Aligned Values Are Not Enough: Building Coalitions for Ambitious Climate Policy

New York State has shown how to build diverse grassroots coalitions—now, the nation must follow.

Photo by  Marcello Gennari .

On a train ride to New York City after a day of meetings with state legislators in Albany, I speak with Eddie Bautista, the Executive Director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. As the train winds along the Hudson River, he tells me that if we are to win bold climate change policy our organizing must be grounded in frontline communities and building relationships of trust from the grassroots-out. That is how we will build long-term sustained movement to achieve the social and economic transformation required for humanity to survive the climate crisis.

More difficult than passing ambitious climate policy will be implementing and enforcing that policy, and to do so will require robust, tightly woven networks of grassroots activists, from every part of society. In the face of enormous, ongoing resistance by industries and politicians invested in bringing about climate chaos, integrating climate justice into rigid power structures and overcoming institutional inertia requires building political power. Building that political power rests on robust coalitions and alliances, and the strength of our relationships.

We can look to grassroots climate movements across the country for lessons on how to build coalitions and networks that can activate in moments of political opening. One unfolding story can be found in the fight for the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA) in New York State, and “Like any good story,” Bautista says, “It begins with a road trip.”

In the aftermath of the People’s Climate March that drew over 400,000 people to New York City in 2014, and in the wake of nearly two years of post-Hurricane Sandy community organizing, local groups took the political moment as an opportunity to build a coherent climate policy agenda. In 2015 a few leaders including Bautista set forth on a road show across the state, holding meetings and conversations with diverse groups. Conversations evolved into regional convenings. Regional convenings became state-wide calls. And from a bottom-up relationship-building process, the New York Renews coalition was born.

The organizations invested in building the coalition came to agreement on points of unity, then went through the tedious task of designing a statewide climate policy agenda by committee. Today NY Renews is a network of over 170 organizations representing a vast breadth of interests and sectors across the state, of which Bautista’s organization and my organization (Dēmos) are members. After years of rigorous policy development, organizing, and lobbying efforts, victory feels near. This year, New York State is on the verge of passing a central piece of the platform the coalition developed, the Climate and Community Protection Act.

The CCPA would be the boldest climate policy passed by any state. This bill would set New York on a path to 100% renewable energy economy-wide and direct 40% of energy investments to communities on the front lines of pollution and climate impacts. New York has arrived at this crossroads as a result of the power that the NY Renews coalition has built over several years.

The force driving the movement for climate justice in the state comes from years of organizing across movement sectors and piloting climate policy solutions at the grassroots level. Along with NY Renews, several other grassroots coalitions have built momentum around climate policy that has won passage of one of the most aggressive municipal emissions reductions policies in the country, the Climate Mobilization Act in New York City, and the recent halting of the Williams Pipeline project. Groups in New York who have built movement infrastructure are taking advantage of shifts in the political debate as the world comes face-to-face with climate breakdown, and they are winning.

Today, the NY Renews coalition includes environmental groups, racial justice groups, labor, faith-based groups, and many others working together for a policy vision of reducing emissions and harmful pollution, and protecting communities on the front lines of climate change. Groups fighting for racial justice and economic development like PUSH Buffalo and Make the Road NY and labor unions like SEIU 32BJ are all pushing for the CCPA.

Central to the day-to-day operations of the NY Renews coalition are the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing. The Jemez Principles were developed in 1996 by a group of environmental justice and environmental health advocates meeting in Jemez, New Mexico. They lay out guidelines for engaging across diverse communities, with attention to building trust and transformative relationships. These principles, championed by environmental justice leaders, helped to structure the organizing around the People’s Climate March and eventually the NY Renews Coalition.

In practice, they have meant that the coalition operates by consensus. In particular, groups that are most affected by pollution and climate impacts are empowered to speak for themselves and to drive the agenda. This has resulted in policy design that centers equityin the CCPA, over 40% of state energy investments would be directed to disadvantaged communities, all jobs created by the state to help achieve emissions reductions targets must adhere to strong labor standards, and a multi-stakeholder Climate Justice Working Group would help oversee the implementation of key elements of the bill.

The long work of building relationships, getting the processes right, and establishing the ecosystems needed to mobilize research capacity, lobbying efforts, and organizing of ordinary citizens to show up for climate policy fights has taken years, but it has enabled the coalition to spring into action in a moment of acute political opportunity.

After three years of the CCPA passing in the New York State Assembly, but being blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate, in 2018, New York Democrats took back control of the Senate, and now the leaders of both houses have expressed commitment to legislating climate action in 2019. With three weeks left in the legislative session (as of this writing), the coalition is springing into action to get the legislature and Governor Cuomo to support the strongest version of the bill possible.

“This moment invites ambition rather than talking about what is politically possible,” Bautista says. “The climate change policy debate has shifted in New York State. Rather than fighting for a seat at the table, we are setting the table. The frame of New York policy is the frame we have been advancing for years.”

While local organizing contexts across the country certainly differ in resources, organizational infrastructure, and political landscape, New York may portend the battle being drawn at the national level. Much like the People’s Climate March for New York in 2014, the Green New Deal has created an opening at the national level that may come and go. What we do with it is what matters.

The Green New Deal has created a re-orienting political opportunity because, maybe for the first time, the American public can imagine a positive vision of the future in the face of climate catastrophe. The path ahead for federal climate policy solutions could be transformative, but, beyond passing such policy, implementation will require sustained power and pressure from the grassroots.

Eight months ago, few Americans had ever heard of a Green New Deal. In the months ahead, if the Green New Deal continues to rise as a core national policy framework for addressing the climate crisis, the Overton window may move to make room for even bolder visions of survival in the face of climate crisis. Two years from now, we could be talking about managed decline of the fossil fuel industry, publicly-owned utility-scale renewable energy, and investment in regenerative land management and cooperative economic infrastructure. Past the Green New Deal, a vision of stewardship, regeneration, and economic solidarity could emerge and gain a foothold in the political imagination.

However transformative the potential of a Green New Deal could be, passing policies and enacting the social and economic transformation required will not happen without sustained political power strong enough to contend with the inertia of industry and governments. Doing so will require building more coalitions and doing more mass organizing than we have witnessed in a generation at a national level. Advocates, scientists, and activists must be organized enough to apply consistent and increasing pressure on politicians, against the power of industries that will fight every effort to decarbonize the economy. This will require the difficult work of good old-fashioned organizing, rooted in building and strengthening relationships across movements. We need today a generational power-building strategy for our survival.

This kind of organizing has been seeded in long-term grassroots power-building that has been happening in communities for decades. We can witness it advancing at the local level in places like New York and other states. In the end, a national mobilization for a Green New Deal may look like truly intersectional coalitions of racial justice organizations, labor, environmental groups, and more. It may be national and international, eco-socialist, pro-poor, pro-worker, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and it must be all these things to win. But it starts with building relationships across movements today.

New political alignments that emerge in this moment must be grounded in relationships that build power in just ways—abiding by guidelines like the Jemez principles for Democratic Organizing. Advocates and movement leaders will need to get the processes right to build trust across movements, with particular attention to supporting communities at the frontlines of pollution and the climate crisis.

“We are at a critical moment,” Bautista says. “If we blow this, we may miss the best chance we have. The first federal response to climate change was market-based mechanisms like cap-and-trade ten years ago. If we don’t take hold of this moment now, we can’t wait another ten years.”

If we are to win, we have to think past the Green New Deal. We have to build relationships rooted in trust across sectors that have been organizing on issues as diverse as housing justice, economic development, racial justice, sustainable agriculture, and of course climate justice. This is where true grassroots power lies. In the end, the individual policy wins will not be the victory. The victory is the movement we build.

Adrien Salazar is a Campaign Strategist with Dēmos and one of the 2019 Grist 50 Fixers. A self-described warrior, prophet, and poet, you can follow him on Twitter @adrien4ej.

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