The State of the Union, Through Green-Tinted Glasses

Michelle Chen

A participant at a Labor Day Rally in Santa Fe, N.M.

Maybe it’s chilly weather, or political fatigue from Copenhagen debacle, or the fact that a climate change skeptic appears to have abruptly extinguished the Democrats’ brittle Senate majority. Or it could just simply be the pain of the recession that is cooling political attitudes toward global warming.

Whatever the reason, a new Pew Research Center poll puts climate change at the bottom of a heap of pressing national issues, with the economy and jobs topping the list. Pew concluded that while many factors may have contributed to this outcome, the struggling national economy is a likely determinant of the softened support levels.”

As long as jobless Americans are more concerned about keeping their heads above water than keeping Tuvalu above sea level, Obama’s agenda, to be articulated in tomorrow’s State of the Union Address, will likely downplay the impending environmental crisis.

The Guardian reports on a possible international ripple effect of the Democrats’ slippage on Capitol Hill:

Now it seems more likely than ever that Democrats in the US Senate will not touch global warming in 2010 unless they can be assured of sizeable Republican support. [Scott] Brown’s election has also led to international concern that any failure to act by the US – the world’s biggest historical polluter– would undermine attempts to seal a global deal.

A survey by the Brookings Institute similarly shows a waning interest in climate change issues and a significant decline in willingness to pay for increased production of renewable energy.” That is, people care, they just don’t want it to cost them anything.

But there’s a way to spin climate change by borrowing some political capital from the jobs issue. According to an analysis by celebrity GOP pollster Frank Luntz, the stalled compromise climate legislation (facing the same vote gap as healthcare reform) may survive if it’s sold in economic terms – energy development and national security. David Roberts at Grist says lawmakers should shut up about penguins and cap-and-trade, and instead tout the real-life benefits of sound climate regulation: energy independence, good health, American jobs, and accountability for businesses and corporations.”

The jobs angle is more than sugar-coating. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisers, The clean energy provisions of [Recovery Act] alone have already saved or created 63,000 jobs and are expected to create more than 700,000 by 2012” — including opportunities in retrofitting homes and installing energy-efficiency technology and solar panels.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report on wind energy potential suggests that with a sustained commitment from the government and private sector, the country could net major economic benefits from raising wind energy to 20 percent of national electricity consumption. Todd Woody at Grist says this translates into a green jobs bonanza—if Obama hits the right pitch politically. Woody draws a comparison with the dramatic postwar federal investments in road transportation:

Eisenhower did not argue that we needed to spend billions of dollars on a vast road system so we could develop the suburbs or drive coast-to-coast with ease. In the fearful fifties, he said building such a transportation network was all about creating the ability to move troops around the country in a national emergency. In other words, a national security argument secured what would become the driver of American prosperity in the coming decades.

Then again, the threat of apocalyptic warfare in the 1950s might have had significantly more pull on the American psyche than oil dependency does today. As we’ve noted before, the chief challenge before the environmental and labor movements is to persuade people that growing jobs and cutting carbon are not diametrically opposed goals.

In contrast to the developing world, where climactic shifts and rising seas have clearly threatened to destroy local economies and communities, Americans are less likely to connect the dots between fossil fuel pollution and economic woes. So rather than waging climate class war, activists focus on marrying economic and ecological solutions in Washington. (Indeed, Patrick McCully of International Rivers argues that activists should play down the climate debt” that the world’s biggest polluter owes to the developing world.)

Alex Steffen at World​chang​ing​.org thinks the challenge is not the supposed environment-jobs trade-off,” but the acceptance of an inevitable structural shift:

Certainly, there are big industries (like coal, oil, manufacture of cheap disposable consumer goods, fast food franchises, auto manufacturing) that will take a big hit as we move into a low-energy, low-carbon, zero-waste future. Many people will lose their jobs, and places that remain deeply committed to those industries are in for decades of suffering.

But here’s the blunt reality: those industries, jobs and places are toast already. They are the walking dead. Nothing we do, on any scale or at any sacrifice, will save them, even in the medium term – and the more money we spend trying, the worse off our economies as a whole will be. The old economy is dead….

By slashing emissions, developing clean energy, investing in bright green cities, changing agriculture, spurring design and technological innovation and embracing new models of prosperity, we don’t just meet our ethical obligations not to destroy the ecological foundations of civilization; we also create the kind of economy that is clearly going to lead the way in the 21st century.

Yet those are difficult realities for communities to accept, especially when they’re still reeling from the trauma of job loss and the evaporation old industrial bulwarks. No matter how slick the marketing, confidence in green jobs may wilt even further absent real investments in the beleaguered blue-collar workforce.

That’s one reason to be wary of Obama’s much-criticized new plan for a temporary freeze on various non-military spending programs. The mostly political maneuver could potentially impact resources for labor and environmental initiatives, and in the long run, impede publicly-sponsored growth in renewable energy sectors.

The environmental-labor coalition Apollo Alliance has presented ideas for connecting clean energy demand and the green job market in three struggling states, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. The strategy includes career-training initiatives that coordinate Workforce Investment Boards, unions, employers and educational institutions; building on the existing infrastructure for vocational programs; and ensuring that the training workers receive will transfer readily from the classroom to the work site.

That kind of detailed policy prescription won’t find its way into the State of the Union Address. But after Obama delivers another round of sweeping oratory, a weary public will still be looking for something more concrete — and the bold action they’re anxiously awaiting may well have a green streak.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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