Workers, Look Out: Here Comes California’s Phony Green New Deal

By Ted Franklin

California politicians never tire of touting the state’s leadership on climate issues. But how much of it is bullshit, to borrow the Anglo-Saxon technical term recently popularized by former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr?

Some East Bay and San Francisco DSAers got very interested when we learned that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was holding a one-day hearing on a 228-page draft master plan for California’s transition to a green future. The 2022 Scoping Plan Update, to be adopted later this year, aims to be the state’s key reference document to guide legislators and administrations in remaking the California economy over the next two decades. We turned on our bullshit detectors and prepared for the worst. CARB did not disappoint.

The state is currently committed to two major climate goals: (1) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and (2) to achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2045. These are hardly adequate goals in the eyes of science-based climate activists, but California officialdom is taking them seriously, at least seriously enough to commission a state agency to map out a master plan to reach them.

And there’s the rub.  Charged with the outsized responsibility of devising a roadmap to a Green California, CARB’s staff came up with a technocratic vision that caters to the powerful, seems designed to fail, and pays virtually no attention to workers whose world will be turned upside down by “rapid, far- reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” required to limit global overheating to 1.5ºC.  Despite copious lip service to environmental justice, CARB’s draft also ignores the critiques and questions put forward by CARB’s own Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC), assembled to give CARB input and feedback as the state’s master plan takes shape.

“The state’s 20-year climate policy blueprint is a huge step backward for California,” commented Martha Dina Arguello, EJAC’s co-chair and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “The plan on the table is grossly out of touch with the lived reality of communities that experience suffocating pollution and doubles down on fossil fuels at a time when California needs real climate solutions.” 

The idea that an air quality regulatory agency like CARB could come up with a viable plan for a societal transformation on the scale of the Industrial Revolution is absurd on its face. To do this without extensive involvement of labor would seem to doom the project entirely. Yet CARB plowed ahead without any significant input from labor. Result: the only union mentioned in CARB’s draft plan is the European Union.

We searched the draft plan in vain to see if it addressed any of the key questions from labor’s point of view:

What is the green future for California’s workers? How shall we provide for workers and communities that depend on the fossil fuel economy as major industries are phased out?  What would a green economy look like, what are green jobs, how can we create enough good green jobs to meet demand, and what public investments will be required?

Instead of answering questions like these, CARB’s draft plan promotes a bevy of false solutions to reach California’s already inadequate targets. CARB’s depends on the state’s problematic cap-and-trade carbon trading scheme as well as carbon capture and storage (the favored scam of the oil industry) and hydrogen (the favored scam of the gas industry). The draft gives the nod to 33 new large or 100 new peaker gas-fired power plants. Missing: cutting petroleum refining, oil extraction, and fracking; banning new fossil fuel infrastructure; degrowing military and police budgets; and committing more resources to education, mass transit, healthcare, and housing. Instead of proposing an economy of care and repair to replace the old fossil fuel economy, CARB offers electric cars and more pipelines.

Far from providing a roadmap to a green future, CARB has come up with California capitalism’s most ambitious response yet to the radical ecosocialist Green New Deal that the world needs — and we are fighting for.

We wrote CARB a letter

As the date for the hearing on CARB’s draft plan approached, we considered how best to intervene. Environmental justice groups had already done an enormous amount of work to debunk the false solutions and were well-prepared to take on the fossil fuel industry at the hearing. But, as rank-and-file trade unionists, we realized that labor was barely involved and had become, at most, an afterthought in CARB’s calculations. This could not stand. 

At the 11th hour before the hearing, we drafted a letter calling on CARB to revise the draft scoping plan to incorporate the California Climate Jobs Plan, a broad labor-oriented vision of the transition to a green economy. Endorsed by over 20 unions, the Jobs Plan is based on an excellent 174-page report prepared by a team of economists led by Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

Within a mere 30 hours, 138 rank-and-file trade unionists had signed on and we filed the letter along with the Pollin report.

Our letter called on CARB to adopt key points of the California Climate Jobs Plan:

  1. Invest $76 billion per year in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in California through 2030, generating an average of 418,000 jobs per year, including well-paying jobs in construction, public transportation, engineering, production, and office support.
  2. Invest $62 billion per year in manufacturing, critical infrastructure upgrades, land restoration, and regenerative agriculture, creating an additional 626,000 jobs per year.
  3. Budget $470 million per year to provide a comprehensive transition package for the 112,000 California workers employed in fossil fuel-based industries including pension-guarantees, health care coverage, re-employment guarantees, wage subsidies to cover income losses, as well as retraining and relocation support.
  4. Create another 96,000 jobs per year in the public sector by adding workers in education, public health, social services, and other activities that fit within the broad definition of a green economy.

Implementing the entire California Climate Jobs Plan would cost a small fraction of California’s GDP, create a million new jobs each year, and protect workers and communities from haphazard and devastating losses as the fossil era comes to an end. For radical Green New Dealers, the California Climate Jobs Plan provides the rudiments of a working-class alternative to the capitalist climate management plan.

Our letter was the only major contribution from a labor group, other than the State Building and Construction Trades Council comment letter which echoed the fossil fuel industry’s promotion of carbon capture and storage. The State Building Trades participate in the California Carbon Capture Coalition, a formal alliance of the California Business Roundtable with the fossil fuel industry, including Western States Petroleum Association, Calpine, Chevron, and SoCalGas, to hype CCS and lobby the state to direct a major portion of its green initiatives budget to unproven, industry-touted technologies.

But wait, there’s more!

By itself, the California Climate Jobs Plan is just a start. California’s plan needs to be supplemented with the best thinking of California’s environmental justice community. CARB received nearly 1,000 comments, most of them pleading with CARB to take much stricter measures to rein in carbon emissions. Many comments from environmental justice groups, their members, and allies reflected years of political and scientific engagement with the issues.

Among the groups that submitted detailed and well-supported critiques of the draft were California Environmental Justice Alliance (here and here), Center for Biological Diversity, 350 Bay Area, Environmental Defense Fund, Stop Oak Expansion Coalition, The Center for Progressive Reform, Community Environmental Council, North Coast Environmental GroupsCalifornians for Pesticide Reform, Biofuelwatch, Sierra Club & Earthjustice. Ad hoc groups of 128 California Academics and 300 Health Professionals and Organizations also weighed in.

Some letters attracted endorsements from a broad spectrum of organizations. Food & Water Watch, Indigenous Environmental Network, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, and Center for Biological Diversity collaborated on a group letter signed by 163 organizations. California Environmental Justice Alliance, Sierra Club, and Earthjustice submitted another group letter signed by 108 organizations calling for “A Just and Ambitious 2022 Scoping Plan.” Another group of 68 Organizations called for more ambitious organic farming and pesticide reduction targets.

Many of the comments pointed out that the 2045 goal for “carbon neutrality” facilitates delay and obfuscation. A now familiar tactic of climate fakery is to establish distant and hazily defined “net zero” goals rather than deal with the present and require cuts in fossil fuel production. Many of the comments complained of the flimflammery around CCS and Direct Air Capture and denounced the draft plan’s dependence on these experimental technologies to meet the 2045 deadline.

A frequent theme of the comments was, as one letter put it, that California’s current climate policies “reflect the power of polluting industries and their attempts to greenwash technological and market-based solutions that are a smokescreen” and the draft plan “fails to slash emissions at the pace or scale that climate science requires and does little to protect communities on the frontlines of fossil pollution.”

The hearing explodes

On the day of the hearing, Sacramento broiled at 100.0 °F. Climate and environmental justice advocates arrived from around the state, including busloads of activists from the Bay Area’s Youth v Apocalypse, 350 Bay Area, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Extinction Rebellion, and Direct Action Everywhere.

After hours of staff presentations and speechifying by California EPA chief Jared Blumenfeld and other members of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s cabinet, CARB turned over the podium to the Board’s Environmental Justice Advisory Committee. EJAC delivered a stunning point-by-point dissection of CARB’s draft plan and proposed a “Real Zero” alternative.

CARB critics held a spirited rally over the lunch break and returned to the meeting room eager to participate in the public comment period.  Although scores of them had filled out speaker’s cards when they arrived early in the morning, the public comment led off with one speaker after another pushing industry narratives that the CARB plan was not inadequate, but actually too aggressive.

In an ironic twist, the National Diversity Coalition behaved like an astroturf organization putting many people of color on record as opposed to the state’s taking any steps to deal with carbon emissions on grounds such actions would allegedly harm minority communities and businesses.

With buses scheduled to return the Bay Area and others needing to make flights or begin long roadtrips to more distant locations, many activists who signed up to speak had to leave, but not before staging a vigorous singing and chanting demonstration demanding climate justice “now.”

After a break, public comment resumed. Activist Ira Eisenstadt explained that the people who demonstrated had done “absolutely everything right” to get on the agenda, but somehow the first 100 speakers were heavily tilted towards speakers fronting for the fossil fuel industry.

“There is absolutely no way that so many people from industry got here before they did,” he said, pointing out what was obvious to all.

Where do we go from here?

It is all but certain that Gov. Newsom will get his climate blueprint whacked out by CARB this year. The degree to which it will reflect the demands of labor, climate, and environmental justice activists will depend in part on the degree to which we organize outside of Sacramento. The unions that signed on to the California Climate Jobs Plan, the California Green New Deal Coalition, and socialist organizations such as DSA did not submit comments to CARB but could still play a critical role in shaping the outcome.

Thanks to the effort of a few rank-and-file unionists, not only our letter but the entire Pollin report became part of CARB’s record. As CARB staff finalizes what the California Green New Deal, bourgeois edition, looks like, we can point board members to our submission so they can see the breadth and depth of labor issues the draft scoping plan failed to address.

For those seeking a deeper look at California’s leadership role in greenwashing, Biofuelwatch has prepared a must-read report that exposes the intricate workings of California’s policy-making apparatus and the role California could play in exporting its model of capitalist climate greenwashing to other state and national jurisdictions. The report shows how CARB’s scoping plans fit into a “multi-pronged policy assault launched at both the legislative and regulatory agency levels whose ultimate objective is to protect the business interests of extractive industry under the façade of responding to the climate crisis.”

A powerful coalition of labor, climate, and environmental justice forces will be needed to fight back.


Ted Franklin is a member of the National Writers Union and co-author of DSA’s Green New Deal Principles. He works on building connections between the labor and climate and environmental justice movements and is on the editorial board of System Change Not Climate Change. Martha Hawthorne (SFDSA) and Bonnie Lockhart (EBDSA) collaborated extensively in the outreach to union members.

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