NEWS The Guardian Op Ed: Climate crisis will deepen the pandemic. A green stimulus plan can tackle both

April 20, 2020

For the orig­i­nal in The Guardian, as part of Earth Day cov­er­age, click here.

The Covid-​​19 epi­demic is rav­aging our tat­tered health­care sys­tem and shred­ding our econ­omy. In the past month, over 22 mil­lionAmer­i­cans filed for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, com­pound­ing the fear that unem­ploy­ment could breach 32% absent mas­sive pub­lic action. This is an unmit­i­gated human dis­as­ter, recall­ing the hor­rors of the Great Depres­sion. And it gets worse. We’re also fac­ing the cli­mate emer­gency. Imme­di­ate relief is nec­es­sary – but not suf­fi­cient. To tackle all these crises at once, we need a Green Stim­u­lus that cre­ates jobs and lifts up com­mu­ni­ties in ways that also slash car­bon pol­lu­tion, increase resiliency, and develop a just, mod­ern economy.

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No one can pre­dict when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will turn their full atten­tion to eco­nomic recov­ery. But behind the scenes, the plan­ning has already begun. It’s not a ques­tion of whether we spend big on stim­u­lus, but what kind of stimulus.

And while Repub­li­cans will decry any­thing “green”, we can win the argu­ment. But much of what we pro­pose already has bipar­ti­san sup­port, from polling to pend­ing leg­is­la­tion.

Cli­mate change is about to super­charge the coro­n­avirus emer­gency. In April, California’s wild­fire sea­son will start. Restric­tions on work caused by the pan­demic will make it harder for fire­fight­ers to con­duct con­trolled burns that steer fires – and smoke – from homes. Cal­i­for­ni­ans’ lungs could face Covid-​​19 and unusu­ally intense smoke at the same time. A third of the coun­try also faces seri­ous flood risk through the spring. And in sum­mer and fall, fore­cast­ers pre­dict “above aver­age prob­a­bil­ity for major hur­ri­canes mak­ing land­fall along the con­ti­nen­tal United States”. We’re already see­ing this cat­a­strophic con­ver­gence else­where: In Ecuador, a muted gov­ern­ment response to flood­ing in indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, for fear of spread­ing the virus; in Fiji, dev­as­tated by Cyclone Harold this week, 19 con­firmed coro­n­avirus cases are cast­ing doubt on how to rebuild.

Here too, we will need to find ways to do the needed relief work with­out deep­en­ing the pan­demic. Amid all this suf­fer­ing, the case for bold moves to tackle the mis­eries of inequal­ity, Covid, and cli­mate at once will get clearer.

More­over, green stim­u­lus is the only option for a smooth tran­si­tion to the 21st cen­tury green econ­omy. The era of dirty energy is end­ing. Even the con­ser­v­a­tive CBNC ana­lyst Jim Cramer has warned investors that oil stocks are no longer safe invest­ments, as soci­ety is increas­ingly repu­di­at­ing fos­sil fuels. Giant investors like Black­rock are grad­u­ally wind­ing down their invest­ments in car­bon. And at the Euro­pean level, and in coun­tries like Ger­many and South Korea, a green stimulus-​​based recov­ery is becom­ing the con­sen­sus choice, with invest­ments in effi­ciency and clean energy seen as obvi­ous dri­vers of eco­nomic reconstruction.

The longer-​​term vision of the green stim­u­lus is a more reward­ing, life­long career of dig­ni­fied green work. We should also invest in Stem edu­ca­tion for all chil­dren and cre­ate appren­tice­ship pro­grams in vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, matched with new careers for work­ers to enter. And by directly invest­ing in front­line com­mu­ni­ties, fol­low­ing best prac­tices in Cal­i­for­nia, we can bring tech­nolo­gies like solar and bat­tery stor­age to neigh­bor­hoods that have been scan­dalously left out of the clean energy boom so far. Plus, these same nim­ble, local solu­tions make neigh­bor­hoods more resilient to extreme weather. Local stor­age and nested micro­grids make the power sys­tem, includ­ing health­care facil­i­ties, more reli­able dur­ing dis­as­ters. We’d be mak­ing envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nomic, and social improve­ments in the same places, at the same time.

And we should speak of green invest­ments in con­crete terms. Polling con­ducted by Data for Progress in March finds major­ity sup­port for mas­sive green spend­ing over­all. More inter­est­ing is the find­ing of even greater sup­port – includ­ing major­ity Repub­li­can approval – for spe­cific pub­lic green invest­ments, like elec­tric buses, retro­fits to low-​​income hous­ing, and renew­able energy. Strip away abstract rhetoric, and the sub­stance that we’re advo­cat­ing is incred­i­bly popular.

For these rea­sons, we recently joined nine other experts in social and cli­mate pol­icy to write a let­ter to Con­gress out­lin­ing a menu of pol­icy options for a Green Stim­u­lus. Our pro­pos­als span eight sec­tors of the econ­omy. But fun­da­men­tally, a Green Stim­u­lus is about mobi­liz­ing mas­sive pub­lic funds – say, $2tn to start – in spe­cific green invest­ments to cre­ate high-​​quality jobs and improve the qual­ity of life, espe­cially in low-​​income com­mu­ni­ties, com­mu­ni­ties of color, and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, which have suf­fered the most dis­in­vest­ment and pol­lu­tion in recent decades.

It seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive, but the tim­ing for such a Green Stim­u­lus is per­fect. Bridge-​​loans and advance pay­ments on pub­lic green pur­chases of goods like solar pan­els and elec­tric vehi­cles for pub­lic use would sta­bi­lize firms’ and work­ers’ finances. Announc­ing ini­tia­tives like a Cli­mate Con­ser­va­tion Corps would give young peo­ple eager to work jobs to apply for, and plan to start. And desk work­ers across the econ­omy could get on Zoom and do paper­work to make green projects shovel-​​ready the minute it’s safe to break ground. (Indeed, a major rea­son the 2009 Obama stim­u­lus fal­tered was months wasted on paperwork.)

Each of us has lived through climate-​​fueled dis­as­ters – in Cohen’s case, Hur­ri­cane Sandy, and in Kammen’s, last year’s dev­as­tat­ing wild­fires. We agree with the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice advo­cates who argued then that dis­as­ter recov­ery shouldn’t be about try­ing to bounce back to how things were before the dis­as­ter. We don’t want to bounce back to a Jan­u­ary 2020 econ­omy when half the coun­try lived pay­check to pay­check; unchecked car­bon pol­lu­tion endan­gered our future; and racial inequal­i­ties made peo­ple of color so vul­ner­a­ble to dis­ease. Rather, by deploy­ing a Green Stim­u­lus that cen­ters work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties, we can bounce for­ward together.

  • Daniel Aldana Cohen is assis­tant profes­sor of soci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, where he directs the Socio-​​Spatial Cli­mate Col­lab­o­ra­tive, or (SC)2, and is a co-​​author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal
  • Daniel Kam­men is profes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, coor­di­nat­ing lead author for the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC), and for­mer Sci­ence Envoy for the United States Depart­ment of State.  Twit­ter: @dan_kammen
  • This story is a part of Cov­er­ing Cli­mate Now’s week of cov­er­age focused on cli­mate solu­tions, to mark the 50th anniver­sary of Earth Day. Cov­er­ing Cli­mate Now is a global jour­nal­ism col­lab­o­ra­tion com­mit­ted to strength­en­ing cov­er­age of the cli­mate story


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