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OFF THE PLATE: DECEMBER 2008

José Bravo: Green Transit Can Solve Many Problems

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(Dec. 8, 2008)—While the automakers and the feds continue to hash out a temporary relief plan for the Big Three, climate change organizers are looking at the automaker financial debacle as an opportunity to instill green solutions in not just automobiles, but mass transit infrastructure, all in the interest of a healthy environmental climate for all communities and a more vibrant economy.

The trajectory between a stable economy and efforts around climate change made headlines on Monday with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's visit to the U.N. climate conference in Poland. While noting the global economy has eclipsed the climate change issues in recent news, Schwarzenegger said in a video message on the sidelines of the 187-nation conference, "Of course, there are some people who say that we can't afford the fight against global warming while our economies are down."

jose_bravoJust Transition Alliance, this is an ongoing dialog. JTA brings together labor, economic and environmental justice organizers with indigenous citizens and working-class people of color to build a just transition from unsafe workplaces and environments to healthy, viable communities with a sustainable economy. Bravo's expertise in climate change and climate justice will be key as he participates in President-elect Obama's transition team that deals with these issues.

I spoke to Bravo last week amid the numerous negotiations between the United Auto Workers and the U.S. federal government about green transit, climate change and environmental justice, and how they can all work together.

ASMAN: What opportunities exist for climate change and financial relief for the auto industry?

BRAVO: With the automaker's current financial crisis, the opportunity for a major shift in the production of green mass transit is here, and it's important the industries that make these vehicles are held accountable for retrofitting their processes and engineering into mass production of green mass-transportation vehicles.

Given that, I see it's important for cities like Detroit and others, which depend on vehicle manufacturing to support their economy, participate in a state change in production methods and output. Most of what’s been talked about so far with regard to green vehicles is flexible vehicles and vehicles that have better mileage. But these solutions still depend on personal vehicle ownership as opposed to methods that can alleviate climate concerns. And these include the production of mass-transit vehicles that pose no further threat to the climate issue.

ASMAN: How feasible is green mass transit?

BRAVO: Here's an example: During WWII, all vehicle production was halted so car-manufacturing plants could start producing military vehicles such as tanks, heavy trucks and, in some cases, Jeeps and other suitable vehicles. And right now, there’s a precedent for governments to deal with climate change and the global economy with the same urgency.

The U.S. in general needs a better mass-transit system, the one we have now is atrocious. The minimal system we have now lacks ridership because it's inadequate. Countries with less money than the U.S. have much better mass-transits systems because they spend less money on road infrastructure and more on mass-transit infrastructure.

If the U.S. is serious about making a dent in the global climate change emergency, then it’s important for the U.S. to be the leader in mass transit. And right now presents the perfect opportunity to shift from building cars to building mass transit that’s green and sustainable.

ASMAN: How can green mass transit improve the job situation?

BRAVO: In order for workers to maintain their jobs, industries involved will need to re-train their workers and retool their processes. Workers can stay at the same companies—the automakers responsible for developing the infrastructure for the production of mass transit vehicles—but produce vehicles that would further our agenda in becoming a sustainable society.

Right now, we’re seeing many jobs are sent overseas because other countries are jumping on the capitalistic understanding that mass production without green consciousness is the way to make a quick buck. Free trade agreements have aggravated this. Other countries have allowed corporations to drive down wages and multinational corporations don’t have to adhere to both labor and environmental laws in order for them to do business in those countries.

At the same time, we’re here in the U.S. with a job deficit. Now that we’re on our way to what might be another Great Depression, we need to support industries that will grow the U.S. economy and, at the same time, maintain current jobs while working toward a sustainable environment.

I want to be clear this is not about protectionism. But in order to have a solid economy, we need to have jobs, we need to have technology and we need to have an exchange with other countries so they adhere to alleviating concerns that will eliminate threats to our collective climate.

ASMAN: How can this work given government bureaucracy?

BRAVO: If the government at the federal, state and local levels takes to heart what the country wants as far as moving away from fossil fuels and returning some of the jobs to the U.S. that have been lost, this is the way to do it. Invest in making the U.S. the No. 1 producer of green mass transit vehicles.

Bureaucracy aside, people have let their voices be heard by voting for someone they believe will bring change. Hopefully President-elect Barack Obama will strongly consider this idea and implement real change by alleviating our addiction to oil and job losses and making the U.S. the No. 1 producer of green technology and transportation.

I would challenge any bureaucrat to struggle for keeping the status quo and at the same time say that the way things are right now are viable.

Photo: A petrochemical plan in "Cancer Alley," Louisiana.

ASMAN: Talk specifically about how these solutions can affect climate change, environmental justice and homeland security.

BRAVO: As a result of current and past policies and the way the U.S. has gone about propping up business interests first, we've gotten into a situation where we are now a country that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels and—at the same time—per capita, we use seven times the resources than other people do around the world. So the goal here should be for the U.S. to become the leader in reducing carbon emissions. And one way to do that is by developing a mass transit system that does not threaten the environment.

If the U.S. is serious about reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, then this is a step in the right direction. If the U.S. promotes carbon-change technology, there will be measurable reductions. Countries n the European Union are already using rail for mass transit as are Latin American countries like Brazil, which are moving more toward bringing natural gas to mass transit.

The question around infrastructure is important right now because it’s more geared toward everyone using a car. But what we need to move toward is making mass transit available so the use of a car is not as crucial as it is today. If we pursue these options, we can move toward being more oil independent and—when we talk about chemical security—we can eliminate exposing our communities to risks associated with having massive fuel depots. The U.S. has been in an internal discussion about protecting our oil refineries, fuel depots and chemical plants because they are likely to be the next targets of terrorism both domestic and foreign. So by reducing the amount of fuels, this lessens the risk to the general U.S. population.

From an environmental justice standpoint, this means communities of color or low-income communities that have historically housed these types of industries will be much safer.

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