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Vision, Reality, and Austerity

by Eban Goodstein • October 3, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

This is part two of a two-part series by Eban Goodstein on Tea Party ideology and what it implies for climate stabilization efforts.

Part one: Tea Party to Planet: Checkmate?

Climate stabilization, if we got started today, would not be an economic or technical challenge. Recent research, including by co-authors and myself, has added to the strong evidence that we could get most of the way there simply by scaling up existing low carbon technologies, at moderate investment cost. The challenge is time: thanks to the Tea Party, we will not start cutting emissions for another 5 years at the least. An orderly, “politics as usual” transition towards 450 ppm slipped away in 2010. 

What now? We have to drive the US political system towards an emissions reduction trajectory as aggressive as possible, with the hope that our kids will discover sequestration technologies that can dial the planet back towards 350 ppm. And also with the recognition that no one can tell the future. Climate crises in the 2010’s and 20’s may spur global, WWII-style mobilization in support of a clean energy future, targeting sustainable C02 levels. Australia illustrates how the experience of massive flooding and extended drought can begin to alter the political landscape.

To support this vision, the Clean Energy movement has a winning story. The future is about economic revitalization, jobs, national security, rural development, energy independence, community empowerment, technological savvy, environmental security, clean air for our kids, and climate stabilization. The trick will be to build more and more economic and political power behind the story, faster and faster.

A new challenge is the austerity economy, and in the US, the very unfamiliar terrain of persistent high unemployment.  As Reagan followed Thatcher, the US appears poised now for a Cameronesque austerity attack on domestic spending.  But Cameron’s momentum in Britain has already slowed, shaken by recent riots. The built-in gridlock in the US political system is likely to limit a full-on Tea Party victory. The mixed economy will still be with us, albeit with a further shredded safety net, more suffering from untreated illness, less investment in education, science and technology, and less consumer, worker and environmental protection.

One certain effect of large-scale expenditure cutbacks will be to lock the US into a lost decade. Since 2008, federal spending has made up for state and local cutbacks, staving off a complete economic collapse. However, as the stimulus winds down, and especially as federal cutbacks kick in beyond 2012, government spending as a source of demand will shrink. Fewer federal contracts, less aid to the states, lower payments for nurses and hospital workers, elder care, police officers and teachers, restricted access to student grants and loans, less money for childcare, cutbacks in emergency management, and fewer federal, state and local government workers—all mean less consumer and business demand.  With Keynesian policies operating in reverse, creating economic drag, and the Fed having done all it can, there will be no policy sparking the internal dynamics of the system towards recovery. 

Since Obama took office two and a half years ago, unemployment rates have only barely and briefly been below 9% before rising again, twice the level for a healthy economy.  Our last recession of this depth, in 1982, saw unemployment at this level for only 18 months. Austerity insures that we are now looking at years more of this. What will be the political impact of persistent high unemployment? 

Nobody knows.

It will certainly be volatile. Historically, high unemployment has been fertile ground for both right-wing and left-wing populists. And to be clear: The Tea Party—with austerity and social program cutbacks at its heart—does not have a populist platform. In stark contrast, it is trickle-down, “confidence-fairy” economics.  So while the 2012 elections will be fought on the old and stale ground of how fast to shrink “big government”—radically or in a balanced way– the appetite for sustained federal cutbacks in a desperately ill economy will be small.  Beyond the elections, American’s will be unusually open to persuasive solutions.

Also beyond 2012, the planet will continue to get hotter, and denial is a strategy that can persist only so long. The Tea Party response to the horrendous droughts in Texas and Oklahoma has been for their governors to call for days of prayer. The result? Since Governor Perry’s prayer day, over four months ago, there has been no relief for Texans, while more and more of the state has cascaded into extreme drought.   

The clean energy movement has real solutions that can both revitalize the economy,  and stop the destruction of global climate stability, a stability on which our civilization has been built and continues to depend.  What clean energy does not have enough of, and needs– what the Tea Party has– is committed political candidates, and its own power base in a committed business community.

From Sea to Shining Sea

National Democrats, President Obama included, talk a good game on clean energy. But beyond a handful of legislators who really get the idea (and this may yet include the President), the commitment is shallow. With Republicans scared to death to even acknowledge the science, there is no competitive pressure on the Democrats to deliver.

At the same time, the sustainability movement in business has fostered surprising business leadership: companies from IBM to GM to GE have embraced substantial internal climate initiatives. Other corporations like Nike, Clif Bar and Starbucks actively fought the oil companies over Prop 23 in California.

Some of this interest in clean energy and sustainability is greenwashing, both by politicians and by businesses. But the best of it reflects real leadership by real people, who themselves are climate hawks, and who deeply understand the economic promise of a clean energy future.  How do we build power behind the  vision?

First, politics. Somewhere in your state, there is a charismatic champion for clean energy running for federal, state or local office in 2012. This is someone who is good at politics, and who will drive smart public policy.  Find this person. Spend a few weekends in their dingy strip mall office. Help them raise money; make phone calls and go door to door. Get them elected. And then do the same thing the next year for a new champion. Office-by-office, race-by-race, is the only way forward.

Second, business-by-business, we need to grow the seeds of a clean energy economy.  This means supporting green business with personal shopping dollars, but much more critically,  it means the direct work of transforming our own work places in the direction of sustainability. Is there a green team at your business? If so, get on it. If not, start one.  Green business success is critical to lend political muscle to smart climate policy.  California has shown us how it can be done– even amidst divisive partisan squabbling and budgetary meltdowns. 

Young people have an especially powerful role to play.  The US Constitution empowers citizens at age 25 to become members of Congress. The founding fathers clearly believed in the wisdom of the young, a lesson we are ignoring to our peril. Today’s US legislators are as grey as they have ever been, with Senators averaging close to 60, and House Members 55.  Young climate hawks, if elected in numbers, could bring a game-changing dynamic to Washington. Yet few young people even imagine pursuing this opportunity.

More students have been inspired by young business entrepreneurs. Mark Zuckerberg’s path to his first billion played out in The Social Network, but tens of thousands of young green business people have made their own, less drama-laden marks in business. The challenge is that young people who understand the climate crisis and who are inspired by the promise of clean energy face a very sterile ground in conventional business education. As undergraduates, they are thus failing to develop the leadership skills needed to become change agents in the workplace: either as entrepreneurs launching their own green businesses, or in transforming the conventional workplaces. 

Stepping into this void, this fall the Bard Center for Environmental Policy is launching C2C Fellows, a national network for undergraduates and recent graduates aspiring to sustainability leadership in politics and business. C2C stands for Campus to Congress, to Capitol, to City Hall, and also for Campus to Corporation. C2C stands for young people gaining control of their future. By 2016, C2C Fellows will be impacting politics and business at the state, community and national level. C2C Fellows will be the power network for young people with the wisdom, talent, and grace to remake the world.

While old climate hawks (those over 30) can’t be Fellows, all are welcome to join the C2C community. Stabilizing the climate is not the work of a year, of a presidential term, or of a decade. It is the forty-year work of our two generations. In 2010, the ambitious opening gambit of the US clean energy movement— serious greenhouse gas cuts beginning 2015—was blocked by Tea Party ideologues, and fossil fuel money. 

This puts us back to stalemate, not checkmate. We have five fewer years to rewire the world. Our transformative work ahead is now harder, though no less critical for the future of human civilization.


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