Solar panels in Queens (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)
The Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the country shows that New Yorkers demand not only equal treatment by law enforcement and an end to police brutality, but also greater government accountability and responsiveness to the needs of Black residents and other New Yorkers of color. Even before the protests began last month, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown New Yorkers made clear that the pre-coronavirus world was unsustainable. Structural racism has magnified the crisis brought by the virus, especially in New York City. As we look to a post-covid future, we have to imagine a more equal society.
The pandemic and protests also highlight the urgency of fighting climate change — even as we stay focused on containing the epidemic, rebooting the economy, and responding to protesters’ demands. The United States has largely been unprepared for the pandemic, despite knowing for years that such a crisis could occur. Similarly, officials have known about the potential threat posed by climate change for decades. And the devastation caused by the virus might pale in comparison to the climate crisis, with more frequent and intense heat waves, more powerful hurricanes and flooding, food insecurity, and water shortages.
Climate change will also exacerbate the inequality that COVID-19 and police brutality have exposed: New Yorkers who struggle to make ends meet may be unable to bear the financial burden of rebuilding or moving if their homes are threatened by severe flooding, and the health dangers of heat waves and pollution disproportionately threaten New Yorkers of color. The City is already working to mitigate these risks. As New York City Chief Climate Policy Advisor Daniel A. Zarrilli wrote in April, “we can choose to emerge stronger and more resilient from this crisis with a green recovery that prioritizes clean energy infrastructure, job creation, and environmental justice.”
Green participatory budgeting, with which New York City can both tackle climate change and create a more equal, democratic society, should be part of this green recovery.
Participatory budgeting was first implemented 30 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil; the process allows citizens to propose and vote on local investment projects using a portion of the city’s budget. New York City’s participatory budgeting program, now carried out in dozens of City Council districts, launched in 2011. Studies from the City University of New York have shown that participatory budgets succeed in giving marginalized residents more power over their communities and are “more inclusive and attractive than local elections in terms of race and class,” which can help to reduce inequality.
By launching “green” participatory budgets — allocating money specifically towards projects focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making neighborhoods more resilient to the effects of climate change — New York City can channel citizens’ enthusiasm to fight climate change into productive action and, at the same time, enjoy the social and democratic benefits of participatory initiatives.
Lisbon, which won the 2020 European Green Capital Award, may have been the first city to implement a green participatory budget last year, when it allocated 5 million euros to the initiative. Brussels’ city climate plan also includes a green participatory budget.
In May, Gotham Gazette reported that the expanded, citywide participatory budgeting program envisioned by the new Civic Engagement Commission is unlikely to be funded in light of the city’s fiscal crisis. However, the scale of the protests over the past two weeks shows that the city must be creative and flexible in reallocating resources. Funding as much of the Civic Engagement Commission’s $500 million proposal as possible, and allocating a portion of that budget to a green participatory budget, would represent a strong investment in New York communities most affected by COVID-19 and racism — which are often the same communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Right now, as New York City focuses on the multifaceted challenge that confronts it, it’s hard to imagine rolling out a new initiative like a green participatory budget. But this crisis has proven that robust local democracy is vital to provide solutions for our most pressing problems — and that New York residents are yearning for a more inclusive, just city. As we reconstruct our society in a post-covid world and strive to affirm that Black lives matter, let’s do everything we can to tackle the existential threat of climate change, and empower citizens to take matters into their own hands.
Nikhil Kumar is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School. He has worked on participatory democracy and municipal climate policy in Strasbourg and Helsinki.