Illinois Democrats are split on the Green New Deal. But they all want a piece of the pie when it comes to climate change.
Rep. Sean Casten is laser-focused on carbon emissions. Sen. Tammy Duckworth announced a new push for environmental justice. Sen. Dick Durbin embraced the Paris climate accord at a student climate change rally in Federal Plaza. Rep. Jan Schakowsky joined others at a recent Loop rally criticizing the Trump administration’s plan to slash the Environmental Protection Agency budget. Even Rep. Dan Lipinski, considered one of the most centrist Democrats in the House, is working on a bill that would impose a fee on the carbon content of fuels.
Three months after the Green New Deal was greeted with a mix of shrugs and cheers, laughs and resolve, Illinois Democrats are hastening to stake their claim on environmental issues. As climate change becomes more important to voters as a campaign issue, it’s clear Illinois politicians are paying attention, trying to find their climate niche and put their stamp on a proposal that blue state voters will support. A recent report from the Pew Research Center noted that 83 percent of Democrats (compared with 27 percent of Republicans) view climate change as a major threat to the country.
The Green New Deal has been lambasted by critics as an unrealistic example of liberal pie-in-the-sky dreams. But students at a climate change march last week embraced the proposal, with someone shouting “Green New Deal!” in the middle of Durbin’s short speech to attendees.
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Durbin acknowledged that climate change issues have become increasingly important at the national, regional and state levels, whether it is funding for Great Lakes restoration or carbon policy. And Illinois’ senior senator pointed out that in key Midwestern swing states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, residents care about and are paying attention to issues with environmental ramifications. A look at the electoral map for presidential elections shows that means candidates’ policies on climate may play a prominent role in the 2020 race for the White House.
“If you look at the Illinois delegation, and all of the representatives in the Midwest, especially the new members, there is strong support for climate change solutions,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “And in particular, the new members are energized and trying to get something done. They want to show that it’s not business as usual.”
‘CO2 trumps everything’
For Casten, the freshman representative from Downers Grove who rode criticism of President Donald Trump and his background as a clean-energy business owner to victory in the suburban swing 6th District in the midterms, placing climate issues front and center is of the utmost importance. While he thinks many elements of the Green New Deal oversimplify or do not adequately address critical scientific elements, Casten said it is a good way to jump-start the discussion about climate change.
“We have got to recognize that this problem is way more urgent than we have treated it to this point. And we are darned near out of time to deal with it, and our institutions are moving far too slow given that reality. The Green New Deal, to its great credit, has gotten people to understand that, or at least gotten closer to understanding that point,” Casten said.
The Green New Deal is a set of proposals designed to combat climate change. It aims to set the country on a course to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, foster policies that lead to clean air and water for residents and invest in clean, renewable technologies, businesses and energy sources. The package, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in the House and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts in the Senate, is a nonbinding resolution, meaning that even if Congress approves it, nothing becomes law. Reps. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Danny Davis, Mike Quigley and Schakowsky are the only Democrats in Illinois to sign on as co-sponsors in the House. Neither Durbin nor Duckworth has signed on in the Senate.
Casten said the devil will be in the details, and that any substantive change to the nation’s climate policy will be anchored in realistic ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and a dedicated focus on crafting proposals that will provide the energy markets with incentives to change.
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“Climate change is the greatest existential threat to our species. It is also an unequivocal economic opportunity. Replacing the need to extract and burn fossil fuels with renewable and clean energy saves money,” Casten said in a speech on the House floor last week in support of another climate bill. “This White House is failing to seize on this domestic opportunity, while simultaneously walking away from our international partners and competitors who are committed to this challenge.”
Yet Casten, a member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, is not necessarily running to the Green New Deal with open arms. On inauguration day in January, with Ocasio-Cortez drawing the attention of the nation and hordes of reporters, Casten cautioned against a fervor championed by the inexperienced or representatives who may not have a strong grasp of the details of climate policy. In an April interview, Casten said he believes the package of proposals and ideas does not do enough to focus on carbon emissions and that its broad sweep will divert attention away from that most pressing climate issue.
“CO2 trumps everything. There’s a whole host of other challenges we face: What we do with nuclear waste? What do we do with acid rain-forming compounds? What do we do with wealth inequality in this country? Those are all really, really important questions,” Casten said. “But as soon as we start trying to tie those issues in with CO2, it comes at the expense of treating CO2 with the urgency it deserves. And I think that the Green New Deal, to a significant degree, has gotten that point wrong.”
The key moving forward, Casten said, is to put an array of “legit experts” in the room to provide their expertise on a variety of economic, energy and environmental policies so that meaningful, long-lasting legislation can be crafted.
“It didn’t happen with the Green New Deal. It also didn’t happen with — it’s not happening right now in Congress. And so it’s personally frustrating for me because until that conversation starts, we can’t get to the point of having legislation that works,” Casten said.
During spring recess, several Illinois House Democrats made a point to attend an Earth Day rally in Federal Plaza protesting the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Casten, Schakowsky and Garcia joined members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, the union that represents EPA employees across the Midwest. The union says the Trump administration’s budget would cut funding for the EPA by 31 percent. Those reductions, said Nicole Cantello, the president of the AFGE Local 704, would mean that EPA scientists, including those here in Illinois, would stop working on climate change research and be directed to other work.
“It’s bizarre in the extreme,” Cantello said, that the Trump administration has positioned itself in such a way on climate issues.
While some politicians may criticize the Green New Deal as too broad in scope or out of touch with reality, Cantello said that at least its proposals are forward-thinking and concentrate on the urgent need to address climate change in a meaningful way, including respecting the work of scientists who are studying not only carbon emissions and greenhouse gases related to automobiles and power plants but the impact of more obscure areas such as the role of concrete production or the use of silicon on the environment.
The demonstrations are being organized by more than insiders and policy wonks. Durbin’s appearance before the high school student-led U.S. Youth Climate Strike showed politicians are also paying attention to the next generation of voters. The march and rally in the Loop was organized by Isabella Johnson, a junior at Benet Academy in Lisle. Johnson said it’s time for legislators to not only tune in to the concerns of teens but to find solutions.
“Our biggest demand is that we get something passed into legislation and that it gets us focused on the future,” said Johnson, 16, of Naperville. “When an issue is this important, you really just need to do it, no matter how you pay for it.”
Another component of the environmental movement, also addressed in the Green New Deal, is environmental justice and the idea that climate change unfairly affects people who live in poor and minority neighborhoods. Those communities tend to have more factories or power plants and residents there live closer to dirty air or contaminated water supplies. A section of the Green New Deal targets promoting justice and equity in communities of color, arguing that “climate change, pollution and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental and economic injustices.”
Duckworth’s creation of the Environmental Justice Caucus, which she co-chairs with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the many Democrats running for president and a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, will focus on that disparity.
“Every American has the right to breathe safe air, drink clean water and live on uncontaminated land regardless of their ZIP code, the color of their skin or how much money they have,” Duckworth said in a statement in response to questions from the Tribune. “But far too often that is not the case, especially for lower income communities and communities of color. There’s something wrong when black kids on the South and West sides of Chicago are eight times more likely to die from asthma than white children and when millions of children across this country are at risk of being poisoned by lead in places they are supposed to be safe, like at home or in school. This isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a matter of health and safety — of systemic racism and justice.”
A spokesman for Duckworth said the senator was concerned about racial disparities in the way environmental hazards are addressed, contrasting the handling and attention of emissions of ethylene oxide in Willowbrook with similar concerns in Waukegan. Many of the worst pollution issues in Chicago, Duckworth said, such as those in the neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southeast Side and majority-Hispanic areas of the city, disproportionately affect communities of color.
The concept of environmental justice is also in the spotlight at the state level. Activists last month held a small rally along the Chicago River downtown to criticize proposed legislation at the state level they say unfairly targets residents who demonstrate against polluters or the companies that may be planning the expansion of pipelines or projects that will negatively impact a neighborhood’s environment. The activists underscored the need to move toward clean energy sources, protect funding for the EPA at the federal and state levels and resist lobbying forces that are pushing lawmakers in Springfield to make it easier for corporations to expand infrastructure rooted in industries such as coal-fired power plants that contribute to climate change.
Chris Shuttlesworth, who lives in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, was one of the members of The People’s Lobby group speaking out against the inequities that people in less affluent, minority neighborhoods face. Shuttlesworth said he and his neighbors live with the constant foul smell from nearby landfills. He worries about contaminated groundwater and polluted air because of all the industry, large and small, in his community.
“We need more awareness,” Shuttlesworth said, “and less silence.”
Celeste Flores, with the Lake County branch of the Faith in Place group, also attended the rally to highlight how majority Latino communities in and near Waukegan experience increased levels of childhood asthma and polluted area than their counterparts in other parts of the county.
“It’s not criminal,” Flores said, “to fight for the right to breathe clean air and drink clean water.”