I traveled recently from Baltimore, the city where my mother grew up, to Portland, Maine, where my dad did. It’s easy for many to see differences between one of the Blackest cities in America and largest city in one of the whitest states in the country.
What always hits me is what unites the two places is the suffering they’ve felt as a consequence of the decline of American industry in the 50 years of my life.
My father’s family once operated woolen mills in New England. Those factories no longer exist, across America like 63,000 factories that have shuttered since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed three decades ago.
As a result, millions of American families of every color have been locked in a downward spiral of economic mobility for too long driven by the greed of multinational corporations and facilitated over decades by government policies like NAFTA.
In part because of the pandemic and in part because of narrow cushion that’s left before our climate is beyond repair, we’re at a moment when we can turn that around. Over the last three years, we committed as a nation to an unprecedented private and public investment in clean energy and infrastructure in ways that promises to reverse this dream-killing trajectory.
We’re in a moment when we can finally shift from an economy defined by consumption back to one defined by working people making and using things they can be proud of again from electric school buses to solar panels.
You’d think that opportunity would be welcomed by all. But the self-interested like Big Oil and Gas companies that are grabbing billions in historic profits and the politicians they support are doing all they can to roll back the commitments made since 2021. They even tied up the recent debate over a U.S. default on its loans to advance their opposition.
That’s an odd political play. A CBS News poll last month found more than half of Americans want the climate crisis addressed right now and more than two-thirds want it tackled within a few years.
That includes 44 percent of Republicans. Given every congressional Republican voted against the clean energy package last year, that large plurality is significant. It’s also a sign that many GOP leaders in Washington are increasingly out of step with their own constituents and districts.
When the group Climate Power looked at the nearly 200 clean energy projects launched since Congress and the President approved the federal spending package last summer, nearly six in 10 of them are in districts represented by Republicans who voted against the package. Those projects mean at least 77,000 new jobs for electricians, mechanics, technicians, support staff, and others.
Not since the days of FDR have we seen this kind of national investment. Back then, building American industry was vital to winning a war against genocide across Europe. Today, our investment to turn our economy away from destruction and toward good jobs in a cleaner economy that sustains our planet is a fight to protect all of humanity.
Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the country. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” published in January.