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Op-Ed: Governor Must Ensure Climate Program Protects NJ’s Most Vulnerable

‘Imploring’ Murphy to set strong cap on New Jersey’s carbon pollution, as state rejoins Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative

Rev. Fletcher Harper
Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith

Three years ago, following the release of Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, GreenFaith organized thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square from diverse faiths to express support from the world’s religions for a global climate agreement. It was a powerful moment during an important year for “our common home” as Pope Francis calls it, culminating in the December 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Now, given our national political context, state leadership on climate change matters more than ever. That’s why we’re imploring Gov. Phil Murphy to set a strong cap on New Jersey’s carbon pollution as the state rejoins the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and to ensure that a portion of the proceeds benefit poor communities, who suffer the worst impacts of climate change despite having contributed the least to this problem in the first place.

Early in his term, Gov. Murphy announced plans to rejoin RGGI. Now, he faces two important choices that will determine the real impact of this decision. First, the governor must decide on a cap on the level of CO2 emissions the state will permit. A strong cap is a cornerstone of an effective RGGI program, and would protect the environment and public health and boost the economy. A weak cap would undermine RGGI’s ability to make any difference at all. Research points to an optimal cap of 12 to 13 million tons of emissions for New Jersey in 2020, an achievable goal designed to maximize climate, health, and economic benefits. We urge the Murphy administration to adopt a cap at the upper end of this range.

Cooling centers, green infrastructure, electric buses

Second, we are calling upon the state to allocate at least 30 percent of RGGI revenues to protect environmentally overburdened communities from climate-change impacts, and to ensure these communities see real health and economic benefits from RGGI. Investments in cooling centers to help children and the elderly stay safe during summer heat waves, green infrastructure to absorb rainwater during severe storms and floods, electric buses for cities and cargo handling equipment at the ports, energy efficiency retrofits and community solar projects to lower energy costs for urban households — these are the kinds of common-sense projects that help the people who suffer most from climate change. They are absolutely the right way to dedicate a significant portion of RGGI’s funds.

Done correctly, RGGI is a program that works. Since its 2009 launch, participating states have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, due in significant part to the program. New Jersey was a part of RGGI from 2009 to 2011, during which time the program created over $150 million in economic value and hundreds of new jobs. The state government itself received more than $115 million in RGGI revenue, a portion of which was invested in supporting renewable energy and providing utility-bill assistance for ratepayers.

Cities like Newark should benefit

Alongside its climate and economic benefits, RGGI improves health by reducing air pollution, preventing thousands of asthma attacks, and averting tens of thousands of lost work days. A 2017 study valued RGGI’s health benefits at $5.7 billion.

These benefits matter enormously in environmentally overburdened communities such as Newark, with its proximity to major highways, streets crowded with cars and buses, thousands of truck trips daily to and from Ports Newark and Elizabeth, and diesel-powered cargo handling equipment at the ports. Approximately one in four Newark children suffer from asthma, a rate far higher than the state average. The scorching heat these past weeks serves as a reminder that access to cooling isn’t simply a matter of comfort, but a genuine public health imperative.

In rejoining RGGI, Gov. Murphy has an opportunity to make good on his commitments to climate leadership and social justice. At a time when the federal government is headed in reverse on climate policy, we urge his administration to do right by the state and its most vulnerable communities.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper is executive director of GreenFaith, an international, multifaith environmental organization based in New Jersey.

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