What Does a Just Recovery Look Like for Illinois?

Our economic recovery will ask this unavoidable question: will we double down on the old system—a fossil-fueled, profoundly unequal system that leaves many of us sick and impoverished, and leads us towards climate catastrophe? Or will we learn from our painful mistakes, and rebuild in a way that creates lots of good-paying jobs, while making Illinois more equitable, healthier, and more sustainable?

In my last blog, I discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inequities in many of the systems in our society, in particular at the intersection of race, wealth, and the environment. I suggested that as we rebuild our economy, we must leave behind the old “normal” and rebuild in ways that advance equity and sustainability.

Rebuilding means creating good-paying jobs, building wealth, and stimulating the economy, which go hand-in-hand with sustainability. The clean energy provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed nearly a decade ago to stimulate the economy after the Great Recession, created the equivalent of 900,000 full-time jobs. Clean energy is a proven tool for economic stimulus.

We also have to consider more than raw economic growth, including the inextricable links between sustainability and equity: even if you have a good-paying job, it’s hard to live a free and happy life if you are breathing dirty air or drinking contaminated water. Similarly if clean air is accessible only to the white and the wealthy, that is not environmental protection—it is environmental apartheid. Environmental prosperity, like economic prosperity, must be shared.

As Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson argued recently in the Washington Post, “our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis.” “Black Americans who are already committed to working on climate solutions still have to live in America,” she says, “brutalized by institutions of the state, constantly pummeled with images, words and actions showing just us how many of our fellow citizens do not, in fact, believe that black lives matter.”

In other words, Dr. Johnson points out, it would not only be morally wrong to build the clean energy economy without centering equity, it might well be impossible.

What does this look like in practice? Any equitable plan for Illinois’ recovery must do five things:

1. Protect public health, both in the short and the long term. More than 7,000 Ilinoisans and more than 130,000 Americans have died from coronavirus (as of the time this blog was published).

The pandemic has shown in devastating fashion the profound disparities in our health outcomes, and that we cannot have economic prosperity without protecting the health of our people. There seems to be broad acceptance in this moment that the health of our population is paramount and we should act to protect it.

Governor Pritzker’s proactive, science-based response to COVID-19 is commendable, and Illinois’ expansion of Medicaid several years ago was a step towards universal access to quality health care (though there is far yet to go).

But an equitable approach to public health also means addressing ongoing systemic problems that sicken and kill us. Nearly 200,000 Americans die each year from pollution; if pollution was officially counted as a cause of death in the U.S., it would be third, behind only heart disease and cancer.

As with coronavirus, poor people and people of color disproportionately die from pollution, and climate change is already worsening public health across the board in Illinois through extreme heat, dirtier air, and increased flooding. The health impacts of climate change disproportionately impact people of color, and will only worsen as our state gets hotter.

These deaths are preventable.

We have access to affordable clean energy technologies that can generate electricity, get us from place to place, and keep our buildings safe and comfortable without heating up the planet or choking us with dirty air.

2. Create jobs and sustainable economic opportunity. Our unemployment rate is at a near-record 15.2%. Nearly one million workers in our state are now unemployed. 

Yet struggling to keep a good-paying job was a fact of life for many Illinoisans before COVID-19, including in the energy sector. The coal industry has been in a market-driven decline for years. While moving away from coal is essential for preserving a livable planet, the companies that own coal plants have done little to help workers or communities when the plants close. 

President Trump has undertaken radical efforts to roll back health and environmental protections as part of his pledge to “save” coal, but those efforts have not slowed coal’s decline. Since President Trump took office, one in six of Illinois’ jobs in coal power plants have gone away. Analysts say coronavirus will accelerate coal’s “collapse”, and coal consumption is projected to fall by one-third this year.

The prospects for the future of clean energy are a stark contrast to coal. Like nearly all industries, clean energy has been hit hard by the coronavirus and ensuing recession. But pre-COVID-19, clean energy jobs were growing at 4% a year in Illinois as a whole, and even faster in rural areas of the state (5.5%) despite a decline in the overall number of rural jobs.

Clean energy jobs pay family-sustaining wages and are growing quickly. The two fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. are in the renewable energy industry: solar installers, who earn an average of $21.58 an hour, and wind turbine technicians, who earn an average of $25.44 an hour. Insulation workers, who install cost-saving energy efficiency measures, make an average of $28.60 an hour in Illinois. A worker can do any of these jobs with a high school diploma or vocational training.

As promising as trends in clean energy are, they are no guarantee that these jobs will come to Illinois—especially not while our clean energy programs remain underfunded. Expanding clean energy development in Illinois and bringing these good-paying jobs to our state presents a major opportunity for sustainable and equitable economic recovery. 

3. Make Illinois more equitable, especially on health and wealth. 

Given that people of color are disproportionately sickened and killed by pollution, prioritizing their health means putting the most burdened, most vulnerable communities at the front of the line when it comes to cleaning up our air and water. The Waukegan coal plant is one egregious example of this environmental injustice: more than 64,000 people live near the plant, 80% of whom are people of color.

But Black and Latino people are not only exposed disproportionately to pollution, they are on average much poorer than white people. For every dollar of wealth the average white family has, the average Latino family has twelve cents and the average Black family has a dime (this has a lot to do with the legacy of housing discrimination). This disparity in wealth is inseparable from the large disparity in health outcomes among people of color.

Remedying this wealth inequality will not happen overnight, but it starts with creating pipelines to good-paying careers and wealth-building opportunities for people of color and their communities that have been deliberately and systematically disenfranchised.

Explicitly targeting racial equity in our economic recovery could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to begin to level the playing field for the health and wealth of people of color.

The people impacted most by these injustices should be leading the discussion on how to solve them. Any recovery measures that purport to address equity should be crafted with their direct involvement of people of color (representing a range of perspectives). We should look skeptically at any entity—especially one with a profit motive—that claims to offer solutions “on their behalf.”

4. Protect workers’ safety, rights, and dignity. Essential workers like those who grow and stock our food, and care for us when we’re sick, have risked their lives to keep society running during the pandemic. Yet even in the midst of a crisis where front-line workers’ importance is clearer than ever, they often face unsafe working conditions and struggle for fair pay.

Part of the solution is providing immediate protections for workers, like those recommended by the Energy Efficiency for All coalition (of which NRDC is a member). These recommendations include paid sick leave and expanded access to health care, benefits which employers would do well to provide even once the pandemic has passed.

Worker protections, however, are only as effective as their implementation and durability. History tells us the most reliable and durable way for workers to get better treatment from their employers: through unions. Workers in unions are more likely to have access to health care and are better-paid than workers who are not, and in the wake of coronavirus there has been “a flurry of unionization efforts in the Chicago area.”

Our economic recovery policies should consider and prioritize the critical role unions play in empowering workers to protect themselves.

5. Enact bold, systemic change to protect our climate. Contrary to the misleading “nature is healing” narrative now being widely mocked on social media, the impacts of COVID-19 are not a solution to climate change. While changes in transport and consumption patterns will likely drive global CO2 emissions down between four and seven percent this year, this actually reinforces the need for systemic change, and the inadequacy of individual action alone.

The United Nations found that holding climate change to the 1.5° C target set under the Paris Agreement will require a 7.6% decline in CO2 emissions every year between now and 2030. Conditions during the pandemic were a real-world case study approximating what would happen if individuals did as much as possible to reduce their CO2 consumption: less driving, less purchasing consumer goods, less use in our most energy-intensive buildings.

All the CO2 reductions from the behavior changes forced upon us by coronavirus still fall short of achieving even for one year what we will need to repeat over and over to avoid catastrophic climate change. Individual action to stop climate change, while commendable, simply cannot come close to achieving the emissions reductions we need without structural changes to our public policy and our physical infrastructure.

Similar to how racial inequities are the result of deliberate government action, so too is our reliance on fossil fuels, which receive $649 billion in subsidies per year in the U.S. Decarbonizing our economy will require similarly intentional and bold action, and the plan for decarbonization must be holistic, in particular addressing electricity generation, transportation, and buildings.

Our economic recovery will ask this unavoidable question: will we double down on the old system—a fossil-fueled, profoundly unequal system that leaves many of us sick and impoverished, and leads us towards climate catastrophe?

Or will we learn from our painful mistakes, and rebuild in a way that creates lots of good-paying jobs, while making Illinois more equitable, healthier, and more sustainable?

Related Blogs