By Ted Cox | One Illinois
The Clean Energy Jobs Act got pushed to the back burner with the abbreviated spring session of the General Assembly last week. The irony there is that it might be even more critical now with the need to revive the economy in the coronavirus pandemic.
Calling it a “robust plan to bring jobs and revitalization” to communities statewide, state Rep. Ann Williams, lead sponsor of CEJA in the House, said, “It really fits in with our goals for the COVID recovery.”
One of the primary goals of CEJA is to revive communities devastated by fossil fuels. It’s not lost on Williams that the entire state has been devastated by the economic collapse brought on by the pandemic. On that note, CEJA can benefit all Illinoisans, not just targeted areas, although it’s no coincidence that the communities that have been most harmed by both the pandemic and climate change tend to overlap.
“The bill was designed to address the impact of climate change and create jobs in the most impacted communities,” Williams said Friday in a phone interview. “We are unfortunately seeing that play out significantly with the pandemic. The communities that have traditionally been adversely affected by pollutants are also the communities that are being hit hardest with the pandemic.”
One might think first of minority communities in Lake County or the largely Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago, but Williams points out mining communities and towns left bereft by the shutdown of coal energy plants downstate have also been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic as well.
The people impacted by those problems are oftentimes more quick to recognize them than politicians, and that’s borne out by a poll released Thursday by the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition and conducted by the Global Strategy Group. The poll, taken this month, found that 82 percent of Illinois voters support CEJA. Such an overwhelming majority naturally extended across the state.
A poll conducted from May 18-20th found that 82% of those contacted supported the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The poll also found that 55% of respondents were more likely to support a state legislator who votes for CEJA.
— Rep. Ann Williams (@RepAnnWilliams) May 29, 2020
As a news release reported: “Strong majorities support CEJA across party, regional, and race divides, winning near total support from Democrats (98 percent) and Independents (84 percent) — even nearly six in 10 Republicans (58 percent) support CEJA at the outset. CEJA gains support of more than seven in 10 voters in every region, peaking at 93 percent support in the city of Chicago, 85 percent in suburban Cook County, 80 percent in the collar counties, 71 percent in northern and central Illinois, and 76percent support in southern Illinois. CEJA is also supported by 79 percent of white voters, 89 percent of African-American voters, and 90 percent of voters who identify as Hispanic. In addition, 85 percent of labor households support the bill.”
Williams said support is strong in her North Side Chicago district, as one might expect, “but I was pleasantly surprised to see this continued throughout the state and in areas that are not traditionally thought of as environmentally forward.”
Although Gov. Pritzker too has come out in favor of CEJA, Williams pointedly added, “I wish the poll translated directly to the popularity of the issue with my colleagues” in the General Assembly.
But that may be changing as more people recognize that the solutions to climate change and the pandemic are similar, because their causes are similar.
Pointing out the World Health Organization had warned, long before the pandemic, about the interconnected relationship between climate change and infectious diseases — stemming from urbanization, deforestation, and increased precipitation, to name just three manifestations — Williams cited “the relationship between the health of the planet and the health of the population,” adding, “Clearly, it’s linked. It’s absolutely linked.”
Many experts have drawn parallels between the pandemic and climate change, pointing out that they’re on similar courses, only one arrived all at once while the other moved almost imperceptibly slowly — that is, until recent years when it became undeniable even for the most fervid deniers.
“Passing CEJA is certainly an urgent matter,” Williams said. “It was urgent before the pandemic, and the urgency in my opinion only grows with the pandemic and how to move forward.
“We’ve been warned. Haven’t we learned our lesson? Listen to science,” she added. “Everything that you were worried about before the pandemic, I think you need to worry about more now, because a crisis amplifies everything, for better and for worse.
“When you’re looking at energy policy, we’re going to be moving forward in a different direction. Why not move in the right direction? We have an opportunity now.”
CEJA calls on coal and energy companies to address job losses when they leave communities behind, and to clean up the messes they leave behind as well in the form of pollutants like coal ash. It also shifts the energy marketplace to reduce favoritism shown to fossil fuels, as Williams and other environmental groups pointed out in January, before the pandemic hit. But Williams said its most robust elements follow through on the Future Energy Jobs Act, which had such widespread support it was even passed and signed into law by former Gov. Bruce Rauner, in that CEJA provides incentives to move the energy industry toward renewable fuels with the ultimate goal of to go wholly renewable.
“You can get return on investment,” she said. “You just have to make the investment on the front end.”
A federal report issued earlier this month found that renewable energy sources had already surpassed coal. CEJA simply encourages the transition that has already seen a handful of Illinois coal energy plants shut down due to market forces, in opposition to the Trump administration, which has tried to bolster coal and oil even in the midst of the pandemic.
“If we’re moving forward with responsible energy policy, coal’s just not part of that equation,” Williams said. She dismissed CEJA critics who’ve called for more investment in fossil fuels and have attempted to label CEJA as a bailout for the nuclear industry.
“Nuclear energy is not what I would pick, ideally,” Williams granted, “but it’s definitely a bridge we need. It does not emit carbon. And it’s a bridge we need to get us to 100 percent renewables — which is exactly what CEJA contemplates.”
Williams welcomed the support of the Illinois Youth Climate Movement, which has taken the protests inspired by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg and used them to advocate explicitly for CEJA. “The youth really have brought attention to the issues we’ve been fighting for years,” she said. “But they take it to another level, because they don’t have the patience for the deliberative process,” especially as sometimes manifested in the slow-moving General Assembly. “They want to move forward with what they believe is right,” Williams added. “Those kids are looking at their future and saying, ‘Don’t screw it up.’”
That’s an attitude that would seem to be more prevalent in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as everyone worries what the future will bear.
“People kind of feel differently about life now that we’re going through this unthinkable crisis,” Williams said. “Everybody’s looking at life a little bit differently and thinking, ‘What are we going to do in the future to live our lives more responsibly and better appreciate what we have?’”
That’s where CEJA comes in, Williams said, adding that, even with its widespread popular support, “I think we have a lot of education to do in telling people how critical this is to their own particular communities in terms of the recovery.”