined a planned transportation decarbonization effort with the work of the RGGI coalition, which has been using a cap-and-trade system to ratchet down the fossil-fuel sources of electric power in states from Vermont to (recently joined-up) Virginia.

MDC DSA ecosocialists – as socialists – can’t fail to recognize that such a comprehensive government-inclusive approach has huge opportunities for real intervention by climate activists and that the very public nature of the state governments makes the effort open to demands for transparency, public input and informational openness.

Electric power, at 25 percent of total carbon emissions in this wide-ranging coalition, is well exceeded by transportation emissions at 37 percent of the total. Public power is in most of the RGGI domain actually a regulated but corporate-owned activity (for our neighborhood, can you spell Exelon?). Nevertheless, much of the transportation sphere is publicly owned and managed, such as Metrorail and its collateral bus network, already encompassing our DMV stomping grounds. The road network, as well, is built and maintained by different levels of federal, state and local governments. Opportunities for the public to reclaim a greater degree of control over electric power provision as well, especially through reducing elite political influence in state public service commissions, should offer themselves and should be pursued.

The political elites in the compact’s states no doubt see this new compact as a crowd-pleasing but merely aspirational, feelgood move. It is up to environmental activists and progressives with their eyes on environmentally-linked workforce opportunities to apply consistent pressure as the actual plan evolves.

The TCI’s research locale is at Georgetown University Law School’s Climate Center, another convenience for MDC DSA engagement and intervention in this developing plan and program. The TCI plan for this major initiative is (perhaps optimistically) due to be completed at the end of 2019. A good deal of stakeholder input has already been gathered in six “listening sessions,” including a final one in August 2018 at the University of Maryland University College branch center in Largo, Md., attended by reps from something short of 300 public, private and nonprofit groups from as far away as Quebec. The Largo event, with a list of mostly plain-vanilla attending organizations that made it appear to be Junket City, nevertheless wrapped up with an impressive list of asks that could significantly increase public control and coordination across all these sources of carbon.

Whether the many jurisdictions, of different levels of affluence and political will, can put that into effect may in part rest on the ability of socialists and other progressives to make sure that the effort always trends public, rather than private.

What are the opportunities and pitfalls? For pitfalls, start with the fact that these are state governments, clogged with interagency bureaucracy. Few state governments are actually built to cleanly engage with the imperatives of climate change and the actual if not so-named socialism that the response will require. But the opportunity is also that these are state governments, with a grudging bias toward public input and responsiveness to public-sphere activism. The federal government, because of its well-designed distance from an organized electorate, has grown a very tough skin in this regard. With states, early intervention by a mass-based coalition can matter – as demonstrated in the recent victory keeping a FERC-approved pipeline from going through Maryland and under the Potomac.

Here’s an additional opportunity – this is a regional compact, so it is contiguous jurisdictions. Pricing carbon, which has to be at the heart of all this movement, will be a lot easier if the states involved don’t have to look over their shoulders at their neighbor states and wonder who will be first to race to the bottom to attract business. I’m not suggesting that this won’t be a psychological problem for these state-level politicians, but it is an advantage that can be pursued and emphasized by citizen action.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative has been on the books and in full swing since 2005, and although it is a cap-and-trade program with all the drawbacks of that model, it has been an engine for regional cooperation on a climate issue for over a dozen years. Most of the states in RGGI are at the core of the group that will now take on the decarbonization of transportation. They have the rhythm and the moves needed to talk productively, right away, about the transportation sector, the largest emitter – without having to re-invent the wheel. This is an advantage that public-sphere ecosocialists should recognize and use to keep the pressure on as the transportation policy array is developed in parallel with RGGI.

And RGGI itself has been hobbled by the dominance of Exelon and other corporate-dominant grid predators. A new study by the Abell Foundation in Baltimore found that a 1999 measure allowing third-party providers to participate in home electrical markets – after a positive start – turned into a casino of misrepresentation that cost ratepayers, especially low-income families, far more than they would have paid to the main grid providers. The carnival of capitalism brought now-exposed exploitation that offers an opening to lobby for the re-regulation of power provision pushing in the direction of public ownership.

The science on a conversion master plan to reduce, then eliminate carbon in this regional arrangement is strong, well-designed and available to us as activists. Early intervention is important so that critical, and quite feasible, policies don’t get dismissed as politically unrealistic before the real plan is formulated. Everything has to stay on the table as long as possible as the process plays out. That’s our job and the job of the coalition of which we, as socialists in a socialist organization, must be a driver.

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