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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.

Agustin Paullier/AFP/Getty Images

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 demandends 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.”

State governments account for 62 percent of prison and incarceration funding, whereas 84 percent of police funding is done by local governments according to the Urban Institute. Amid slowly easing coronavirus shutdown restrictions, sharply rising unemployment, and weak federal support, both state and local governments face budget gaps. Barring federal intervention, there will be brutal budget fights in the weeks and months to come. Police departments and prisons are more likely to be spared in the worst of such cuts, while already threadbare safety nets—now on full display in the pandemic—tend to get even thinner. It’s a miniature version of the politics that play out at the federal level, where there are seemingly unlimited funds available for new fighter jets, border enforcement, and military adventurism but talk of tight belts and austerity when it comes to improving people’s lives—the lives of black Americans, especially. The kinds of Humvees now roaming the streets of American cities to intimidate protesters have long been used to secure U.S. access to oil abroad; inflated budgets for policing, borders, and military are increasingly wielded to beat back climate refugees. As scholars including Stuart Schrader have pointed out, the line between foreign and domestic policy has never been as clear as many like to think. If xenophobic governments in Europe offer any indication, the lines between carceral and climate policy will only get fuzzier as temperatures rise.

A 2017 report by the Center for Popular Democracy, Black Youth Project 100, and Law for Black Lives found that spending in major U.S. cities on policing far outpaces that on vital services, with huge chunks of city budgets devoted to outfitting officers, as vital services starve: In the years surveyed, Minneapolis devoted 35.8 percent of its general fund expenditures toward policing. As they fuel systemic racism, massive police and prison budgets stymie attempts to build a more sustainable society. At the local level, especially, the types of climate policy that mayors and city councils have leverage over are also the investments campaigners in the movement for black lives have urged to make communities safer and stronger: affordable housing, rapid bus transit, and jobs programs. Budgets that revolve around criminalizing black communities, that is, are ill-suited for taking on the climate crisis. 

Following the lead of longtime climate and environmental justice organizers, advocates of a Green New Deal have acknowledged its need for targeted investment in the black and brown communities subject to environmental racism and chronic disinvestment. Toward that end, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era stimulus, which itself helped exacerbate some of those problems, needn’t be the only historical reference point for figuring out how to build a better world. Spearheaded by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the Freedom Budget, launched in 1966, outlined an ambitious program to eliminate poverty in the United States within 10 years through full employment, higher wages, health care, and a host of other measures intended to extend the gains of the civil rights movement toward broader economic justice. “It will mean more money in your pocket,” the plan’s authors wrote. “It will mean better schools for your children. It will mean better homes for you and your neighbors. It will mean clean air to breathe and comfortable cities to live in. It will mean adequate medical care when you are sick.

An ever-growing number of green groups have released statements expressing solidarity with protesters and denouncing police brutality, white supremacy, and the increasingly warlike rhetoric from the White House. With Democratic and Republican chief executives both likely to lurch toward austerity in the months and years to come, there’s plenty of common cause to be found in calls to defund the police and invest in a more generous, democratic, and green public sphere, well beyond the scope of what any carbon-pricing measure can accomplish. For green activists, that will mean seeing decarbonization less as a narrow battle for line items that incentivize renewables than as a contest to shape who and what society values in a climate-changed twenty-first century; many, including in the Sunrise Movement, are already making these connections. If black lives really do matter to climate advocates, defunding the police should, too.