As climate disasters hit state after state, fossil fuel-funded members of Congress focus on a false choice between economic prosperity and fighting climate change. Meanwhile, politicians’ lip service to the devastating impact of climate change on communities of color adds insult to injury.

Thanks to a neighborhood coalition that grew out of a program called Transformative Climate Communities, 800 homes in Stockton, Calif., above, will receive water and energy-efficiency upgrades, with local youth trained to do the work. Solar power systems will be installed at four multi-family affordable-housing sites, as well as for 108 low-income, single-family homeowners. Terrance Emerson/ via TNS

There is a better way: California has quietly pioneered a new approach that should be adopted nationwide.

We know, because we helped make it happen.

The program is called Transformative Climate Communities. It uses climate action to build prosperous and thriving communities, focusing on neighborhoods with the biggest environmental and economic challenges. And, unlike most government programs, it empowers the communities themselves to lead.

In Stockton, California, like many communities, the legacy of environmental racism lingers. Latinx, Black and Asian American neighborhoods were devastated by a crosstown freeway that split communities and added to the pollution from heavy industry and the Port of Stockton. Historic disinvestment left the area with deteriorating infrastructure, poverty and unemployment.

That’s typical, thanks to the legacy of redlining – policies that segregated communities of color and deprived them of financial investment.

Government programs aimed at addressing these issues have generally been too small, too fragmented and imposed top-down on communities. Transformative Climate Communities does nearly everything differently.

The program funds communities to develop neighborhood-scale climate plans based on priorities set by the residents themselves. Its structure builds in deep, ongoing community leadership – with government supporting, not dictating. Transformative Climate Communities then provides implementation grants to make those dreams real.

Whereas governments usually put energy, transportation and housing policy in their own siloes, the program creates connected plans that bring these and other elements together.

For example, this might involve building energy-efficient, solar-powered affordable housing near public transit stops, improving and enhancing that transit system while also adding bike and pedestrian improvements that help residents access those transit stops. And it can go further by lining those bike and pedestrian paths with trees that take carbon out of the air and reduce urban “heat island” effects.

Transformative Climate Communities also requires projects to create good-paying jobs and economic opportunities for residents, plus an anti-displacement strategy so residents can reap the benefits without getting pushed out.

In Stockton, The Greenlining Institute worked with local residents, community leaders and the mayor’s office to develop a Transformative Climate Communities application with support from the city manager. A coalition that emerged, called Rise Stockton, and received almost $11 million to begin implementation.

Residents, through a process that included 25 community meetings, door-to-door canvassing, surveys and more, created a Sustainable Neighborhood Plan. While the implementation grant was smaller than residents hoped for, it was enough to fund many urgently needed projects.

For example, 800 homes will receive water and energy-efficiency upgrades, with local youth trained to do the work. City staff and volunteers will plant 1,750 trees, and solar power systems will be installed at four multi-family affordable-ousing sites, as well as for 108 low-income, single-family homeowners.

When The Greenlining Institute recently analyzed the impact of Transformative Climate Communities, the program’s potential to change the entire climate discussion became clear: It can move us toward our climate goals while empowering communities to build a healthy, thriving future based on their own priorities. Transformative Climate Communities should be replicated on a national scale.

We don’t have to choose between protecting our climate and building prosperity in communities too often neglected by the government. We know how to do both.

If we truly want to build back better, Transformative Climate Communities has shown us how. Congress should take notes.

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