When we think of building a clean future, the tools that come to mind are technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and heat pumps. And all of these are essential, to be sure. But there is a tool that is even more important and yet unheralded: civic engagement, which I define as taking actions that have benefits to society which are at least co-equal with the benefits to the individual taking them. Simply put, without voting, community organizing, policy advocacy, social enterprise, and donations to and impact-investments in pro-climate efforts, there can be no effective climate action.
Consider the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (“IRA”). In previous essays, I’ve talked about all the behind-the-scenes organizing over the past thirty years that made the bill possible. But greenhouse gas emissions aren’t going to magically decline just because a piece of legislation has been signed into law; success depends on thousands of people and organizations effectively spending the dollars.
One of the most exciting elements of the IRA is the $27 billion allocated to a Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund “which will be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency [and] fund green and energy efficient projects” across the country. The groundwork for the GGRF, which is essentially a national green bank, was laid by the Coalition for Green Capital, a nonprofit that has advocated for scaling up these quasi-governmental entities as a means of leveraging public dollars to drive private investment in climate action. (There are green banks in a number of states, including the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and the Colorado Clean Energy Fund, doing crucial work to deploy capital for emissions-reducing projects.)
According to the Opportunity Finance Network (“OFN”), the trade organization for Community Development Financial Institutions (“CDFI”s) like Capital Good Fund, the GGRF includes “$11.9 billion for competitive grants…for both direct and indirect investments into qualified projects that reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions…[and] $8 billion for competitive grants [for] investments specifically in low-income and disadvantaged communities.” What’s more, these grants can only go to “nonprofit organizations that provide capital or financial assistance to low and zero emission projects…”
My nonprofit, Capital Good Fund, is therefore one of a couple hundred potential recipients of billions of dollars in federal funding for projects that reduce emissions AND benefit underserved populations. I have been dreaming of this opportunity for over 14 years. In fact, my master’s thesis, published in 2009 and titled “Green Microfinance: Advancing Social Equality and Environmental Sustainability in the United States,” specifically looked at how to leverage access to credit as a means of pursuing environmental justice.
What I wrote about then, and have learned through a decade of making green loans to underserved families, is that doing so is really hard. The vast majority of green lenders reach higher-income, higher-FICO, and whiter families. Absent a concerted effort among numerous stakeholders, it is unlikely that these federal funds will achieve their dual goals of emissions reductions and social mobility.
Recognizing this, a bunch of groups have organized to do two things. First, to provide feedback to the EPA on how to deploy the money for maximum impact (they have 180 days to begin giving out funds). And second, to make sure that grant recipients work collaboratively, strategically, and with a shared purpose. These groups include the Federal Electrification Coalition, which played a key role in advocating for the IRA; the aforementioned Coalition for Green Capital; OFN and member CDFIs; and major environmental groups like Sierra Club, Rewiring America, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
We aren’t just talking about IRA implementation; we’ve gone into hyperdrive to ensure success. Just within one coalition that is focusing on the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, there are 10 working groups with over 50 members looking at product design, ecosystem needs, secondary markets, transportation, the residential and commercial sectors, and more. At the end of the month, we will have a two-day covening in D.C. to report out our findings, summarize them, and then craft a plan for communicating to the folks at EPA.
Nor does the work stop with the passage and implementation of the IRA. There is an effort now to prevent a side-deal made between Senator Manchin and Senator Schumer to streamline dirty-energy projects. Others are working to pressure financial institutions and investors to pull their money out of fossil fuels and into clean energy. And still more folks are knocking on doors to get out the vote for pro-climate officials at the local, state, and federal level. In short, we need to do a lot more, across a whole house of areas–agriculture, energy, transportation, material usage, deforestation, environmental justice–to hit our emissions goals.
This is the kind of work–tedious, unsexy, quiet–that drives change. After all, no matter how many solar panels we manufacture, no matter how generous the tax credits, getting them installed and connected to the grid–and ensuring that the benefits accrue to those most impacted by the climate crisis–takes organizing, planning, and dedication. There are countless people, right now, getting ready to unleash America’s entrepreneurial and civic spirit to do the most good. Among us are folks that stand to get rich–especially those working at for-profit cleantechs; that, like me, will raise significant money for their nonprofits, bolstering their work; and / or that will gain nothing beyond putting their hearts and minds towards a better world.
Nothing good ever happens by accident. The only path to justice is one that is envisioned, designed, funded, built, maintained, and traversed by civic-minded people, walking alone and in coalitions, day after day after day. And that form of civic engagement, more than any other tool or technology, will undergird a carbon-free, prosperous future.