A Green New Deal for Rural and Suburban California

Poster credit: Tandem

By C.R. Mills Our goal should be to pursue strategies that both address climate change and do not place the burden of this fight on the backs of working people – strategies that address both poverty and the planet.

Californians cannot continue to sit by and watch their forests burn, their homes destroyed, and their communities abandoned due to climate change. If we want any hope of a stable way of life here, one where it’s possible to build relationships with our neighbors and continue to live here for generations, we must immediately begin a dramatic effort to reverse the impacts of climate change. 

Any path we choose has to recognize the income inequality in much of rural and suburban parts of the state. Second homeowners make picturesque areas unaffordable to anyone but the wealthy, yet they spend little time in these communities. An influx of residents freed to telecommute drive housing costs up even further, though through no fault of their own. Meanwhile, a global pandemic is hitting workers hardest in the food and service industries – major sources of income in these areas.

Our goal should be to pursue strategies that both address climate change and do not place the burden of this fight on the backs of working people – strategies that address both poverty and the planet.

In terms of addressing climate change, all strategies need to be transformative in a way that adequately addresses the threat we face. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that to prevent a 1.5°C rise in temperatures, which would result in catastrophic impacts to humanity, we must undergo an unprecedented transformation of every sector of the global economy over the next 10 years. This transformation begins now and with us.

In terms of addressing poverty, we can fight climate change while also helping to ensure we meet the basic needs of all citizens in an equitable way. A roadmap for doing so includes three important pillars:

  1. Redistribute Land to Create Farms, Open Space, Affordable Homes, and Energy

The way we use our land stands in the way of fighting climate change on many fronts. We import the vast majority of our factory-farmed food from other places instead of encouraging small-scale farms to grow it locally. We clear-cut trees that could be scrubbing the sky of carbon dioxide. We force people to commute longer and longer distances from their jobs because they can’t afford to live near them. And we buy fossil-fuel created energy from distant locations when we could be creating it in our own backyards.

To start putting land to the best public use, we should begin taxing second homes and high-value properties at significantly higher rates. The resulting funds would be directed to a public land acquisition fund, to be used to purchase land for a variety of uses, including:

  • keeping the land as open space and paying people to manage it in a way that reduces climate change.
  • Leasing the land at low or no cost to small-scale sustainable farmers, with agreements that a portion of the crops produced be provided free to local households.
  • to fund and produce small-scale solar or wind projects. 
  • to fund a produce affordable housing projects for local residents.

In addition to fighting climate change, this approach achieves two important goals. First, it redistributes wealth towards uses that would benefit everyone, including more healthy local food, better housing options, increased recreation opportunities, and cleaner air. Second, it provides a variety of jobs to local residents, including jobs farming, building housing or clean energy, or managing open space – jobs desperately needed right now in our rural and suburban regions.

  1. Locally Controlled Public Power for All

PG&E serves vast swaths of rural and suburban California, yet has proven time and again it is incapable of managing its infrastructure in a way that ensures the safety of all Californians. The state legislature and Governor have the power to put PG&E into public hands, which should be done immediately. 

Local regions should be allowed by the state to control their own energy systems, and rather than private profits made by PG&E being used to grow the wealth of its executives and shareholders, income could be reinvested in employee wages and benefits, lower rates to consumers, no or low-cost energy efficiency upgrades to homeowners and small businesses, building and buying clean power, and creating the electric car infrastructure necessary for rural residents to access clean transportation. Each local region should be required to achieve a 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2030.

Again, this approach fights climate change while redistributing wealth from PG&E and back to the people who need it most through more affordable energy, more efficient homes and businesses, and improved transportation infrastructure, all while providing a host of jobs to local residents. 

  1. Affordable Transportation for Cleaner Air 

Right now, state and local governments funnel enormous amounts of money towards expanding roads and building new ones. The people that benefit most from this massive public spending are private developers of mostly luxury housing. These developers can market large swaths of land for suburban development that were previously off-limits before taxpayers paid for upgrades and expansions to roads. The people that suffer the most are often poor who must live close to major roadways due to their affordability, then breathe in the often toxic air surrounding these roadways.

The public money currently enriching developers and harming poor communities could be redirected to dramatically expand funding towards public transportation and electric vehicles, both major fronts in the battle against climate change. 

For suburban areas, investments in existing railways could provide increased connectivity to city centers. Expanded bus service, including both commuter and local bus lines, could also help get more people out of their cars in both rural and suburban areas. 

For most rural residents, electric cars represent the only feasible clean transportation option right now, but remain financially out of reach or a logistical nightmare due to short ranges and limited charging stations. The money saved from road-building could finance a dramatic expansion of access to electric cars through giveaways and subsidies, as well as significant upgrades to electric charging station infrastructure in rural areas. Without these upgrades, electric cars will remain unusable for many.

Climate change can be addressed in rural and suburban California, but only with fast, dramatic actions. Fighting climate change can serve two purposes: it can save the planet and help end inequality. We have the tools and resources available. What we must do now is act. 

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