In recent weeks, I and millions of others on the West Coast woke to an orange sky. Smoke from the first-, third- and fourth-largest wildfires in California’s history had blocked the blue light from reaching the Bay Area. Fires across the West have spread smoke as far as New York and Hawaii, forced hundreds of thousands from their homes and killed at least 27.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis continues unabated. More than 200,000 Americans have lost their lives, and about 14 million people are now unemployed. At least half of households in the United States’ four largest cities report that they are experiencing serious financial difficulties, and millions are at risk of eviction. Black, brown and Indigenous communities have been hit first and worst by each of these crises, magnifying longstanding racial injustice.
We need a road map out of these crises. It has to address all of these crises at once, because they’re all interconnected — our success in addressing one crisis depends on our progress in tackling another. It has to be intersectional, recognizing that many people are living through multiple crises. And it has to inaugurate a new model for how our government responds to crisis: that it takes care of all of us, instead of leaving the most marginalized behind.
The THRIVE (Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy) Agenda, a resolution introduced in Congress earlier this month, is the road map we need. It calls for stimulating the economy by putting millions of people back to work in jobs that will help us build a more just, healthy and sustainable society, with targeted investments in communities of color and working-class communities. And it would ensure that these jobs offer good wages and benefits and safe workplaces by supporting unionization, especially for marginalized workers.
THRIVE is backed by a movement of movements, including over 250 union, racial justice, environmental and other grassroots groups. More than 90 members of Congress and counting have formally cast their support for THRIVE as the economic renewal plan we need.
THRIVE would do more than solve the unemployment crisis by creating an estimated 16 million new jobs and effectively erasing our current jobs deficit. It would put people to work addressing our other crises. We do not have the luxury of tackling them separately. Nor do we have to. Under the THRIVE Agenda, we would create jobs for the millions of workers who currently face unemployment through tackling the climate crisis and other environmental injustices while counteracting systemic racism.
Meeting our climate goals requires us to transform our systems of energy, transportation, buildings, manufacturing and agriculture. We can put millions of people back to work building clean and affordable public transit, replacing lead pipes, retrofitting buildings to cut costs and pollution, protecting and restoring wetlands and forests, expanding manufacturing of clean energy technologies, growing food sustainably on family farms and undertaking the largest expansion of wind and solar power in history.
Many of the world’s leading economists agree that addressing these crises at once would be the most efficient way to dig ourselves out of the COVID-19 recession while reducing the risk of unimaginable climate chaos and slashing the toxic pollution that prevents many of us — particularly communities of color — from breathing clean air.
We would be better equipped to tackle today’s crises if we took seriously the centuries-old crisis of racial injustice. At the heart of our climate, health and economic disasters is the racist logic that it’s okay for some communities to breathe polluted air, go hungry and stare down hurricanes. Due to decades of economic and environmental racism, today Black, brown and Indigenous people are more likely to be unemployed, to live with toxic pollution and to die early from COVID-19. When climate disasters hit, they are often in the path of danger: Excessive heat, for example, is especially threatening to the people living in redlined communities that are on average 5 degrees hotter than the rest of the city.
Crises aren’t race-neutral, so our solutions can’t be either. The THRIVE Agenda embraces that reality. It calls for earmarking 40 percent of government investments for Black communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color — making sure they benefit from long-overdue investments in job creation, pollution reduction and climate resilience. These communities must not be left behind, as they were in the recovery from the 2008 recession and the original New Deal.
Climate change is bringing more disasters faster than ever before. The urgency is obvious for all of us, whether we are facing orange skies, hurricanes, toxic air or joblessness. It is imperative that we follow a new road map — one that puts millions of people back to work building a society that fosters justice, not crisis. We deserve to thrive.
Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club.
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