After Divestment, What Comes Next for College Campuses?

May 20, 2015Torre Lavelle

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation.

From championing civil rights through Freedom Summer to fighting sexual assault, college students have long made a name for themselves as leaders of ideas, activism, and innovation. It should therefore come as no surprise that the fossil-fuel divestment movement—the campaign to get institutions to pull their financial investments from fossil fuels and redirect that money to clean, renewable energy as a way of tackling climate change—has its roots in U.S. college campuses. With a total of $50 billion from 837 institutions and individuals divested so far, the campaign has succeeded at an unprecedented rate, growing faster than the divestment movements against both South African apartheid and tobacco.

Last fall’s stunning news that the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune were pulling their philanthropic funds out of fossil fuel officially confirmed divestment’s transition from campus movement to the financial mainstream. Combined with the commitment of more than 25 universities to move beyond coal, with more to follow in the upcoming year, student leaders and activists should carefully consider their role in deciding where climate change policy goes from here. After successfully pressuring the administration of my own school, the University of Georgia, to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the campus Beyond Coal group effectively called it quits and disbanded. But as pipelines for progressive environmental solutions, campus groups should just be getting started.

The Hoover Institution published The State Clean Energy Cookbook in 2014, which includes a dozen “recipes” for cost-effective and easily supportable policies that have already been implemented in both blue and red states with strong overall results. Now we need a new wave of student activism focused on building media strategy, coalitions, and administrative and legislative relationships to take this natural next step and enter a larger policy arena.

On the heels of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging governors and state officials to “think twice” before submitting plans for state compliance with the EPA Clean Power Plan, college students should examine the role of states and regional networks in advancing clean energy policy. The work of UGA’s Beyond Coal group and others must extend beyond individual campuses, and should strongly oppose any calls to ignore federal deadlines for state carbon plans.

Regional cap and trade systems are another critical area for post-divestment work. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) among nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic states became the first market-based approach to reducing pollution by selling carbon credits and reinvesting the revenue into clean energy technology and consumer benefits. With a goal of reducing 10 percent of power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions across the northeastern U.S. by 2020, the RGGI instead caused emissions to drop more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2012 and generated $102.5 million in revenue. An estimated $1.4 billion in lifetime energy bill savings are coupled with bill credits to low-income families and clean energy job training for workers. RGGI also served as the baseline policy model for California’s cap and trade system, the first state with a program of this kind.

State adoption of these programs has so far been lacking in leadership and provides an excellent road map for student involvement. I’m not calling on students alone to make this happen, though; I’m also calling on the Sierra Club, 350.org, and other environmental organizations with strong student involvement to step up to the next challenge. Let’s celebrate our victories while capturing the momentum focused on divestment and recognize that it’s time we expanded our reach.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.

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Beyond Divestment: How NYU Can Still Invest in the Public Good

May 12, 2015Eugenia Kim

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change.

The fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses highlights two distinct aspects of the problem of climate change. The first and most obvious is that climate change and environmental issues are drastically changing our planet and require immediate action. The second is the responsibility of our colleges and universities to be stewards of responsible social change. While climate change appears to have caught the public eye in recent weeks, this question of responsibility continues to be overlooked. Both of these issues are now coming to a head at New York University (NYU).

On March 26, a working group of NYU’s University Senate voted to recommend not divesting from fossil fuels. On April 30, the larger University Senate, which encompasses both student representatives and faculty, will also vote on divestment.

The stated argument against divestment is twofold: political and fiduciary. The report released by NYU’s working group is emblematic of the faulty assumptions school administrations across the country have about divestment. The report claims that it is not in the nature of a university to take a stand on a political issue such as climate change, and that NYU would be better suited to combat climate change through increased research investments. Further, the report states that it would be financially irresponsible for the university to divest.

However, the working group’s argument is self-contradictory. The university cannot simultaneously claim to have no position on climate change and actively fund research that works to combat it. Further, the sheer existence of climate change is no longer a debate; broad consensus has been reached among independent agencies and scientists that climate change is real. The political question that does arise is what the institution is going to do about it. The working group also fails to recognize that divesting from fossil fuels and investing in research are not mutually exclusive. The administration has the power to do both while maintaining its fiduciary responsibilities.

NYU’s arguments against divestment are in no way unique; they exemplify the fundamental assumption of college administrations that an institution must choose between the social good and economic profitability. This is not the case, but the divestment movement has failed to demonstrate that university investments can be both profitable and environmentally friendly. Advocates committed to the divestment movement must provide more guidance as to how administrators can better spend their money.

While divestment is an important symbolic gesture toward a university’s commitment to sustainability, meaningful investments in green energy businesses are a more tangible request, if perhaps less likely to inspire rallies. Investment alternatives offer practical solutions that enable activists to work with, rather than against, administrations. For example, Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University has not divested from fossil fuels, but it has invested in the Evergreen Cooperatives, thereby promoting economic growth in the Cleveland community, and still maintains a commitment to tackling larger questions around sustainability and climate change.

While these investment campaigns are harder to organize around, there are students who are interested in analyzing the economic responsibility of their universities, and student involvement in this process is vital. The Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Rethinking Communities initiative is geared toward identifying and developing smarter economic decision-making practices for colleges and universities. The project is led by students who support divestment but offer smart and socially responsible local investment solutions.

NYU, for example, could stand to gain higher returns on its investments if it would simply move some of its funds from large banks like Chase into community development banks. By divesting just $500,000 (0.014 percent of NYU’s $3.5 billion endowment) from fossil fuels and moving it to community development banks, NYU could increase its returns while helping middle- and low-income residents get loans, promoting financial literacy, and providing secure financial services. This idea that investments can be both socially responsible and profitable holds true for universities across the nation.  

Students are important but overlooked stakeholders in university policy. They are the ones doing the research and asking the important questions about their schools’ social responsibility. Sit-ins, protests, and rallies across the country are the product of a large number of young people feeling left out of the decision-making process at institutions designed to serve them. These students want to participate and engage with their school administrations in making financial decisions and developing viable solutions, In short, these students want to be part of universities that embody the values they teach.

Eugenia Kim is student at New York University and a member of the Rethinking Communities Brain Trust.

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L.A. Port Truck Drivers Put Their Jobs on the Line for Decent Pay and Cleaner Air

May 5, 2015Richard Kirsch

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Following the most recent work stoppage by port truck drivers in southern California, Los Angeles Mayer Eric Garcetti announced the formation of a new trucking company, which will be a model for good pay and protecting the environment. The announcement takes the port drivers' ongoing protest of low-wages and exploitative working conditions to a new level.

Eco Flow Transportation’s founding came out of a long-running dispute between port drivers and Total Transportation Services, which had fired some 35 drivers who had filed claims for their unlawful misclassification as independent contractors and for illegal deductions from their paychecks.

The new company, breaking with the widespread, illegal practice of treating drivers as independent contractors, already employs 80 drivers with a goal of expanding to 500 within a year. The firm promises to be neutral in efforts by its employees to join the Teamsters Union, which has been supporting the drivers’ protests and legal actions against misclassification as contractors.

Eco Flow also aims to address diesel pollution from port trucks that are not maintained at standards, established in 2008, which aimed at drastically lowering the environmental health threats from the trucks. A court ruling in 2010 effectively placed the cost of maintaining clean trucks on drivers. The port drivers, who are forced by the trucking companies to be “independent contractors,” work an average of 59 hours a week, with take-home pay of under $29,000. The drivers’ low-pay makes it difficult for them to keep trucks at a level to meet clean air standards. But because Eco Flow owns the trucks, it assumes full responsibility for maintaining the fleet’s clean air standards.

Eco Flow is also working to introduce a new model for the ports, called “free flow” cargo, which can help move cargo out of terminals more rapidly and increase the velocity of Port of Los Angeles terminals. The benefits will be less pollution from idling trucks and less port congestion. More efficient deliveries will also make it easier for the firm to pay the drivers a decent salary. This is a sharp contrast from most port-trucking companies who, by treating drivers as contractors, pay them by delivery and so pass on the cost of idling time to the drivers.  

What does it take for workers to risk their jobs in actions that often result in retaliation by employers? I talked with Nick Weiner, an organizer at Change to Win, about the transformation that port drivers went through over several years, which led them to go from accepting their status to protesting.

Q: What has been the barrier to port drivers taking actions?

Weiner: The Teamsters have tried over the last 30 years but failed because we’ve allowed the illusion that drivers are independent contractors to drive strategies in the past. The drivers had used the language of the boss—calling themselves independent owner-operators. Part of the helping them come together was to use different language, so they could engage one another.

In ’96 in L.A. there was a big strike. And there were smaller ones. All failed, because drivers didn’t have right language, and didn’t engage government officials to enforce law. We learned our history.

Sometimes they said, ‘we want to be reclassified as employees.’ But they weren’t saying – ‘we are your employees now.’ That’s what’s needed to go from defensive. It’s not just we want to be employees and everything is fine. It’s by being employees, we can join a union and negotiate a contract. The end is not being an employee; there are a lot of employees not doing well.

We have this term misclassification—a very wonky, inside-baseball but now it means something. ‘Yea, we know we’re misclassified. It means taking away our rights, employers stealing from us.’ New language has been liberating.

Q. How do drivers get an understanding of how they could do better through organizing?

Weiner: Drivers see that [unionized] longshoremen get treated well: they are paid well, get time off. While the drivers sit for hours on line [at the ports], without getting paid. They’ve come to see that the do critical work and are the largest set of workers in the port economy who are left out of the prosperity of the port economy.

We’ve worked to tie those things together, being employees and the union. They thought they needed to deal with misclassification and then organize. Instead, needed to get them to understand you’re an employee now, you can organize now.

It takes time for drivers to undo the brainwashing. To engage in collective struggle. 

The collective struggle has taken two forms. The first has been a series of unfair labor practice pickets, aimed at specific companies, which block access to the ports of those companies trucks. The second is legal action under California law. Drivers have filed more than 400 claims against companies under California’s wage and hour law. The first 19 rulings resulted in an average award of $66,240, largely for wage and hour violations and illegal paycheck deductions for items like truck leases.

The drivers are also filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which governs union organizing.

Slowly, the organizing is paying off. One firm, Green Fleet, avoided being picketed last week by reaching a comprehensive labor peace agreement with the Teamsters. After a U.S. Department of Labor ruling, another firm, Shippers Transport Express, reclassified its "independent contractors" as employees and in February signed a contract with the Teamsters, which resulted in higher pay and fully paid health care benefits for the drivers.

The growing militancy of exploited workers, from Uber drivers to Wal-Mart “associates” to home care workers and many more is building a new movement of workers to challenge the 21st century economy, in the same way that workers built the labor movement 100 years ago. Their organizing and militancy helped drive the New Deal economic reforms which built the middle class in the 20th century. The fight of today’s workers is laying the foundation for the reforms we need to rebuild the middle class today in an economy based on good jobs and environmental sustainability. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly stated that the new trucking company would be employee-owned.

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Millennials Want More Than Obama’s Keystone Veto

Feb 25, 2015Torre Lavelle

The president's veto of Keystone XL was not the decisive step towards transforming the country's energy usage that Millennials are looking for.

The president's veto of Keystone XL was not the decisive step towards transforming the country's energy usage that Millennials are looking for.

In June 2013, President Obama revealed his carefully crafted litmus test for approving the Keystone XL pipeline, stating that the project’s effect on climate change would be the deciding factor in his decision. Upholding this ‘climate test’ in his 2015 State of the Union, he called on Americans to set their sights higher than a single pipeline. However, the president’s 104-word veto message to the Senate on Tuesday, which cites the necessary completion of the State Department’s administrative review procedure, fails to include more decisive language for a final decision even after six years.

The Millennials, born between 1984 and 2004, hold a unique role in the debate, as the proposed Keystone pipeline has surfaced as a larger symbol in energy, climate change, and economic policy wars. Young people across the country view this issue as a literal line in the sand – rejection of the pipeline would serve as the ultimate indication of moving away from dependence on fossil fuels towards clean energy technologies. Millennials not only believe that clean energy investment is vital to our economic future, but they also view this transformation as one of the defining features of our generation.

Young people have also been at the forefront of climate activism, organizing XL Dissent, the largest student-led protest at the White House in a generation. This strong millennial support was clear at my university last year, when Beyond Coal, a student group organized under the Sierra Club Student Coalition, pressured the University of Georgia to shut down its coal-fired boiler, the single largest source of pollution in the city. The key policy change was confirmed in September, after students put incredible amounts of pressure on the administration​.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been fond of noting that no energy bill has been passed in the last seven years, therefore articulating his vision for why Keystone is necessary. With arguments for jobs and oil independence falling flat, McConnell and others in Congress should instead push for an energy bill that supports the generational shift in our energy infrastructure. We need congressional leadership to advance policies in stronger energy efficiency standards, incentives for better fuels, and electric vehicle incentives to widen the market. Former Republican Treasury Secretary George Schultz has even proposed a revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend system.

Most pressingly, the new Senate majority has vowed to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon emissions standards for new and existing power plants, a policy that would allow the U.S. to honor its international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent. My home state of Georgia, home to some of the dirtiest coal plants in the nation, is required to reduce carbon emissions by 44 percent. These carbon emissions standards represent a potential milestone shift in job creation and alternative energy opportunities and must stay in place.

As the fastest growing workforce demographic, millennials can combine their strong support for clean energy with their foundation in activism and technological advancement, and lead the industry and its politics forward in ways that past generations could not. Indeed they can remind Congress that if you aren’t a climate denier, you shouldn’t be voting like one. It’s come time for a generational shift in the types of energy we use, and a generational shift in political engagement will make it happen.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia.

 

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Georgia Political Candidates: Where Are Carbon Emissions in Your Election Platform?

Sep 25, 2014Torre Lavelle

None of the candidates for major statewide office in Georgia are talking about carbon emissions or climate change, despite major new policy from the EPA that will make these issues central to their terms in office.

None of the candidates for major statewide office in Georgia are talking about carbon emissions or climate change, despite major new policy from the EPA that will make these issues central to their terms in office.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s groundbreaking new carbon emissions proposal hedges some pretty hefty bets: the new rules require the equivalent of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks in the U.S. off the road. The proposal will cost the economy more than $7 billion annually, but will lead to public health benefits accruing to more than $55 billion. The heated discussion it has prompted from environmentalists, industry, and lawmakers has centered on the multi-billion dollar question: what is the role of government regulation in addressing climate change?

The EPA rule has assigned each state a separate pollution reduction target, and under the plan, Georgia would need to reduce its carbon dioxide output by 44 percent by the year 2040. Notably absent from the debate, however, are the individuals who will soon be directing the discussion through their policy decisions: the current gubernatorial and Senate candidates. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter, endorsed by the Sierra Club in May, has only noted that he wants residents to get credit for progress they've already made in carbon reduction. His “On the Issues” online platform fails to include environmental policy as a broad topic, let alone talk of pollution.

Although Governor Deal may want to distance himself politically from Carter, the candidates are remarkably similar in their lack of talking points on the EPA standards. A spokeswoman for Deal said it was too early for the governor to comment on the emissions proposal back in June, and apparently it's still too early three months later, even as the election approaches in November.

Former Dollar General CEO David Perdue, who beat out Rep. Jack Kingston to win the Georgia GOP Senate nomination, has dismissed the emissions regulations as altogether too burdensome. In June, it was revealed that Perdue has sat on the board of the Wisconsin-based Alliant Energy Corp. since 2001.

Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn has served as the sole light in this matter; although she has offered a ‘wait-and-see’ on the emissions plan until what will go into the state calculations is made clear, she has at least affirmed her support for reducing carbon emissions.

The candidates’ insubstantial weigh-in on how to tackle these rapidly approaching EPA deadlines provides voters with an incomplete policy platform, and one that is myopic in scope. For example, what is to be of Georgia’s Plant Scherer? It’s been identified as the dirtiest power plant in the United States, and under the EPA policy, there will be significant pressure to shut the coal plant down. What would the next steps be for evaluating Georgia’s energy portfolio, and how would the candidates handle claims that the limits will crush jobs and the economy?

By failing to more concretely enter into discussions on how to tackle these EPA deadlines, candidates also lose the ability to capitalize off the new regulations. For example, a comprehensive report released last month ranked the Atlanta-based utilities provider Southern Company 31st among 32 utilities across the U.S. in percentage of sales tied to electricity from renewables. Individuals in the gubernatorial and Senate races should work to address mounting pressure to improve Georgia’s national ranking in energy efficiency and renewables by connecting it to the EPA guidelines, and proposing to tackle the emission standards through increasing emphasis on clean energy infrastructure.

The most critical issue left unaddressed, however, stems from our Georgia candidates' inability to define issues such as carbon emissions within the larger sphere of climate change. Just as the esteemed evolutionary biologist Dobzhansky noted that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, nothing in environmental policy really makes sense except without accepting the involvement of climate change. Although both Deal and Carter have campaigned extensively for improved water conservation methods and the protection of Georgia’s coastline, these issues cannot be adequately examined without including factors symptomatic of climate change into the picture, such as sea level rise, the decreasing reliability of water supply networks, threatened coastal infrastructure, and increased risk of drought.

The question that remains is why our Georgia political candidates aren’t talking about the EPA standards in the context of climate change. Perhaps I already know the answer: it is not in the interest of the candidate to do so. Climate change is a loaded, divisive phrase, and an intensive analysis into the Georgia public’s views on the matter has, to date, been overlooked. However, Florida’s open emphasis on climate policy as a major bipartisan issue during the election, as well as the overwhelming amount of public witnesses at the EPA Atlanta hearing prove that the topic is ripe for public discourse and political opportunity. Georgia candidates would do well to remember that these issues are not simply environmental issues, but fundamentally economic and public health issues. For the sake of Georgia voters, candidates should view these issues as mandatory to offering a more complete and expansive view for the future of the great state of Georgia.

Torre Lavelle is the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment. She is majoring in ecology and environmental economics at the University of Georgia. 

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Daily Digest - July 29: Companies Look to Turn Off the Tap on Free Water

Jul 29, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Companies Proclaim Water the Next Oil in a Rush to Turn Resources into Profit (The Guardian)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Companies Proclaim Water the Next Oil in a Rush to Turn Resources into Profit (The Guardian)

As the CEO of Nestle publicly declares that any water beyond survival needs should be paid for, Suzanne McGee considers the potential horror story of commodifying water.

Paid Leave Encourages Female Employees to Stay (NYT)

Federally mandated paid maternity leave could be one of the most powerful tools to reverse the decline of women's participation in the U.S. labor force, says Claire Cain Miller.

One More Clue that the Obamacare Lawsuits Are Wrong (TNR)

In light of current legal fights over health care exchange subsidies, Jonathan Cohn looks back to a 2010 e-mail from an influential House staffer for proof of Congress's intentions.

History Suggests Ryan Block Grant Would Be Susceptible to Cuts (Off the Charts)

Richard Kogan points out the vulnerability of block grants, which have less obvious impacts than individual programs. Of 11 major anti-poverty block grants, nine have faced cuts since 2001.

A Bill to Get the Labor Movement Back on Offense (The Nation)

George Zornick reports on a proposal by House Democrats that would make labor organizing a civil right and allow workers to take their complaints outside the National Labor Relations Board.

Fast Food Convention Portends Escalation in Strikes (MSNBC)

Ned Resnikoff writes that workers at this weekend's fast food convention pushed for more radical tactics as well as cross-movement collaboration with groups like Moral Mondays in North Carolina.

New on Next New Deal

After the End of the Innovation Era

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, envisions a future of slowed technological growth in his speculation for the Next American Economy project.

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Daily Digest - May 12: Walmart Sets the Wrong Example for a Progressive Future

May 12, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Did Obama Make a Mistake by Touting Solar Power at Walmart? (All In with Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren says this speech rewarded a company that is failing on the environment and on inequality, which makes it a confusing political choice.

Click here to receive the Daily Digest via email.

Did Obama Make a Mistake by Touting Solar Power at Walmart? (All In with Chris Hayes)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren says this speech rewarded a company that is failing on the environment and on inequality, which makes it a confusing political choice.

Thousands in Pierce County Trapped in Underwater Mortgages (Tacoma News Tribune)

Kathleen Cooper speaks to Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal, who says these mortgages slow economic growth because homeowners spend so much on debt payments.

Making Ends Meet at Walmart (NYT)

When Walmart reviewed its financials to determine performance pay for executives, it made adjustments to ensure larger bonuses despite a rough year, reports Gretchen Morgenson.

Undocumented NYC Domestic Workers Clean Up with Collective (AJAM)

Forming an environmentally friendly cleaning co-op has ensured fair wages, steady income, and safety for some undocumented workers, writes Kaelyn Forde.

Heller May Try to Attach Unemployment Extension to Tax Cut Bill (Roll Call)

Humberto Sanchez reports that an upcoming set of corporate tax breaks with bipartisan support could be key to a deal that would renew unemployment benefits.

FCC Head to Revise Broadband-Rules Plan (WSJ)

Gautham Nagesh says FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is trying to address public backlash with this latest revision of rules, which could be a good thing for net neutrality.

New on Next New Deal

For U.S. Mothers, Conservative Policies Can Be Deadly

Maternal mortality rates have increased in the U.S., and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Andrea Flynn argues that conservative policies like refusing Medicaid expansion make things worse.

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Reducing Flood Risks is Worth the Effort – and the Savings

Apr 1, 2014Melia Ungson

Programs aimed at cutting flood insurance premiums by reducing risk have their pluses and minuses, but the positives deserve strong consideration from local governments.

Programs aimed at cutting flood insurance premiums by reducing risk have their pluses and minuses, but the positives deserve strong consideration from local governments.

FEMA administers the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to make flood insurance available to many communities, as most standard home and property insurance policies do not cover losses from floods. In 2012, Congress passed the Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, which called on FEMA to raise flood insurance rates so that they better reflect flood risk. This has spurred concerns about people’s ability to afford flood insurance and maintain property values.

One program that strives to help make flood insurance more affordable and encourage communities to reduce flood risk is the Community Rating System (CRS), which began in 1990. Communities that participate in CRS receive a discount on flood insurance premiums. The more a community does to reduce flood risk, the larger the premium reduction. According to FEMA, CRS has three main goals: to reduce flood damage to insurable property, to strengthen the insurance aspects of the NFIP, and to encourage a more comprehensive approach to floodplain management.

CRS is a points-based system, where 500 points is required for participation. A community can earn CRS points by taking on actions from an approved list. These activities are broken up into four main categories (public information, mapping and regulations, flood damage reduction, and flood preparedness), and include everything from disseminating brochures with flood hazard information to developing mapping information.

Based on the number of points accrued, communities are assigned to one of ten CRS classes. Class 10 is for those who are not participating or who have less than 500 points. Class 9 communities, with 500-999 points, receive a 5% reduction, and Class 1 communities, with 4,500 points or more, receive a 45% reduction. The increasing reductions create incentives for communities to expand flood protection activities.

Despite the benefits, CRS communities represent only about 5% of the communities in the NFIP. Most communities that participate in CRS fall between Class 5 and Class 9. In New England, most participating communities fall between Class 7 and Class 9. Improving class takes time and resources, but for a program that has been around for nearly 25 years, there are surprisingly few communities at the top classes. Roseville, California is the only Class 1 community, inspired to take on the CRS after devastating floods, and its 45% reduction saves residents an average of $792 per plan. Additionally, only three communities have achieved a Class 2 rating. Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has creeks that cause flooding, saves residents an average of $514 per plan. Unincorporated King County, Washington, which focused on preserving floodplain open space, saves residents an average of $586. And Pierce County, Washington, which focused on public information, saves residents an average of $550.

Beyond premium reductions, FEMA argues the program has other benefits. These include improving public safety and awareness, facilitating easier comparison and evaluation with a standardized classification system, providing technical assistance, and focusing on maintaining measures to reduce risk.

Indeed, CRS does have major benefits, not least of which is the reduced premium. With the incentive to reduce flood risk, the program balances recognizing the real risks and costs of living in areas with flooding dangers, and also trying to make those communities more prepared and resilient. Acquisition and relocation are incentivized through CRS with high point rewards, as is preserving hazardous flood areas as open space, though the bulk of the program’s actions focus on reducing risk in areas that will remain inhabited. Additionally, FEMA offers free training for local officials and makes emergency management specialists available to support CRS applications.

However, the very low number of NFIP communities that participate in CRS suggests that there are obstacles to applying for and maintaining CRS status. Despite Tulsa’s success in CRS, overall interest in the program has been declining in Oklahoma, as local officials weigh the benefits and costs of implementing CRS. A major issue is limited local capacity. Communities that are already struggling to stretch budgets and personnel may not be able to take on the additional work required by CRS to benefit residents living in flood zones. This may be particularly problematic in cases where the residents of flood zones are those who are struggling with the added costs of flood insurance and are most in need of the premium reduction. Since individual residents cannot take steps to gain points, the community must rely on local officials to prioritize CRS.

Furthermore, upgrading levels is difficult and takes time. King County, for instance, went from being Class 10 when the program started in 1990 to Class 9 in 1992. It then took 15 years to work up to Class 2. That long time horizon may be discouraging to getting communities to apply. A 5% discount may not seem like much in comparison to the time and work required for a class upgrade, so communities may postpone their participation until they accrue enough points for a larger reduction.

Lastly, the number of communities participating, and especially the number of communities in the top classes, suggests that there may be a gap between national standards and local capacity. Though the cost of implementing CRS varies, communities have reported costs ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 and above, largely for disseminating information and developing maps. Some communities may be hesitant to proceed too far along with CRS, as it poses restrictions on development, such as elevation requirements.

Despite the challenges, CRS is an important tool. While local communities may have limited capacity, FEMA, too, can only do so much to reduce risk in communities across the country. CRS empowers local officials to take action, while also putting money back into the hands of residents. The challenge is to make the case to local residents and officials that participation in CRS is worthwhile. It is a big commitment, with the application likely taking significant time and resources, and it is an ongoing commitment, as communities must demonstrate they are maintaining measures to reduce risk and inform the public. Yet many of those actions are valuable, and even doable with the resources offered by FEMA and other agencies. While CRS may fairly not be a top priority for many communities, it is worth serious consideration.

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

 

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Solving California's Water Crisis Requires A Look Beyond This Year

Feb 19, 2014Melia Ungson

Reactive measures won't solve the long-term problems of this drought, which require thinking about more permanent changes in water use.

Reactive measures won't solve the long-term problems of this drought, which require thinking about more permanent changes in water use.

It’s not every day that your local paper has a section of its website dedicated to news about days without rain and reservoir levels, but the San Francisco Chronicle’s drought page is one marker of the water crisis in the West. On January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, directing Californians to voluntarily conserve water and state officials to assist communities facing water shortages, reduce water use, hire more firefighters to combat the elevated fire danger, and expand public awareness.

California state health officials announced in mid-January that 17 communities – all rural – could run out of water within 100 days, with other communities not far behind. Then on January 31, authorities announced that for the first time in its 54-year history, the California State Water Project, which moves water throughout the state and serves roughly two-thirds of the its population, would allocate zero water supplies to urban and agricultural users. The contractors who usually get water from the project will instead have to rely more heavily on other sources, like groundwater.

On February 14, President Obama spoke in central California, linking the drought to climate change and emphasizing that the country must find a better way to manage diverse water needs and concerns. Yet instead of spurring local innovation and opportunity, action thus far has focused on restricting activities and competing for water use.

Beyond concerns about having adequate supplies of water for drinking, industry, and agriculture, priorities to protect ecosystems and water quality are being put to the test. Officials are relaxing requirements for water releases from reservoirs, which lowers water quality in key areas such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in order to increase available water supply. California Republicans proposed a bill arguing for a stricter cap on the water allocations for environmental restoration and additional water allocations to the Central Valley and Southern California, which would hamper efforts to protect endangered fish. The bill’s proponents argue that addressing water shortages should take precedence. This shows how decisions made to manage the drought this year will not only affect future water supplies, but also the health of ecosystems, protected species, and agricultural sectors.

Even though California, along with much of the West, has managed with droughts in the past, this is a new scale. Just take the snowpack. Even in the driest year to date, 2013, the Sierra snowpack in mid-January was at normal or just above normal levels in mid-January. As of mid-January this year, however, the snowpack is at only 8-22 percent of normal levels across the Sierras. This snowpack is California’s largest and most reliable water supply, but if the driest year on record followed a normal snowpack in January 2013, the low measurements of January 2014 spell nothing but trouble. To ensure that the state can push through this drought, and ensure resilience in dry years to come, it is critical that communities and decision-makers act boldly with an eye for long-term consequences and lasting change.

Unfortunately, the current policy approach is more reactive than pro-active, with only a few cities, like San Francisco, having made investments to ease water shortages after prior droughts. Voluntary cuts have a limited impact, in part because mandatory cuts are sometimes just around the corner. Those who follow the voluntary cuts are hit even harder if or when mandatory cuts set in, forcing them to reduce water use even further, especially if mandatory measures are percentage cuts, rather than restrictions on activities like watering lawns or washing cars. While cuts and restrictions may help the state make it through this drought, they are not a long-term solution. Given that California’s population continues to grow and that water resources are dwindling, the approach must instead focus on finding opportunities, linkages, and incentives that strive to prepare the state for a resilient future.

The drought is a wake-up call that it is time to do away with outdated infrastructure and environmental policies, come together as communities to reassess our values and priorities, and broaden the discussion of climate change beyond energy. For young people in the West who know that they will be living through more dry years to come, this is a chance to innovate and find ways to reduce the need for water. In California, this means a renewed focus on innovation in agricultural water use and management systems. Agriculture accounts for about three-quarters of California’s water use, and it plays a critical role in California’s economy and food supply. However, rural communities often lack the resources to invest in new water infrastructure or manage water uncertainty from year to year.

Though urban areas use less water, they must address this question as well, particularly as populations grow. This must include some lifestyle changes, such as re-envisioning home and park landscaping to be drought resistant instead of green and grassy. It also requires searching for waste and opportunities to link systems, such as using grass and weed cuttings from medians and other areas as feed for livestock instead of using water to grow separate pastures. Looking forward, we can change what we use and what we waste to better reflect the realities we see in our communities. Instead of relying heavily on massive state-wide water plans and waiting for officials to announce mandatory cuts to water use, we can aim for creative locally-based actions that will prepare our communities to better manage our water in the long-term.

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

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President Obama: Give Millennials a Seat at the Table on Climate Change

Nov 22, 2013Melia Ungson

Solutions to climate change begin at the community level, and tomorrow's leaders must be involved in the planning process today.

Solutions to climate change begin at the community level, and tomorrow's leaders must be involved in the planning process today.

Over the past several months, climate change has finally inched toward the spotlight. President Obama issued a Climate Action Plan in June, and a few months later he directed the EPA to enforce carbon emission limits for power plants. As a recent UN report further solidified that human activity is the cause of climate change, Obama has taken another step toward ensuring that the United States sticks to its international commitments and that the country is prepared to mitigate and adapt to changes at home. Shortly after the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, on November 1, the President issued an executive order, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.” This executive order paves the way for more prepared and resilient communities, but it is no substitute for young people, who will be the leaders of tomorrow, engaging in conversations to reenvision government’s role in addressing climate change.

In the executive order, Obama recognizes first the obligation to leave a healthy planet to future generations, and second that communities are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Added to the urgency is the fact that the communities most greatly impacted by climate change are often those that already contend with other problems, such as weak economies or regional health problems.

According to the White House, the executive order is meant to ensure that the federal government is equipped to effectively support “community-based preparedness and resilience efforts” through policies and investment priorities that advocate preparedness, protect infrastructure, support scientific research, and “protect and serve citizens in a changing climate.” More concretely, this means finding a way to modernize federal agencies and federal programs in order to encourage government at every level to consider climate risks and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

To do this, the federal government is looking to the state and local levels. President Obama has created a task force made of governors, mayors, and tribal and local officials who have volunteered to participate. According to the White House, the task force will provide recommendations on how the federal government can remove “barriers to resilient investments, [modernize] Federal grant and loan programs to better support local efforts, and [develop] the information and tools they need to prepare.”

Far from a government takeover, the executive order calls for the federal government to look to state and local officials to gain insight on how to improve federal programs and better understand how communities can boost preparedness and innovation. Ultimately, the failure to prioritize climate change on the federal level is and will continue to be played out on a local level. This means that the local officials of tomorrow, who are the young people of today, will be forced to contend with changes in their communities and will be responsible for navigating the state and federal programs designed to provide support. Nancy Sutley, head of a White House environmental council, explained that communities are “on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of climate change.” That makes this bottom-up approach critical while the federal, state, and local levels of government incorporate climate change risks into project planning.

This order is an important step in ensuring that government at every level will be better equipped to plan for and address climate change in the future. It will spur greater innovation by encouraging officials in DC and around the country to think creatively by promoting data-sharing and collaboration for informed and coordinated efforts, and by opening a space, through the task force, for officials to come together and provide feedback.

Furthermore, this action is important in building a more vibrant economy and government in the long run. The federal government will continue to be called on to foot the bill for disaster relief after major storms or droughts, to compensate for the effects of ailing infrastructure, and to support communities that are struggling to adapt to climate change. Given this potential for real burdens on the government budget, we cannot wait to act if we want to protect both our communities and our economy. We need to create our own climate insurance of sorts. The steps we take now toward preparation and mitigation could be less costly overall than waiting until the urgency is greater and options more limited.

White House staff understand this need. John P. Holdren, the President’s science advisor, noted how the executive order emphasizes the need to make current investments “produce a much more resilient society.” This future-oriented thinking is essential if we want to effectively address climate change and if we want to fulfill the moral obligation to leave future generations with a healthy planet and resilient communities. More immediately, when Millennials are in positions of power, we know that climate change will be high on the agenda, and therefore understand that it is our generation that will reap the rewards or manage the clean-up of whatever actions we take or do not take in the coming months and years.

Our generation needs to go one step beyond this executive order. This call for a bottom-up approach, for crowdsourcing ideas, feedback, and innovation should extend to Millennials around the country as well. We know we have a huge stake in preparing our communities for the future, and we cannot sit back and wait for our turn to take the reins. A clear next step to the executive order would be to engage youth representatives, students, and young professionals in a task force that would emphasize a forward-thinking approach. To get there, Millennials can take an active role in learning from local officials grappling with climate change impacts as they arise, so that we are more knowledgeable and prepared when the problems are squarely in our hands. Millennials can also take an active role in proposing and testing solutions that will start building stronger communities today. We must take on the responsibility to engage with local officials, harness our creativity and skills, and stay dedicated to a long-term vision. 

Melia Ungson is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment.

Hurricane Sandy image via Shutterstock.

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