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Hullabaloo


Thursday, April 04, 2013

 
Climate activists must become economic activists--and vice versa

by David Atkins

President Obama headlined a fundraiser yesterday at the home of billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, the same person giving heart attacks to corporate Democrats and pliant media across the country. A key excerpt from his speech went as follows:

And the thing that I’m going to have to try to work to persuade the American people a little more convincingly on is this notion that there’s a contradiction between our economy and our environment is just a false choice — that if we invest now, we will create jobs, we will create entire new industries; other countries will be looking to catch up, they will be looking to import what we do. We will set the standard, and everybody else will have to adapt.

But — and I mentioned this to Tom and Kat and a few folks right before I came out here — the politics of this are tough. Because if you haven’t seen a raise in a decade; if your house is still $25,000, $30,000 underwater; if you’re just happy that you’ve still got that factor job that is powered by cheap energy; if every time you go to fill up your old car because you can’t afford to buy a new one, and you certainly can’t afford to buy a Prius, you’re spending 40 bucks that you don’t have, which means that you may not be able to save for retirement — you may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your number-one concern. And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by. You’re thinking about what’s right in front of you, which is how do I fill up my gas tank and how do I feed my family.

And so part of what we’re going to have to do is to marry a genuine, passionate concern about middle-class families and everybody who is trying to get into the middle class to show them that we’re working just as hard for them as we are for our environmental agenda, and that we can bridge these things in a way that advances the causes of both. And that’s going to take some work.

But the most important thing that it’s going to take is people in Washington who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve — not two miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it. And that’s why your presence here is so important.

So far so good. These are hard truths well spoken. It's going to take a massive jobs program to solve the country's economic problem and do our part to tackle the world's climate problem, while also disincentivizing further oil imperialism abroad. It will be difficult to corral support for major action on climate without tying it to kitchen table economic action. And as I have mentioned before, creating climate-saving jobs isn't just about engineers installing solar panels. Conservation and fossil fuel conversion can theoretically require a nearly endless stream of blue collar jobs needing no more than a high school education.

So what's the problem? The President lays it out in his next paragraph:

Look, my intention here is to try to get as much done with the Republican Party over the next two years as I can, because we can’t have perpetual campaigns. And so I mean what I say. I am looking to find areas of common ground with Republicans every single day. I want to make sure that we’re working together to stabilize our finances. And I think actually that we can come up with a fiscal deal that instead of lurching from crisis to crisis every three months, we lay the groundwork for long-term growth — controlling our deficits, controlling our debt, but also making sure we can invest in our future. I want to get an immigration deal done. I want to find some common-sense gun safety legislation that we can get done. And I do believe that there are well-meaning Republicans out there who care about their kids just as passionately as we do.
Those are pretty words, but self-contradictory. Policymakers who are obsessed with controlling deficits and debt during a time of economic weakness and high unemployment cannot possibly address both economics and climate simultaneously. Without heavy government expenditures, the only available action on climate requires conservation and conversion approaches like carbon taxation, trading mechanisms and regulatory enforcement that are absolutely necessary to the survival of our species, but will also perforce hurt economic growth standing alone. Action on climate can and should be a great economic boon, but only with an Apollo program style investment.

As long as politicians on both sides of the aisle are accepting the slash and burn economics of the sequester and talking about the supposed need to make cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, there will be little to no ability to convince the public of our ability to tackle climate change in a way that is a short-term net economic positive.

Deficit politics are climate politics, and vice versa.

The critical and desperate nature of the climate challenge, taken together with the wide variety of jobs that tackling it can produce, is the easiest and likeliest reason to sway government officials to undertake a serious jobs agenda. Progressives whose primary agenda is controlling unemployment and income inequality should be making climate change a top priority for this reason. It's already abundantly clear that despite the lip service, precious few national politicians care enough about bringing down unemployment to contemplate a serious Keynesian agenda. Climate change mitigation can provide an external impetus to make it happen.

Climate activists, meanwhile, must know that no significant action on global warming will happen until the austerity fever in Washington has broken. There simply isn't the political will to take action without a complementary economic angle.

As of this moment, progressive activists on economics and on climate change tend to be separated into their own silos. Combined, they might just have a powerful enough argument and effective enough coalition to break through the oil-and-austerity driven myopia of our political elites.


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