A Sustainable Idea: Create State-owned Banks
Without a hammer, the house designs of the world’s greatest architect are worthless. Without a kitchen, a five-star chef’s recipes are of no use. And environmentalists who dream of a sustainable world but are without the tools to build it can’t do much.
A small energy company wants to build a wind farm. A young person hopes to be an organic farmer. A homeowner looks to erect solar panels on her roof. A school aspires to super-insulate its building. An entrepreneur plans to start a local organic food business. Another wants to start a local construction business to build the highly energy-efficient and furnace-free Passiv Haus.
What do these steps toward sustainability have in common? They all require an upfront capital investment, namely money. Initially, it takes some green to be green. Without financing the best intentions to cut carbon fall short.
Ohioans can try to conserve energy at home, but if 86 percent of their electricity is coming from coal-fired power plants, how much progress can be made? And in a poorly-insulated, drafty house, or driving a gas-guzzler how much energy can one save? At some point personal behavior changes aren’t enough. To become sustainable, we need large-scale investments, which require capital.
Unfortunately money and lines of credit to do so are not easy to come by these days. Many of us are barely able to keep up with our current expenses and increasingly governments are cutting back. Let’s face it: The financing for sustainable infrastructure projects and start-up businesses comes from private banks, lending at compound interest. If they won’t lend, we can’t go green.
For example, the village of Yellow Springs, where I live, recently cancelled a contract with Columbus-based SolarVision to build a $10 million 2.5-megawatt solar farm on municipal land that was expected to provide 10 percent of the town’s electricity. In 10 years, the community could have purchased the array to have a secure, renewable, locally-produced power source for decades to come.
But the deal was called off because SolarVision struggled to raise money from so-called institutional investors, such as banks, insurance companies and mutual funds, which are now seen as reluctant to support renewable energy projects in the wake of the Obama administration’s Solyndra fiasco last year, as well as concerns that Ohio may revoke its renewable energy portfolio standard, according to Mike Dickman, SolarVision’s vice president. “With all of that, it makes investors run hot and cold,” he said.
If SolarVision could successfully raise the $60 million to $80 million it needs for its planned 10 Ohio solar projects totaling 20.5 megawatts, it could nearly double the current solar capacity of the state. What stands between Ohio and green electricity—and other sustainability projects—are the banks and other reluctant investors.
There has to be another way. In other words, how can we get access to the financial tools necessary to build a sustainable world? The answer may be through public banking, and one state, North Dakota, points the way.
That’s because North Dakota is home to the nation’s only state-owned bank, created in 1919 following a tide of farm foreclosures. The bank, with state revenues as its primary deposit base, leverages capital to lend directly or through partnering with community banks to promote development of commerce, agriculture and industry in the state, whose population of slightly less than 700,000 is about one third the size of metropolitan Cleveland’s.
The North Dakota bank makes loans to local businesses, farmers, college students and others. By partnering with the state bank, local banks can expand their loan portfolios, make bigger loans, retain customers and better compete with the big Wall Street banks. And the interest payments which go to the state bank could be used for additional lending as well as to reduce state taxes.
How exactly would public banks accelerate sustainability efforts though? According to a fact sheet prepared by green-conscious organizers for a proposed public bank in the District of Columbia in the nation’s capital, public banks can help re-localize goods and services within a local economy thus reducing a community’s dependence upon global trade and its high energy costs. And these public banks can invest in infrastructure for electric vehicles, building efficiency improvements, small organic farms and local food distribution systems and community composting and recycling programs.
North Dakota, incidentally, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and is the only state to have a significant budget surplus every year since the financial crash of 2008, while most states currently have budget shortfalls, according to the California-based Public Banking Institute, which also says that legislation to create a state-owned bank or study the idea has been introduced in about a third of the states since 2010. Ohio is not one of them.
However, at the request of Ohio Rep. Nan Baker the Ohio Legislative Services Commission studied the North Dakota model last year, comparing it with current lending programs in Ohio. The commission's cursory report suggests that a state bank in Ohio, with all state money deposited in it, would adversely affect financial institutions which now act as public depositories for state funds. But the report does note that the Bank of North Dakota has transferred $555 million in profits to North Dakota’s general fund since 1945. (Over the last decade the amount transferred into the general fund has increase to about $30 million a year).
The recently formed Public Banking Institute is promoting creation of public banks in states, counties and cities across America and kicked off this effort with its first national conference in Philadelphia in April. The institute sees public banks as a way to increase government revenues and reduce the pressure for tax increases as the nation confronts the economic crises in the U.S. states.
With the public banking movement gaining momentum, many Americans have been moving their deposits from large commercial banks into community banks. According to the Move Your Money Project, an estimated 10 million accounts have left the largest banks since 2010 while credit union assets rose above $1 trillion this year for the first time ever. And as part of re-localizing our economies, Americans could also divert their investments from Wall Street, which total an estimated $30 trillion, into such ventures as investing in local enterprises and start-ups, upgrading their homes and otherwise financially supporting community sustainability efforts.
Investing in our own communities, combined with promoting public banking in our states, counties and cities, are important steps to take in seeking to channel our savings, investments and tax dollars into building the physical and financial infrastructures that will allow us to live more resiliently on far less energy as we face the consequences of dwindling fossil fuels, climate change and economic decline in the 21st Century.
Visit Public Banking Institute for more information.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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