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Obama Needs to Spark a Global Green Deal to Create a Sustainable Economy

It would be a crash program to jump-start the transition to a global economy that is climate-friendly and climate-resilient.

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Privately, Obama may understand that his policies don't go far enough -- his science advisers are excellent -- but the forces of the status quo are too powerful for him to overcome without help. As the squabbling over the stimulus bill demonstrated, the same special interests that have blocked reform for years remain on patrol. Senate Republicans, even the supposed centrists whose compromise eventually passed, reportedly demanded and got the removal of $4 billion to build or modernize green schools. And Republicans aren't the only problem. Inside the Beltway, even some Obama allies are lowering expectations in the name of "political realism." I recently attended an off-the-record briefing by a climate change insider, a thirty-year Washington veteran, who stressed again and again -- to a very green audience -- how "complicated" and "difficult" it will be to get agreement on Obama's emissions targets. Forget that Obama had just won an undeniable electoral mandate and that Democrats control both houses of Congress. Republicans are opposed, so saving the planet is just too ambitious.

Under the circumstances, there is no substitute for fresh thinking and intense public pressure, both of which will be brought to bear in the run-up to Copenhagen. "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants," Al Gore said in 2007. On March 2, Gore will get his wish. James Hansen of NASA, America's foremost climate scientist, will join hundreds of activists, many of them college students with the Power Shift climate movement, in an act of civil disobedience outside the coal plant that powers the US Capitol. Hansen has argued that preventing catastrophic climate change requires an end to new coal plants; now he will get arrested to make that point. "If there are young people sticking their necks out, how can old geezers who caused their problem hang back?" Hansen told The Nation . Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben and Gus Speth are some of the other environmental luminaries who plan to get arrested in the action, which is being spearheaded by Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Ruckus Society and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

I first proposed a Global Green Deal in 1998 in my book Earth Odyssey because six years of world travel had convinced me that fighting poverty had to go hand in hand with fighting climate change; you can't expect people to starve today to save tomorrow's planet. Relying on a mix of government policies and market mechanisms, the plan would use federal spending and regulation to encourage the rapid deployment of green technologies and practices here and abroad, especially in developing nations. A Global Green Deal follows in the tradition of the New Deal, which President Roosevelt devised to fight the Great Depression in the 1930s; the Marshall Plan, which restored stability in Europe in the '40s and '50s; and the Apollo Project, which put a man on the moon in the '60s and led to the personal computer revolution of the '80s. Like each of these forebears, a Global Green Deal would mobilize America's public and private resources with a wartime sense of urgency. Government would spend more, but it would spend more wisely, and its investments would stimulate enough economic activity that increased tax receipts would cover the costs. The deal would shift taxpayer support away from practices that make climate change worse -- i.e., Washington's copious financing of oil and coal projects -- and toward green counterparts. Policies that reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience at the same time, such as the rejuvenation of degraded forests and soils, would be a top priority.

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