Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham, Alabama. Credit: Robert S. Donovan / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Michael Hansen and Kirsten Bryant, executive director and deputy director of GASP — the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution. GASP is a nonprofit organization fighting to advance healthy air and environmental justice in Alabama. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

Alabama edging Oklahoma for the number-one spot on a national list of all-time greatest college football teams is beyond impressive. Not at all impressive, however, is Jefferson County’s Miller power plant claiming the number-one spot on a national list of the worst greenhouse-gas emitters is beyond embarrassing. In fact, it’s dangerous.

Alabama Power’s Miller plant cranks out 19 million tons of planet-damaging gases each year. Along with two other outdated, coal-fired power plants ringing Birmingham, it also pollutes the air and contributes to Jefferson County’s F grade on air quality. Breathing isn’t optional, so we, the people of the Birmingham area, are forced to breathe dirty, dangerous air — and paying our power bills helps keep the pollution flowing.

Our power system is one facet of a bigger problem: our economy is dependent on dirty fossil fuels and driven by deep-pocketed corporations whose lobbyists push politicians to shape laws and regulations for profit. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We could instead build an economy powered by clean, renewable energy controlled by communities and families that act for the benefit of people and the planet.

That’s the vision behind a grassroots effort to develop a Green New Deal for Birmingham. Everyday people are leading this effort, and are prioritizing responsible energy; clean air, water and land; and economic development that is sustainable environmentally as well as economically. Because the burdens of our fossil-fuel-dependent economy fall disproportionately on the poor, Black communities and other communities of color, and people living near polluting facilities, they want future investments to focus on equity. They see justice as a bedrock principle for fixing broken systems like transit. They also believe our government must be transparent about how decisions are made, how plans are executed, and how money is spent.

A Green New Deal for Birmingham offers opportunities to grow Birmingham in sustainable ways that can help reverse our population loss and attract a new generation that seeks purpose with its paycheck. When complete, our city’s Green New Deal will give Mayor Randall Woodfin a clear path for walking the talk and making good on his environmental campaign promises and his 100% clean energy pledge. As it is, Birmingham keeps falling behind: we now rank 88th out of America’s biggest 100 cities when it comes to clean energy.

The Green New Deal concept is sweeping the South. At the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP), we’re one of nearly 200 Southern organizations supporting Southern Communities for a Green New Deal (SC4GND). Those groups hail from every corner of the South — from the Carolina mountains to the Louisiana bayous. GASP is also one of over 250 Southern organizations that has signed onto Gulf South for a Green New Deal’s platform, which aims to advance climate, racial, and economic justice as it centers communities on the front lines of the climate crisis from Florida to Texas. The issues resonating throughout the South come into sharp focus here in Birmingham.

For example, SC4GND’s platform urges an end to fossil fuel subsidies and projects — such as the super-polluting Miller plant or Alabama Power’s plans to expand gas-fueled power generation capacity.

SC4GND also calls for re-directing resources spent on dirty, centralized fossil-fueled plants to community-controlled renewable energy — energy free from excessive charges that seem designed to stop the spread of competitive clean energy. Case in point: Alabama Power’s “sun tax” on rooftop solar has left us third from the bottom in terms of installed solar generation capacity. Alaska generates more solar power than we do, where it’s dark as night for half the year! Alabama’s solar potential is enormous, but among all the states, only North and South Dakota generate less solar energy than we do.

Another aspect of the Green New Deal movement is providing training for good jobs in growing and sustainable fields. The pandemic was hard on clean energy jobs, but about 3 million Americans still work in clean energy — more than three times as many employees as work in fossil fuel extraction and generation. There are more clean energy workers than farmers, bankers, or real estate agents, and projections suggest strong post-pandemic growth.

You are invited to join your neighbors in shaping the Green New Deal for Birmingham. Our next event, to be held from 6-8p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 16 via Zoom, features a free screening of the documentary Cooked: Survival by Zip Code. Registration is required.

So far, people working on the Green New Deal for Birmingham have identified a few big-picture elements, such as responsible energy and clean air, land and water. Translating those ideas into specific actions in a way that works for all will require thoughtful input from every one of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods. Come join us in building a healthier, more sustainable, more prosperous future for the city we love.