The State of the Union, Through Green-Tinted Glasses

Michelle Chen January 26, 2010

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.

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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