From rising temperatures to unprecedented weather events, the increasingly apparent impacts of climate change have exposed longstanding infrastructure gaps and prompted new urgency to addressing them. Many of these gaps stem from a historical lack of infrastructure investments in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, leading to devastatingly unequal impacts of progressing climate change. As the U.S. considers the implementation of the substantial infrastructure investments included in the Build Back Better Act, there is an opportunity to chart a different course, to address decades of environmental injustices, and to prepare all people for a brighter future. Doing so requires not only identifying the most needed physical infrastructure, but also creating quality jobs that provide an opportunity to all and engage workers in building a sustainable green economy. Although the challenge is great, the opportunities are greater; as the economy recovers from a tumultuous pandemic, millions of workers are looking for quality jobs and are increasingly aware of the need for climate action. In October 2021, the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative partnered with the Siegel Family Endowment to host a roundtable discussion on how infrastructure investments can facilitate good jobs in an equitable green economy.
The roundtable brought together leaders and organizers from around the country who represented a diverse range of voices and communities with the goal of catalyzing engagement and action toward a more sustainable future. Participants came from community and advocacy groups, businesses, nonprofit organizations, research institutions, training providers, and government offices, and shared experience in and commitment to climate infrastructure and the green economy. Given the long history of racism shaping infrastructure investments in the U.S., the host organizations prioritized inviting participants who worked with Black, Brown, and Indigenous populations and others who have been historically excluded from federal policy decisions. Through the interactive virtual workshop, participants exchanged perspectives about promoting job quality and climate resiliency through infrastructure investments; developed ideas to implement in their work and communities; and fostered connections to continue to work toward change together.
Over the two-hour event, participants identified challenges, established a collective vision, and set forth ideas for the future. Through this conversation, several key themes emerged:
- Providing resources and relief for communities facing environmental injustices is an essential precursor to building a green economy;
- Accessible, quality jobs can help frame social and environmental needs as aligned, rather than opposed; and
- Centering joy and humanity rather than work set us up for a more sustainable future.
Immediate relief for environmental injustices
Participants shared that addressing immediate environmental concerns and systemic injustices often took priority in their respective workspaces and communities. Enduring barriers to reliable energy, clean and running water, or breathable air, drains the strength of a community. Depleting the community’s physical, economic, and mental resources traps them in inadequate situations, unable to find a path toward sustainable solutions for the future. Without addressing current environmental injustices, future investments in green energy and climate resiliency are likely to exacerbate these inequalities. Participants spoke of Black and Indigenous communities who have borne the brunt of environmental degradation, being excluded from decision-making around solutions and future investments. They spoke of their efforts to bring clean energy to Native reservations, and to provide Black Americans good jobs in green energy; these types of approaches that explicitly undo generations of exclusion need to form the basis of a green economy.
In order to avoid repeating the past, participants suggested that historically excluded groups frame the climate and labor crises for themselves and that solutions originate in these communities. Doing so requires an engagement campaign that first restores basic resources where they are lacking, and then builds solutions from the ground up. Such a program has the potential to empower workers while simultaneously tackling workforce challenges, climate-related hardships, and economic inequalities.
Aligning economic and environmental goals through good jobs
Across a range of contexts, several participants expressed how climate needs and human needs are two sides of the same coin — solutions that are good for the planet are good for people. Yet, environmental, social, and economic needs are often presented in opposition. Creating good, community-based, green jobs presents an opportunity to align these interests in perception and practice. Infrastructure investments can and must create these jobs — and must also be accessible to the people who need them most. Creating these career pathways means intentionally working with communities, including and especially those who have been excluded from past investments.
Several participants described working within communities that are not fully aware of what the green economy is, much less equipped with the resources necessary to support building it. Working with communities to establish training programs focused on green infrastructure and clean energy could help pave career pathways that both engage and directly benefit Black, Brown, and Indigenous workers — again aligning immediate economic needs with long-term sustainability.
Given the immense tolls of living with environmental injustices, the constant uncertainty of a pandemic combined with climate change and deep inequalities, and decades of deteriorating job quality, participants highlighted that a critical and often overlooked challenge for workers is weariness. Taking on the work of building a greener economy will demand even more from workers. In order for that to be feasible, we need to reframe narratives and restructure work to better support people’s lives. For many, spending more time at home during the pandemic illustrated how meaningful and important time away from work can be. Despite the adversity COVID-19 has presented, some workers have reflected and rethought how they spend their time. While many face pressure to get back to jobs, many workers may be understandably hesitant to readapt to pre-pandemic expectations of overwork. This type of reflection — on behalf of workers, employers, policymakers, and society at large — presents an opportunity to radically reimagine what we expect from work. Roundtable participants talked about how a green and equitable economy necessitates uplifting workers’ hope, joy, and rest. Several participants spoke as organizers, voicing the difficulty they have had in restoring hope to underserved and underfunded communities or establishing trust while lacking resources. Communities that have endured environmental injustice struggle to maintain the energy or resources they need to survive. In order to work for a green future, everyone must be able to envision a green future worth working for that includes balance, joy, and dignity.
In October’s roundtable, participants agreed that future infrastructure investments must disrupt inequitable systems in order to build a fairer and greener economy. Doing so requires a new approach to decision-making and investment that prioritizes workers, communities, and organizations closest to impact. Engaging and empowering these actors promises to provide immediate relief to in-need communities while developing sustainable infrastructure for all. Upcoming investments, including those of the Build Back Better Act, present a crucial opportunity to commit to climate resiliency, good jobs, and empowered workers.
Tweet As the US considers new infrastructure investments through the #BuildBackBetter Act, there is an opportunity to address decades of environmental injustices and prepare all people for a brighter future.
Tweet “As the economy recovers from the pandemic, workers are looking for quality jobs and are increasingly aware of the need for climate action…” How can infrastructure investments benefit #jobquality, equity, and the environment?
Tweet In Oct 2021, @AspenFutureWork partnered with @siegelendowment to host a roundtable discussion on how #infrastructure investments can facilitate #goodjobs in an equitable green economy. Here are the takeaways.
Tweet Key insight from @AspenFutureWork and @siegelendowment’s October 2021 roundtable: Climate needs and human needs are two sides of the same coin. Solutions that are good for the planet are good for people.
The Future of Work Initiative aims to identify, develop, and amplify solutions that address the challenges of today while building toward a future in which workers are safe, empowered, and equipped to thrive in our changing world. The Future of Work Initiative is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.
The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.