The Oregon city imposed a 1% tax on its biggest businesses, with the money going to communities most impacted by climate change. But there’s controversy about what that means.

Cities all across the U.S. are struggling with a range of concerns, from an unhoused population that soared 12% last year to continued fears of violent crime despite recent declines; an increasing number of drug overdose deaths; and COVID-emptied downtowns that are being reconfigured and rethought.

It’s not an easy time to be a city—or the mayor and city council that lead it. That’s why we’re also seeing some traditionally progressive cities tack toward public safety issues, potentially leaving behind their historic leadership on a range of progressive priorities like environmental and social justice.

In Portland, Oregon, this is particularly apparent. Six years ago, Portlanders voted to create a Clean Energy Fund that would support clean energy projects in communities that need it most. As with most cities, these communities—known as priority populations—are consistently people with low incomes, people of color, and people living with disabilities.

To Portlanders’ credit, voters created this fund to cut emissions, create meaningful economic opportunities, and enhance the city’s resilience to climate change—all with a focus on the populations most vulnerable to carbon emissions and climate impacts. And they did it with a simple 1% tax on the biggest businesses operating in the city, which significantly contribute to climate change due to their heavy packaging, shipping, supply chain practices, and more. And while big businesses tried to pass along those costs to customers, a class-action lawsuit prevented the practice.

What a smart way for a city to lead: ensuring the resilience of the entire city, with no one left behind.

Fast-forward a few years and Portland’s fund, which has generated $587 million since its launch, now has the financial resources to make sure people in the city aren’t just surviving but thriving. But since Portland—like many cities across the country—is struggling to fill budget gaps, there’s an active conversation in the city over where those funds should be invested.

There are concerns that the original intent of the fund, which was to primarily focus on environmental and climate justice projects, is getting stretched to plug budget gaps across city bureaus. Shortly before the city council held a work session on the fund in May, an environmental justice coalition representing local nonprofits and more than 50,000 Portlanders called on the council to honor voters’ intentions for the clean energy fund.

It’s an understandable fight. Over the next five years, the fund will have an estimated $1.3 billion to work with, and multiple city departments are now vying for access to that money. Almost anything can be packaged as climate resilience, including public safety infrastructure, so it will be easy for leaders to blur the line between what is climate justice “adjacent” and what is legitimately climate justice work.

To date, more than $150 million has been invested in more than 80 local nonprofits. That’s not nothing, but it’s nowhere near what’s needed to ensure that priority populations are less vulnerable to Portland’s big air polluters, which communities of color disproportionately live by, and the increasing heat risk. To do that work well, it will need more funding—a lot more. It will also need more coordination across city government.

This presents an opportunity. Rather than resisting, this is a moment to make the fund relevant to the whole city. Whether it’s housing, transportation, development, or even parks and recreation, every city bureau has a role to play in improving the lives of underserved and disadvantaged communities.

Portland will be stronger and more resilient if every bureau is leaning in and not left out. Portland could utilize the fund as the focal point for redefining how a city acts on climate justice—shifting from a focus on emissions reduction toward “a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart,” as climate justice leader and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson often quipped.

Climate justice, then, becomes an all-city, all-bureau agenda. As city staff outlined recently, deep retrofits, for example, can improve everything from health and well-being to seismic safety, and new investments aren’t only good for local businesses and wealth generation, they keep dollars working locally for Portlanders.

Going forward, a civil rights movement that’s focused on priority communities needs every aspect of city governance available to them in order to be secure. That’s the future of city governance: a focusing of purpose across all bureaus. Holding big businesses accountable for their carbon footprint and then reinvesting that money back into impacted communities to repair harm is an incredible return on investment. This is how you rethink city leadership to fit the times.