A Green New Deal?

Oct 29, 2010 No Comments

by Jeremy Pilaar

At a time when the American economy looks poised to stagnate for years to come and unemployment has soared to its highest level in decades, one cannot help but think back to the recovery path President Obama stressed in last January’s State of the Union: “…providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”  What a difference a few months can make. When presented with a golden opportunity to seize the reins on the climate debate in the aftermath of the BP Gulf crisis, both the White House and Congress were unable to make good on campaign vows to slow climate change and place greater focus on a green economy. Convinced he was unable to summon the necessary votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid let climate legislation die over the summer without even putting up a fight.

While it is unlikely that a climate bill will be reintroduced this year, the increasing threat of long-term, double-digit unemployment should push lawmakers looking for comprehensive solutions to step up to the plate in the coming months. As a nation, we owe it to ourselves to throw our full talent and resources toward tackling the issue of global climate change. In effect, a green energy bill with a strong focus on job creation would potentially create millions of new jobs, all while achieving the parallel goals of tackling the climate crisis and reducing America’s dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

Let’s start by taking another look at last winter’s Presidential address to the nation. Unfortunately, several of the more prominent ideas Obama voiced during his speech fell well short of what is needed to bring about substantial change.  Even more troubling is the fact that not one of the proposals would do anything significant to help stimulate the economy. The President first called for increased investment in the myth of “clean coal”, essentially another subsidy for an industry responsible for massive annual CO2 emissions and over half of the electricity generated in the United States. The fact is that carbon capture and storage technologies are still in their infancies, and even if refined would only contribute to an emissions decrease of a few percentage points in the next couple of decades.  Coal is not clean, and it never will be.

The President also tried to extend a hand to Republicans and the oil lobby by promising to pursue drilling off the coast of the U.S. Offshore drilling is expensive, bad for the environment, and staggeringly inefficient: even if producers reached maximum capacity (unlikely), it would represent a mere 1.5% of global oil consumption. Moreover, this summer’s Gulf oil spill showed the devastating environmental impacts that can occur when things go wrong. It also goes without saying that measures like this one and those promoting “clean coal” undermine the necessary paradigm shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources.

Finally, Obama focused on the importance of nuclear power, another polluter greenwashed by industry. While nuclear reactors don’t emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, they carry hidden risks such as tremendous amounts of poisonous wastes, threats to safety and security, and high long-term costs. A reinvestment in nuclear would not send the signal that the U.S. is moving toward a real shift in energy policy.

The path toward meaningful change must therefore look quite different from that outlined by the President last January. The first and most straightforward step would be toward a national efficiency upgrade. Each year, American households and businesses waste millions of dollars and massive amounts of power as a direct result of inefficient energy use. The Alliance for Climate Protection estimates that efficiency would increase by an average of 30% through simple changes to insulation and design, providing the typical homeowner with about $450 of annual savings on energy bills and spurring the creation of a wealth of new construction jobs. The federal government could easily follow California’s lead: the state’s energy efficiency program has saved the equivalent of the energy required to power 5 million homes per year, and avoided building 24 power plants.

There would also need to be a clear emphasis placed on improved transportation and energy infrastructure. The U.S. electricity grid, for instance, is splintered and wasteful, and must be strengthened through increased interconnectedness and by better serving renewable resources like wind, solar, and geothermal power. While such changes are costly up front, they would lead to tremendous savings over the long-term–the grid’s current limitations cost the nation between $80-180 billion a year.

Finally, a newly emerging green economy would have to be characterized by a major shift away from oil and gas and toward renewable energy. Focusing on technologies like photovoltaics, solar thermal, wind, biomass, and geothermal would allow the United States to invest in millions of new green-collar jobs, vastly improve its energy independence, and take a more prominent role in the fight against climate change.

Of course, all of this would have to be paid for; without credible investment, a green economy is an illusion. Fortunately, the possibilities are easily within reach: the Alliance for Climate Protection estimates that a $100 billion investment in a clean energy economy over two years would create 2 million new jobs, a significant number of which would help revive the struggling manufacturing and construction sectors; if $100 billion seems high, keep in mind that we spent over seven times that sum bailing out banks in 2008. On the side of revenue, a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system in which allowances are auctioned off to polluters rather than given away, would have the two-fold effect of lowering carbon emissions and helping fund green policies.

The U.S. is falling behind in the race toward a brighter future. China has surpassed the rest of the world to become the largest producer of wind turbines; South Korea and Denmark have made significant strides toward cleaner economies in the past several years; and while the United States once led the globe in solar panel technology, Germany has long since vaulted ahead of us. If the U.S. cedes control to inertia, there will soon be no catching up–and the loser will be the American public.

Things don’t have to be this way: a green energy and jobs bill would afford the government an amazing chance to salvage the economy, fight unemployment, increase domestic security, and combat climate change. The recovery must be a green recovery – call it a sort of Green New Deal. Now it is up to Congress and Mr. Obama to summon the leadership to enact it.

Fall 2010

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