A person holds a red sign reading "climate justice"
A complete transformation of the country's energy systems is bound to create winners and losers — neither of which will be spread equally by race, class or region. Credit: Linh Do / Creative Commons

As momentum builds to decarbonize the nation’s economy by midcentury, Ohio groups are ramping up discussions to make sure neither urban nor rural communities are left behind in the transition.

A National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine report last month concluded that deep emissions cuts by 2050 are both feasible and economic, with the potential to create a million or more jobs. A complete transformation of the country’s energy systems, though, is bound to create winners and losers — neither of which will be spread equally by race, class or region.

That’s where the conversations by groups like Power a Clean Future Ohio, Policy Matters Ohio and others come into play. They’re working to make sure often-overlooked stakeholders get some priority as multitrillion-dollar climate and infrastructure packages take shape in Washington.

“Deep decarbonization is feasible and economic,” said Steve Pacala, an ecology professor at Princeton University and chair of the National Academies’ study committee. “Projected energy costs during the 2020s are less than the added health benefits just caused by the transition in the reduction of conventional fossil fuel pollutants. So you want to do this on economic, on cost grounds, even if you don’t care about climate.”

The report’s 30 near-term policy recommendations call for a White House Office of Equitable Energy Transitions and a National Transition Corporation to help coordinate funding and ensure equitable access to opportunities. Other recommendations include setting up educational and training programs and establishing a federal “green bank” to finance low- or zero-carbon technologies, businesses and infrastructure.

“In looking at the green bank funding, [the report] makes clear that there need to be equity indicators to assess how just transition efforts are being improved or not,” said Danielle Deane-Ryan, a member of the report committee and senior advisor to Libra Foundation, which is a social justice organization. Similarly, she said, the report’s call for a tripling of funding for the Department of Energy is not just for technology. “It’s for making sure that equity is built into the DNA of any decisions that are made, and that public participation is enhanced. We won’t get where we need to go without it.”

The week after the National Academies’ report came out, Power a Clean Future Ohio launched a new equity coaching program for city sustainability leaders. Applications are currently being accepted for the program, which will include four hours of equity coaching, along with a greenhouse gas inventory or fleet assessment, policy recommendations geared toward equity and affordability, and personal and professional development opportunities.

“The ultimate goal of this program is for the local government to implement new strategies and tactics to actively address systemic racism and inequities that will also create a more sustainable, healthier city,” said Joe Flarida, executive director of Power a Clean Future Ohio. To the extent possible, equity coaches will come from communities within the program.

Meanwhile, the Reimagine Appalachia coalition has called for redeveloping coal country in Ohio and neighboring states. Among other things, the group’s blueprint calls for a modernized electric and communications infrastructure, investments in clean energy and manufacturing geared toward a clean energy economy, and expanded conservation to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Central to those programs are calls for union wages and pathways to careers for people of color, women, and people reentering society after incarceration.

Addressing ongoing problems

“We’ve known for a long time that power plants and factories tend to be located in poor neighborhoods,” said Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio, which is part of the Reimagine Appalachia coalition. Pollution from the transportation sector also disproportionately affects low-income neighborhoods, she noted.

Due to historic redlining, discriminatory lending practices and other factors, those neighborhoods have disproportionately been communities of color. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color also generally bear a higher burden from energy poverty.

Increased exposure to pollution has increased health burdens for people of color. Racial and ethnic communities have been especially hard hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December. Asthma and health risks from excessive heat also are greater for disadvantaged communities, Woodrum said.

Beyond that, people of color have generally had fewer resources for education, partly as a result of lower property values from historic redlining and proximity to power plants or industrial areas. Fewer educational opportunities have in turn thwarted economic advancement while increasing poverty rates.

Read more: How energy issues and civil rights issues intersect

At the same time, large parts of Appalachian Ohio face an ongoing loss of jobs as the coal industry continues to decline.

“Ohio helped fuel the prosperity of the rest of the nation, while Ohio Appalachia itself has suffered with poverty, its land scarred and its workers exploited,” Woodrum said. And while the natural gas industry’s expansion over the last decade added some jobs in the region, many of those went to temporary workers from outside the state.

Seven eastern Ohio counties saw net job losses of about 8% between 2008 and 2019, according to a February 2021 report by the Ohio River Valley Institute. Those counties — Belmont, Carroll, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe and Noble — also had population decreases of roughly 5%, the report noted.

“It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the results would be better,” principal author Sean O’Leary said when the report came out. “If nothing else does, that fact alone should persuade the region’s policymakers that they need to explore other, more sustainable economic development opportunities.”

‘It’s about really listening’

Pacala, chair of the National Academies’ study committee, noted that many clean energy jobs will be created in regions outside areas that previously depended on the fossil fuel industry. Yet Woodrum and others want federal support for jobs in Appalachia itself.

“Appalachians love where they live, and they do not want to be relocated,” Woodrum said. Jobs also should be ones that people will want to do, she added. “What we’re talking about is blue-collar jobs that are good-paying [jobs] right in Appalachia and coal states.”

At the same time, she and others call for major infrastructure investment across the state, including urban areas that suffer from the legacy of systemic racism. “We would be putting a lot of people to work,” she said, noting that making sure the jobs are union jobs would help ensure good wages.

Woodrum suggested requiring union labor agreements and community workforce requirements for any projects over $100,000. Labor agreements also should require that set percentages of work hours go to apprentices, with half of those workers coming from low-income census tracts. Those steps would help reduce poverty by creating pathways to good-paying careers, she said.

Meanwhile, Power a Clean Future Ohio plans to soon launch a new program that will fund listening sessions for community groups led by people of color. The goal is to learn about people’s priorities for their community and for clean energy, so those priorities can then be incorporated into concrete plans for decarbonization.

Many climate action initiatives have only recently begun seeking input from marginalized groups, despite the fact that “people have been fighting for environmental justice for some time,” said Benjamin Preston during one of the National Academies’ online discussions about the February report. As head of the Rand Corporation’s Community Health and Environmental Policy Program, he noted that decarbonization presents not just a societal challenge, but an opportunity as well.

Flarida, of Power a Clean Future Ohio, sees the listening session initiative as one way to start getting meaningful input from groups that historically have been excluded from decision-making processes. “It’s about reaching out to communities of color across the state,” he said. “It’s about really listening and not telling.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.