The Center for American Progress’ From the State House to the White House initiative describes how bold climate action by state, local, and tribal governments can be implemented at the federal level. In this video, state Rep. Kam Buckner (D-IL) discusses his state’s ongoing efforts to enact a 100 percent clean energy standard, reduce transportation pollution, lower utility bills, and meet the environmental justice mandate.
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Produced by Hai-Lam Phan.
Chris Chyung is the campaign manager for the State House to the White House initiative with the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress.
Chris Chyung: Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “A single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Today, state, local, and tribal leaders are boldly taking on those risks and pursuing innovative legislation and executive action to shape the pro-climate, pro-labor and pro-justice vision for the future. Today, we’re joined by Rep. Kam Buckner of Illinois, chair of the Illinois House Black Caucus. Welcome.
Rep. Kam Buckner: Thank you.
Chyung: Let’s dive right in. I wanted to ask you, Representative, about your work on environmental justice, but let’s start first with the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which we were watching progress through the legislature but has stalled since. What’s going on in Illinois from start to finish?
Rep. Buckner: Now, we’re having some very intentional, deliberate, and passionate conversations around this issue. You started off your intro by talking about Justice Brandeis and a quote that he gave in a state that was called New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, which was one of my decisions to read when I was a young law student, but the laboratories of democracy are definitely at play here in the Clean Energy Jobs Act, something that had been put on the table, I think about three years ago. It was the first deal that I signed on to as a co-sponsor when I joined the General Assembly in 2019. And since then, there’s been a number of iterations of that bill and some more bills that still speak to the spirit of that. I am currently carrying Gov. Pritzker’s energy version, energy bill, which is the Consumers and Climate First Act, which really does have many of the tenets of CEJA in it.
There are also some tenets of a bill that Rep. Will Davis is carrying, which is called Path to 100. The meaning behind that is a path to 100 percent clean energy by the year 2050. And so we’ve had some conversations. We got really close to having a deal on this bill in late May and early June. However, some things broke down and there’s still some conversations that need to be had, but I am, as I tell folks who keep asking what’s going on with the Illinois energy bill—is it going to happen, is it not going to happen—I am not ready to call on St. Jude just yet. St. Jude is the patron saint of desperate causes and lost cases. So, I’m not discouraged so much by the delay that we’ve had, I’m actually encouraged by the possibility that the time that we have now, we can create the best bill possible, which is what all the people of Illinois deserve.
Chyung: Yeah, thanks for that context. And just for folks who might not be familiar with what my initiative is at the Center for American Progress. The State House to the White House initiative really highlights the bold climate and the labor and justice legislation that’s happening in the states. So, CEJA was definitely one of those things that we’re going to keep our eye on and continue to keep our eye on throughout the summer and maybe the fall, when it, when action is ultimately taken on it. And going to the environmental justice portion of CEJA and how this is so critical and how your work from everything we can read about you online—this is a really important topic for you. Your district in Chicago is representative of—I’m from Northwest Indiana, so I have some familiarity with the area—and you’ve got the Gold Coast and River North and Streeterville, but you stretch all the way down into the Southeast Side, which could not be more of an extreme economic spectrum in my perspective. So, how does the justice factor into the work that you’re doing, and what kinds of policies specifically are you looking at nowadays?
Rep. Buckner: Yeah. So, thank you for setting it up that way. Because representing such a socioeconomically diverse district, like the 26th District, I see what best practices look like and also see what neglect looks like around the state of Illinois, and specifically in parts of the city of Chicago. We know that largely Black and Latino and low-income communities are the ones who have suffered the breadth of America and Illinois’ obsession with not being environmentally sustainable. We know that in Latino communities, specifically in my district, we breathe dirtier air than some of our counterparts. And so, there’s a lot that we have to do to make sure that we put policy in place that addresses these issues in a substantive way.
The truth of the matter, it couldn’t be more of a stark example: We’ve got a serial polluter in Chicago that had a factory operation in Lincoln Park, which is a pretty well-to-do, predominantly white neighborhood in Chicago. And they basically blew it out of there, and they decided to move their operations to the Southeast Side of Chicago, just outside of my district. What I’ve tried to get people to realize is that if what they’re doing is too dirty and not good enough and not safe enough for the people in Lincoln Park, we should treat the people of the Southeast Side of South Chicago with the same exact reverence, but we haven’t done that, right? And so the environmental justice fight, environmental justice and sustainability, are all inextricably linked. And so, any course of action, whether it’s an energy bill or any environmental policy that we pursue that does not keep at its core the fact that we owe a debt to these communities that we have kind of thrown to the wayside, to me, does not hit the mark.
Chyung: Yeah. That’s a great framing by that company just up and moving operations from a wealthy neighborhood to a poor neighborhood. I mean, you couldn’t have any more of a stark kind of example of why we need environmental justice protections. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it’s around the two-year anniversary of the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, the EJNCP, which CAP and many other partner organizations were a part of in creating and dictating and getting all these stakeholders into a room as to how we can approach these in a whole-of-government approach, whether it’s affordable housing, whether it’s weatherization, remediation, investing in a civilian climate. Trying to tie it back to what’s going on in D.C., where we are right now and a lot of the federal policy that CAP focuses on.
I’m interested to hear, kind of, your take further on the EJ front, as to if there are certain pieces with—whether it’s different initiatives in your state or whether it’s different initiatives within the legislature—that kind of tie into the debate in Washington, namely the fact that the bipartisan framework at this point, we believe, does not have any environmental justice provisions or any Justice40 component in it.
Is there work that you’re doing around Justice40, maybe in CEJA or in some other initiatives that you’ve called for as well, that specifically are tailored for these kinds of situations?
Rep. Buckner: Yeah, I’ll say this. There—on the national side, on the federal side—there have been specifically on the House side, there have been some members who have really taken up the mantle on this and tried to find ways to get us to a better spot. I know Rep. Grijalva in Arizona worked on the Environmental Justice for All Act, which to me really encompassed the way we should be looking at environmental justice. I think the terms that they use in that bill was, that the bill was made to restore, reaffirm, and reconcile environmental justice and civil rights, and the priorities that we should be having when it comes to this. On the state level, it’s been a true north of mine to make sure that everything we do from policy standpoint has equity and justice at the center.
Since I got home from Springfield a couple of months ago, I’ve listened to constituents and business owners. And on a few things, they’ve been extremely clear: Simply put, Illinois, we have to find a way to move from just under 10 percent in clean energy generation to just over 40 percent in less than 10 years. And that only gets us halfway there. After that, you get to a 100 percent clean energy generation in just shy up 33 years, 29 years. That is a heavy lift.
The lift has to come with a commitment to produce and pass inclusive generational legislation based on avoiding the missteps of the past and creating a clean energy future that involves communities that have been downtrodden, that have been left behind, and have been purposely neglected. So, I’ll say this just to clear it all up. Yes, we’re working on a lot of the equity in the justice stuff here in Illinois, but in no certain, in no uncertain terms, any bill that does not have clear goals to eliminate carbon, address the climate crisis, and create an equitable playing field for Black and brown communities to share in the jobs and the benefits of clean energy is dead on arrival.
Chyung: I’m glad you bring up the decarbonization of power transmission as well. This is, of course, a huge component of the American Jobs Plan. And in terms of decarbonizing the economy and getting to net-zero, it’s buildings, transportation, the grid are kind of the big three, I’d say, that we’re focusing on—and the inclusion of a, potentially, a clean electricity payment program in lieu of a CES [clean energy standard] in the reconciliation package that was just announced a few days ago. And our excitement around that, as folks on the policy team at CAP, cannot be understated. So yeah, definitely a really important component.
I just wanted to switch gears a little bit to talk about how labor, organized labor, fits into the climate and environmental justice debate, and what your dealings have been around, with organized labor in Illinois. My understanding from what happened with CEJA, a little bit of the friction was between these communities, which is not something that’s new. You know, we’ve seen on things like pipelines and domestic mining, and things of issues of those, the closure of coal-fired power plants, that labor and green groups can be on the opposite sides of issues. Is this kind of what played out in Illinois?
Rep. Buckner: There’s been some, I won’t call it friction, but there’s been some, some very intensive and aggressive conversation about these things. There are obviously a bunch of different constituencies at the table, and all of us have our priorities. But I think what I’ve said very clear to my friends in the labor movement—and I identify myself as a friend of labor—what I’ve been very clear about is that the charges for the labor movement to stand shoulder to shoulder with our community, and the fight for civil rights and economic justice, it is evident, painfully evident, that some trade unions have over time stood in the way of Black and brown workers and contractors sharing of the chance to earn jobs, to build businesses, and to create generational wealth, by controlling access to apprenticeships and other training programs, especially in energy and construction industries.
So, now we have a chance, I believe, to right that wrong. And we have the ability to create a clean energy economy that is both equitable and climate friendly. And for our friends in labor, it creates opportunity for them to save the good-paying jobs and thousands of union workers and also open up economic opportunities to everyone in Illinois, while saving our planet so that our children and our grandchildren aren’t left with our mess, right? And so, I think that the answer is there, I think we know how to get there, and it’s going to take a process, but I wouldn’t go so far as saying that we could have still made—I think I’m still very optimistic that we can get to the right answer here.
Chyung: Yeah. And that ties in directly with, we just had a really recent report and a virtual event with John Podesta and Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler of AFL-CIO. And it was great to hear not only her commitment to apprenticeships but also the commitment to making sure that those justice components are met, and the long road that we have ahead, the work is never done for sure. And it’s a marathon, not a sprint, when it comes to include in Black and brown communities that have historically been left out of so many of these discussions. So yeah, I did also want to ask, specifically, I saw around the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative—like I said, I’m from Northwest Indiana, or a lakefront community, as well with our own environmental issues and justice issues—but you had come out with Sen. Durbin about ensuring that this initiative focuses on the EJ component as well. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Rep. Buckner: Yeah. So, and also, thank you for that, because when we talk about the Great Lakes and some of the work that needs to be done to protect our lake and our shoreline, we, I think, we often miss the conversation from an equity standpoint. I was happy to stand with Sen. Durbin and the work that he and Sen. Duckworth are doing in D.C. to fight. And then, when we protect our lakes, when we protect our natural resources, we also have to protect and prioritize historic, marginalized, and underserved communities throughout the Great Lakes region. And so, we came together to double down on the commitment to ensuring that environmental justice would be integrated into all of the work that the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative does, including programs, policies, and activities, in order to achieve environmental and public health improvements for communities that really have perpetually been disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risks, including many low-income, minority, tribal, and Indigenous communities.
Our charge, I believe, is to make a visible difference and improve the environment and public health in these overburdened communities. It helps us create a diverse, collaborative coalition, much like many of the coalitions that we put together in Chicago over the last year, that we’re really involved in a lot of lakes restoration stuff. And in my role, as a state representative, I see the state as co-regulators, and that creates a shared responsibility. Working with a singular focus through the value of collaboration as partners, to really achieve a real environmental justice. Once again, sustainable solutions for the Great Lakes that don’t have equity and environmental justice at their core are not sustainable at all. I’m going to keep that in mind.
Chyung: Yeah, that’s great to know. And for our last question, kind of again, pivoting towards the federal framework and the federal lens about this, if you had the opportunity to sit down with not just the legislative branch, as I’m sure you’re already talking with your federal legislators quite often nowadays, but also with the administration, also with the various agencies. We at our State House to the White House initiative are working with our partners in DOE and our partners across the federal family to try and streamline the rollout of these dollars, and make sure that they’re going to the right communities, making sure that states can get their hands on them. If there’s a split governance with a governor from one party and a legislature from another party, maybe you’ve got to go another route towards a regulatory body to get those dollars out the door. Is there anything kind of in that vein, if you had the opportunity to sit down with any folks in the federal family, what would you say to them today?
Rep. Buckner: Yeah. And thank you for that. That’s a great question. You know, aside from, as you said, the conversations that should and are being had at the legislative level, the conversations that need to be had, or that I would have with the Biden administration, both within the White House but also, as you said, with the Department of Energy and the Department of labor and the environmental protection folks, is that we’ve got to realize that the world is transforming its energy system from one dominated, obviously, by fossil fuel combustion, to one with a net-zero emission of carbon dioxide. That’s just the truth. And we know that we are not heading towards a climate cliff. We are on the precipice of the climate cliff, and we’re looking over, and we’ve got to figure out whether we’re going to fall forward or come backwards and try to create a better reality for all of us.
Energy transition is critical—critical to mitigating climate change and protecting human health and revitalizing our economy at the same time. All things can be done at once if we approach it with the right resources and with the right fervor. We have to make sure that everybody at the table better understands what net-zero transmission would—transition, sorry—would mean for all of us. And so that’s the education piece that I think that the administration should be charged with pursuing.
I also just want to double down on the fact that we can do all of this, and then also right some of the wrongs of the past when it comes to inequity in the energy sector. You know, you talked a little bit earlier about the work that we have to do to make things fair and even, and how it’s a marathon, not a sprint. I totally agree with that, but I will charge this administration and the folks who work for this administration, to find a hybrid modeling to make it a marathon sprint, right? We’ve got to go far, but we need to go fast. We can’t continue to wait. We got to get to work done.
Chyung: What a great note to end on. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Representative, we look forward to hearing more about your progress in the state of Illinois and building the pro-climate, pro-justice, pro-labor future for us all. Thank you.
Rep. Buckner: Thank you, Chris.