Portland Just Energy Transition Initiative – Climate Justice on the Ballot

When I was growing up in a beautiful but drafty wooden A-frame farmhouse, the way my parents kept our heating bills low was simple, if unpleasant; in the winter months, the living room and dining room became dispensable. Those rooms had arched entry ways instead of doors, so we stapled thick plastic sheets over those open spaces. By abandoning these rooms, we kept the heat from our floor furnace trapped in the kitchen and the two bedrooms adjacent to it. For maybe four months of the year, we lived in half our house. Sometimes I would wriggle around the edge of the semi-opaque plastic to sneak a visit to the once familiar, now alien landscape of the living room, where I could watch my breath form frosty puffs. I am sure my parents would have preferred to insulate the house better, but there was no cash for it. Next to the challenges of keeping us fed and housed during a recession and through their low-pay, early career years, my parents could not afford the strain – financial as well as emotional – of taking other steps to be more energy efficient.

Today, if we do not figure out how to make energy efficiency possible for everyone, I believe there is no way the City of Portland will meet its goal of 100% renewable energy use by 2050. Weatherizing homes is a critical piece of the puzzle in reducing energy consumption, which will help speed and smooth our transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources. Yet so far, it is individual homeowners who have had to take the initiative to make these improvements, and not everyone can afford to make those investments. Low income people are left out. Communities of color, more often denied access to loans and discriminated against in a multitude of ways that keep their households on average ten times poorer than white households1, are left out. Renters are left out – and in a city where no-cause evictions are used routinely to jack up the rent, what brave renter will ask for more efficient heating or better insulation? We have to stop relying on individual initiative – beautiful and laudatory as that is – and instead provide community support, to create change at the scale and speed needed.

We also cannot expect people to learn the clean energy trades skills that we are going to need to make that 100% transition, unless we convince them that this is a career path that will provide for them and their families. I have great faith that more and more people will recognize that climate disruption is real and action is needed to address it, but I also know that putting food on the table will come first for people, especially those front-line communities already facing the strongest impacts of our warming, unpredictable weather, and who often have the fewest financial reserves to help manage those risks. Asking them to make risky career choices, or to bear the costs of the energy transition, or to make expert policy decisions that leave them out, is entirely unacceptable.

This is the reasoning behind the Portland Just Energy Transition Initiative. In this video, I talk with Populist Dialogue Host David Delk, about this ambitious initiative, which is unprecedented in the United States (on the same website you can dig deeper into the concept of a Just Transition by watching Sierra Club’s Nakisha Nathan’s interview on the same program a few months earlier). The basic what, how, and when of the initiative is easy:

  • What  The initiative will fund weatherization, solarization, and other home energy efficiency improvements, as well as local food production initiatives, coupled with job training and apprenticeship programs in these fields. Low income people, communities of color, and others who have often been left out of the benefits of such programs will be intentionally included as participants in governing the fund, reaping the benefits, and getting the training.
  • How  The initiative will increase an existing City of Portland licensing fee by 1% only for retailers with more than $1 billion in annual revenue nationally. This small increase, targeting primarily multi-nationals that are enjoying record profits and low effective tax rates, is expected to generate at least $30 million annually, providing reliable funding to sustain our energy transformation over the long term.
  • When  We hope to get the initiative on the ballot in November 2018. To do that, we will need to gather 35,000 signatures in the spring of 2018. This is where you can help. Get in touch to volunteer with gathering signatures, or spreading the word to community groups and in house parties.

Including everyone, and protecting everyone, is at the heart of climate justice. The Portland Just Energy Transition initiative is one real way that the City of Portland can show the nation what a transformational  approach to policy actually looks like.


1Jan, Tracy. “White families have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families. And the gap is growing.” The Washington Post, The Washington Post, 28 Sept. 2017.