I heard Rabbi Joel Sisenwine say that when a politician sees or knows he is a rabbi, the first thing they say is they “support Israel.”
“That’s good,” he says—because he supports Israel. But he goes on to say Jews’ political interests go beyond Israel, including issues such as climate change.
Climate change is not just an urgent issue, but an opportunity to address economic disparity. It is hard to miss the urgent calls to do something about global warming. From the Paris Agreement to Greta Thunberg, to President Biden’s infrastructure legislation and unusual climate patterns and their destruction—all serve as a call to action.
According to a report from Morgan Stanley, estimates of how much money it would take to end global climate change range between $300 billion and $50 trillion over the next two decades.
Morgan Stanley produced this report to help investors, as the report identifies companies that will benefit from this level of spending. The Morgan Stanley report focuses on reducing net carbon emissions to zero in five major areas: renewables, electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biofuels.
There are relatively few Black-owned companies in these areas, which means Black people won’t be participating in the opportunity to reduce global warming. This could be an opportunity to help Black businesses, or it could be another missed opportunity.
During COVID-19, the government awarded contracts to businesses that had little or no experience. The emergency declaration meant mayors and governors could and did give out no-bid contracts to businesses that had marginal qualifications. So, it’s not unprecedented to think that the government could help Black businesses start or expand in these growth areas.
The second concern is how the issue is framed. Stopping or reducing global warming is not the same as achieving environmental justice. The City of Boston has a plan to reduce climate change, achieve carbon neutrality and reduce sea level erosion related to climate change. What the city does not have is a plan to reduce existing environmental hazards.
Grove Hall in Boston, like many urban areas across America, has numerous existing environmental hazards that need to be addressed. Grove Hall has 3% of the city’s geography, but 38% of the city’s brownfields (potentially contaminated land). Grove Hall has little tree canopy and lots of hardscapes, contributing to heat islands and stormwater runoff problems. In addition, the exhaust from vehicle traffic contributes to the poor air quality.
These are environmental problems Black businesses could fix by brownfield reclamation, building rain gardens and bioswales, installing reflective or solar panels, roof gardens and other environmental mitigation efforts. But will they get a chance? Not if they are funded by the public sector.
The City of Boston’s latest commissioned report shows the city spent $2.1 billion over five years and bought only 0.4% of its procured services and products from Black businesses.
According to the Supplier Diversity Office (SDO) report, Massachusetts State agencies spent $4.8 billion in 2020, but Black-owned businesses were awarded only $11 million in state contracts.
On the federal level, there is no evidence that Boston’s minority vendors materially benefited from the $24.3 billion “Big Dig” project.
As a newcomer, it’s hard to win existing contracts that require beating incumbents. That’s why it’s important to capitalize on new opportunities. In the 2014 to 2015 season, Boston reported 108.6 inches of snow at Boston’s Logan Airport. This required spending $60 million on snow removal services, far more than the $18.5 million the city budgeted.
The City of Boston has contracts for individuals to remove snow from sidewalks and parking lots. This would have been an ideal time to hire a minority company or companies to shovel snow and plow, as the skill and equipment required were minimal. If only 20% of the $42 million went to Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs), that alone would have doubled the city’s procurement from minority businesses. These CORI-friendly jobs could have made a difference in the lives of 200 Roxbury residents.
The government spent over $2.5 trillion on the pandemic. This crisis created an opportunity for CIC Health, a (white) company that did not exist before the pandemic and had no prior experience in health care. Not only did they receive a contract from the state for testing, but they were also able to leverage that contract into ones with 14 other states. They would eventually get contracts for doing vaccinations as well.
If the past is prologue, the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will miss another opportunity to help Black businesses participate in the $300 billion to $50 trillion about to be spent on climate change.
The state should create an inventory or directory of every Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) company in the environmental cluster in the commonwealth, discuss their needs in relation to growth and develop an implementation plan to address the challenges. This is new money that doesn’t require taking contracts or market share from incumbents. We have to look at these crises as opportunities to deal with other social challenges. Investing in the BIPOC environmental cluster should be included in the Baker/Polito administration’s legislation to invest $750 million in clean energy innovation and workforce development.
Addressing climate change and environmental justice provides an opportunity to literally “repair the world” and creates opportunities to address economic disparities and injustice.
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