Unemployment. Sickness. Polluted air. Flooding. Around the world, the great crises of our time — coronavirus and climate change — rain their ugliest impacts on the most vulnerable among us. New Haven is a case in point: Poor black and brown New Haveners are being hospitalized with COVID-19 at disproportionate rates and bearing the brunt of rising unemployment. And climate change, a crisis with no clear end date, promises to entrench this inequity further yet if we don’t act now.
Luckily, we have the resources here in New Haven — and more specifically, at Yale –– to do just that. To respond to the coronavirus crisis, Yale should fund a Green New Deal for New Haven.
A large-scale green jobs and investment program in New Haven would put residents back to work while preventing the compounding effects of these two crises. This would prevent the city from heading down an increasingly apocalyptic path. The Green New Deal resolution introduced in the U.S. Congress, which calls for a ten-year mobilization to transition the economy off of fossil fuel power, can serve as a template.
A local green stimulus package would make New Haven a national model for pandemic and climate resilience. Even if federal or state funding becomes available, a local policy is crucial to ensure responsiveness to specific community needs.
In an ideal world, Yale administrators would read this and get to work disbursing funds to the city government. After all, the University has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a leader on climate mitigation and research. It has even committed to transition University properties to net-zero emissions by 2050. And yet, Yale refuses to recognize its own financial complicity in the climate crisis through its investments in fossil fuels and fund managers with holdings in Puerto Rican debt.
Yale is also dragging its feet on committing resources to New Haven during the pandemic, only capitulating when bad press and pressure from activists lay bare the situation. The modest steps the University has taken only came about following pressure from high school students, teachers, labor advocates and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker.
All of this means that the Yale and New Haven communities must step up and demand action. Fortunately, the ball is already rolling, and it’s only picking up speed.
As an organizer with the Endowment Justice Coalition, I have participated in a series of meetings with leaders of community, student and labor organizations imagining what a Green New Deal could look like in New Haven and strategizing about how to make it happen. These meetings have shown that a powerful coalition of groups has a stake in this fight. And they have created a space to envision a radically different relationship between Yale and the city, one rooted in real accountability and racial justice.
Working together, these groups have already created a grassroots infrastructure to demand aggressive climate action from Yale and the city. And they have located three key areas where investment is most needed: green jobs; sustainable, affordable housing; and a revitalized net-zero public transit system.
What would such programs look like in New Haven? While more work needs to be done to gather input, excellent ideas have already been proposed. With resources from Yale, the city could train and employ residents to install solar panels on thousands of rooftops across the city. New Haveners could construct low-carbon, rent-controlled housing units and retrofit the city’s thousands of inefficient buildings.
Others could be employed to transition the city’s electric power production — New Haven’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — to local wind and solar fields. And the city could electrify its bus fleet and expand its public transit system to make it more accessible and reliable. All of these programs could require that high proportions of those trained and hired be from the city’s neighborhoods of greatest need and that all new jobs be unionized. In this way, a Green New Deal for New Haven could also reverse Yale’s decades-long neglect of the city while addressing the economic, public health and climate crises it faces.
New Haven has too often been left behind and disrespected as the University’s endowment accumulates tens of billions of dollars. Because of Yale’s extensive property tax exemptions, the city’s taxpayers effectively subsidize the University to the tune of $146 million a year. The community group New Haven Rising is leading the charge to win that lost revenue back from Yale, and has already won major victories in hiring and job training. Grassroots organizations are coalescing to demand that revenue be used to make sustainable, transformative investments that provide dignified work to those who are experiencing economic instability most acutely.
As we face down historic crises of global proportions, Yale has two options for how to respond. It can turn inward, insisting to the world and to itself that it, too, is threatened by financial uncertainty in these uncertain times of COVID-19. It can leave the city to face a health crisis, mass unemployment and climate devastation on its own. Or, it can recognize that, especially in times of crisis, it is incumbent upon those with the most resources to spread them widely.
But we don’t have time to wait and find out what path Yale will take. I hope you’ll join hundreds of us at the Earth Day Online Rally next Wednesday. We must demand a Green New Deal for New Haven now.
BEN LEVIN is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .