Illinois Democrats are split on the Green New Deal. But they all want a piece of the pie when it comes to climate change.

Rep. Sean Casten is laser-focused on carbon emissions. Sen. Tammy Duckworth announced a new push for environmental justice. Sen. Dick Durbin embraced the Paris climate accord at a student climate change rally in Federal Plaza. Rep. Jan Schakowsky joined others at a recent Loop rally criticizing the Trump administration’s plan to slash the Environmental Protection Agency budget. Even Rep. Dan Lipinski, considered one of the most centrist Democrats in the House, is working on a bill that would impose a fee on the carbon content of fuels.

Three months after the Green New Deal was greeted with a mix of shrugs and cheers, laughs and resolve, Illinois Democrats are hastening to stake their claim on environmental issues. As climate change becomes more important to voters as a campaign issue, it’s clear Illinois politicians are paying attention, trying to find their climate niche and put their stamp on a proposal that blue state voters will support. A recent report from the Pew Research Center noted that 83 percent of Democrats (compared with 27 percent of Republicans) view climate change as a major threat to the country.

The Green New Deal has been lambasted by critics as an unrealistic example of liberal pie-in-the-sky dreams. But students at a climate change march last week embraced the proposal, with someone shouting “Green New Deal!” in the middle of Durbin’s short speech to attendees.

Analysis: The Green New Deal is more New Deal than green »

The key moving forward, Casten said, is to put an array of “legit experts” in the room to provide their expertise on a variety of economic, energy and environmental policies so that meaningful, long-lasting legislation can be crafted.

“It didn’t happen with the Green New Deal. It also didn’t happen with — it’s not happening right now in Congress. And so it’s personally frustrating for me because until that conversation starts, we can’t get to the point of having legislation that works,” Casten said.

Local rallies

During spring recess, several Illinois House Democrats made a point to attend an Earth Day rally in Federal Plaza protesting the Trump administration’s proposal to cut the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Casten, Schakowsky and Garcia joined members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, the union that represents EPA employees across the Midwest. The union says the Trump administration’s budget would cut funding for the EPA by 31 percent. Those reductions, said Nicole Cantello, the president of the AFGE Local 704, would mean that EPA scientists, including those here in Illinois, would stop working on climate change research and be directed to other work.

“It’s bizarre in the extreme,” Cantello said, that the Trump administration has positioned itself in such a way on climate issues.

While some politicians may criticize the Green New Deal as too broad in scope or out of touch with reality, Cantello said that at least its proposals are forward-thinking and concentrate on the urgent need to address climate change in a meaningful way, including respecting the work of scientists who are studying not only carbon emissions and greenhouse gases related to automobiles and power plants but the impact of more obscure areas such as the role of concrete production or the use of silicon on the environment.

The demonstrations are being organized by more than insiders and policy wonks. Durbin’s appearance before the high school student-led U.S. Youth Climate Strike showed politicians are also paying attention to the next generation of voters. The march and rally in the Loop was organized by Isabella Johnson, a junior at Benet Academy in Lisle. Johnson said it’s time for legislators to not only tune in to the concerns of teens but to find solutions.

“Our biggest demand is that we get something passed into legislation and that it gets us focused on the future,” said Johnson, 16, of Naperville. “When an issue is this important, you really just need to do it, no matter how you pay for it.”

Environmental justice

Another component of the environmental movement, also addressed in the Green New Deal, is environmental justice and the idea that climate change unfairly affects people who live in poor and minority neighborhoods. Those communities tend to have more factories or power plants and residents there live closer to dirty air or contaminated water supplies. A section of the Green New Deal targets promoting justice and equity in communities of color, arguing that “climate change, pollution and environmental destruction have exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental and economic injustices.”

Duckworth’s creation of the Environmental Justice Caucus, which she co-chairs with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., one of the many Democrats running for president and a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, will focus on that disparity.

“Every American has the right to breathe safe air, drink clean water and live on uncontaminated land regardless of their ZIP code, the color of their skin or how much money they have,” Duckworth said in a statement in response to questions from the Tribune. “But far too often that is not the case, especially for lower income communities and communities of color. There’s something wrong when black kids on the South and West sides of Chicago are eight times more likely to die from asthma than white children and when millions of children across this country are at risk of being poisoned by lead in places they are supposed to be safe, like at home or in school. This isn’t just an environmental issue, it’s a matter of health and safety — of systemic racism and justice.”

A spokesman for Duckworth said the senator was concerned about racial disparities in the way environmental hazards are addressed, contrasting the handling and attention of emissions of ethylene oxide in Willowbrook with similar concerns in Waukegan. Many of the worst pollution issues in Chicago, Duckworth said, such as those in the neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southeast Side and majority-Hispanic areas of the city, disproportionately affect communities of color.

The concept of environmental justice is also in the spotlight at the state level. Activists last month held a small rally along the Chicago River downtown to criticize proposed legislation at the state level they say unfairly targets residents who demonstrate against polluters or the companies that may be planning the expansion of pipelines or projects that will negatively impact a neighborhood’s environment. The activists underscored the need to move toward clean energy sources, protect funding for the EPA at the federal and state levels and resist lobbying forces that are pushing lawmakers in Springfield to make it easier for corporations to expand infrastructure rooted in industries such as coal-fired power plants that contribute to climate change.

Chris Shuttlesworth, who lives in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, was one of the members of The People’s Lobby group speaking out against the inequities that people in less affluent, minority neighborhoods face. Shuttlesworth said he and his neighbors live with the constant foul smell from nearby landfills. He worries about contaminated groundwater and polluted air because of all the industry, large and small, in his community.

“We need more awareness,” Shuttlesworth said, “and less silence.”

Celeste Flores, with the Lake County branch of the Faith in Place group, also attended the rally to highlight how majority Latino communities in and near Waukegan experience increased levels of childhood asthma and polluted area than their counterparts in other parts of the county.

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May 13, 2019 at 05:03AM

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