BY JAMES WERNICKE
“True environmental wellbeing will only exist when there is human wellbeing.” – Julian Agyeman, climate justice activist
At February’s Utility Board meeting, Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities proposed rate increases to recover the costs of rising natural gas prices. The proposal will be submitted for approval by Council on March 28. Those who can afford to convert to electric appliances will pay less for energy, leaving this burden on those who can least afford it. This underscores the equity issues facing energy and climate policies. As Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) describes it, “an equitable energy system is one where the economic, health, and social benefits of participation extend to all levels of society. Achieving energy equity requires intentionally designing systems, technology, procedures, and policies that lead to the fair and just distribution of benefits in the energy system. Equity is just as important a goal as decarbonization when envisioning the future power grid.”
A point of concern is that energy policy is dominated by American and European environmentalists. Their priorities may differ from people like the economically disadvantaged, women, people of color, equatorial farmers, arctic fishermen, and the unempowered world. Our national policies reflect this bias by giving tax breaks to those who can afford electric vehicles, solar panels, and heat pumps, granting billions to corporations, and making energy less affordable for everybody else. Without diverse stakeholder representation, policies intended to reduce emissions may do more harm than good. For example, restricting natural gas production could prolong global dependence on Russian gas, coal, and deforestation. Electric vehicles reduce emissions for the developed world at the expense of places like the Congo and Chile. Some policies aim to make low-carbon energy and energy efficiency more accessible but may need more attention given to energy independence. Fossil fuel subsidy reform and windfall taxes could help underserved communities catch up. Instead of responding with vitriol, skepticism about climate change impact, fossil fuel alternatives, and grid resilience could be welcomed as opportunities for research and debate to develop more equitable decarbonization goals.
Los Alamos’s Strategic Leadership Plan is explicit about decarbonizing Los Alamos by 2040. If that is more than greenwashed rhetoric, policymakers could reassure us that equity is as important as decarbonization. Like housing and healthcare, energy is a captive market where consumers can be especially vulnerable to uninformed policies. We could be more creative than just raising fossil fuel prices. Constructing high-efficiency live-work units, deploying public EV transportation, and increasing remote work could reduce commuter emissions and energy costs for the most affected. We could advocate for the safety of nuclear energy. Got ideas? Share them with County Council, the Public Utility Board, and Utilities Manager Philo Shelton on or before the March 28 Council meeting.