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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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If human civilization is to have a realistic chance of surviving global climate change, President Barack Obama and mobilized citizens will have to lead a virtual revolution in America's approach to the issue. Because the hour is so late and America's role so central, Obama must lead, and be pressed to lead, on three fronts at once. First, the United States must commit itself to serious reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions and begin achieving them without delay. This will restore US credibility on the issue, paving the way for step two: encouraging the rest of the world, especially China, to cut its emissions dramatically. The United States and China together account for 40 percent of global emissions, making them climate superpowers: if they do not cut emissions, it won't matter how much other nations reduce. Finally, Obama must urge the United States and all nations to begin preparing for the sea-level rise, water shortages and other impacts of climate change that are inevitable, with special emphasis on assisting the poor, who stand to suffer first and worst despite having done nothing to cause the problem.

It's a tall order, but America can achieve these triple imperatives if the Obama administration launches a Global Green Deal: a crash program to jump-start the transition to a global economy that is climate-friendly and climate-resilient -- that is, an economy that emits relatively few greenhouse gases and is shielded against the impacts of climate change. Done properly, a deal of this sort will green not only our societies but our wallets. A massive program of green investment will reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as it stimulates jobs, profits and innovation worldwide and lifts millions of people out of poverty and economic distress.

The stimulus package is a good start. It contains $71 billion in direct green spending and $20 billion in green tax incentives, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. The World Resources Institute has calculated that every $1 billion in green spending generates approximately 30,000 jobs, so the green portions of the stimulus package should create about 2 million jobs, many in the construction sector, which has been hit especially hard. Retrofitting buildings, installing solar panels and constructing wind farms require skilled and semiskilled labor and create decent-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced. Investing in climate-friendly development in poor countries, where money buys more, should yield even more jobs and economic uplift -- no small consideration, given the recent warning from the US director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, that the economic downturn could become the gravest threat to international stability if it triggers a return to the "violent extremism" of the 1930s.

But even more will have to be done, at home and abroad, if we are to slash emissions quickly enough to preserve a livable planet. President Obama has promised to reduce US emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. This sounds impressive compared with the Bush/Cheney years, but precisely because of Bush-era foot-dragging, the United States and the rest of the world need to achieve larger and faster emissions reductions than previously assumed. We have "a very short window of time," Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in January at a Worldwatch Institute conference. If we want to avoid such scenarios as twenty feet of sea-level rise, which would put most of the world's big cities under water, the rise in global temperatures must be limited to 2.0 to 2.4 Celsius above preindustrial levels. That means global emissions must peak by 2015 and then fall rapidly for decades, said Pachauri. In this context, he added, Obama's goal "falls short of the response needed by world leaders" in preparation for the negotiations in Copenhagen in December to produce a successor to the Kyoto treaty. Instead, Pachauri urged Obama to embrace the European Union's target: reducing emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, which the EU says it will achieve by increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy by 20 percent.

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.

The core principles of the deal have been embraced by leaders and citizen groups around the world, such as the prime minister of Japan, the foreign minister of Germany, and labor and environmental groups in Britain and the United States, including the AFL-CIO. In December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a very similar plan. In February Ban and Gore urged the world's governments to counter the economic crisis with spending that addresses immediate social needs and "launches a new green global economy." Noting that thirty-four nations are planning $2.25 trillion in stimulus spending, Ban and Gore warned that channeling this money "into carbon-based infrastructure and fossil-fuel subsidies would be like investing in subprime real estate all over again."

Most significant, President Obama has advocated policies that, at least domestically, align perfectly with those of a Global Green Deal. The stimulus package increases federal spending on green energy to three times the current level. But stabilizing our climate also requires that governments stop subsidizing activities that make things worse. Here, Obama still has far to go. The stimulus package contains $17 billion for mass transit but almost twice that much for new roads, according to Friends of the Earth. Senate-House conferees wisely deleted $50 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants from the bill, but fossil fuels continue to receive nearly twice as much in federal subsidies as do renewables and energy efficiency. For example, the stimulus package devotes $4.6 billion to research carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that, if it can be made to work -- a big if, in some experts' minds -- would capture a coal plant's carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground, where they would not contribute to global warming. Without CCS, continuing to burn coal is incompatible with preventing catastrophic climate change, says Hansen. But since it will be many years before CCS can be deployed, the more urgent task is to stop building coal plants and start phasing out existing ones. That goal, which Obama has given no sign of endorsing, is possible only if green alternatives receive even greater government support.

Energy efficiency is the alternative of choice under the Global Green Deal because it is the quickest and most lucrative means of reducing CO2 emissions and sparking economic development. Naysayers often complain that going green costs too much, especially in this time of economic crisis; but evidence suggests otherwise. Corporations and governments alike have found that investments in energy efficiency are extraordinarily profitable. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, BP invested $20 million to increase energy efficiency throughout its global network of production facilities and offices. The company ended up saving $650 million in fuel costs -- a stunning thirty-two-fold return on investment. "Six companies -- IBM, DuPont, British Telecom, Alcan, NorskeCanada and Bayer -- have each reduced emissions by at least 60 percent since the early 1990s, collectively saving more than $4 billion in the process," according to Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Happily, the stimulus package contains $9.4 billion to upgrade the efficiency of government and military buildings. Under the Global Green Deal, the government would extend the same opportunity to businesses and households. Federal loans would underwrite the upgrades, and the resulting savings on energy bills would be used to pay taxpayers back with interest. The deal would also boost the efficiency of vehicles, appliances, and power and water use. For example, the rules governing electric utilities would be revised to reward them for selling less power. California did this in the 1970s. Since then, the state's electricity use has been flat, despite a growing population and economy, while the utilities have enjoyed solid profits.

Bringing other states up to California's efficiency levels would save as much electricity as is produced by 60 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. To offset the remaining 40 percent, solar and wind power must continue their recent rapid expansion. Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, notes that Texas, of all places, "has 45,000 megawatts of wind power either on line, under construction or in development, which is about equal to the average amount of electricity generated by forty-five coal plants." That's more than Texas can consume, and it illustrates the importance of developing a national "smart grid" so that wind power produced in one region can be transported to customers elsewhere. The stimulus package invests $11 billion in this vital initiative.

Although the Obama administration is embarking on a scaled-down version of the Global Green Deal at home, similar policies must be applied internationally as well. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report made it clear that rich nations cannot survive unless developing nations -- particularly China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies whose emissions are rising rapidly -- also cut emissions. As a moral and practical matter, the rich will have to help pay for this shift; otherwise it will not happen. Congressional Republicans will howl, but the facts are clear: rich countries released 80 percent of the greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere, and on a per capita basis they still emit much more than developing nations, where hundreds of millions of poor people need affordable energy. Most rich nations have long rejected the idea of paying the poor to go green. Now we have no choice. Instead of resisting, the United States should make a virtue of necessity by helping these countries go green at maximum speed. If we're smart, a Global Green Deal will open new markets for US exporters, just as the Marshall Plan did after World War II.

The deal also provides a framework that could break the most important impasse in climate change diplomacy: the longstanding mutual insistence by the United States and China that the other climate superpower act first to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As the United States and the Soviet Union had with nuclear weapons during the cold war, the United States and China have loaded guns pointed at each other's heads, and at everyone else's. If both superpowers do not reduce emissions -- if they do not lower and unload their guns -- they will destroy themselves and the rest of civilization.

For years, Washington's intransigence has given China an easy excuse for refusing to reduce its emissions. Pursuing sharp emissions reductions, however, would give America leverage to press China to do its part. And there is reason to believe that China would welcome a climate deal, provided it is equitable. Its leaders at last appear to recognize that climate change is not only a rich man's problem. China is already being hurt by climate change -- 2007 brought the worst drought in ten years while record floods further undermined food production -- and worse lies in store, including a sea-level rise that could flood Shanghai. What's more, Chinese experts have long recognized that energy efficiency is the most potent source of green energy available. Studies supervised in the 1990s by Zhou Dadi, a top government adviser, showed that China could use 40-50 percent less energy if it installed efficiency technologies. Under the Global Green Deal, the United States and China would work together to capture these savings -- by promoting more efficient refrigerators, light bulbs and air conditioners, insulating China's notoriously drafty buildings and installing smarter electric motors and equipment.

Secretary of State Clinton's talks with top Chinese officials are cause for hope. Washington and Beijing pledged to work together toward energy efficiency and renewables and to achieve a "successful outcome" to the Copenhagen negotiations. A new report jointly produced by US and China experts and co-chaired by Steven Chu, a Chinese-American serving as Obama's energy secretary, urges regular "leaders summits" between China and the United States to pursue a climate deal. When Obama meets Chinese President Hu Jintao in April at the G-20 summit, he should invite Hu to join him for a series of talks to forge a path toward mutually assured reductions in emissions. (Such summits should augment, not displace, the UN negotiations that will culminate in Copenhagen.)

Can America make this green dream a reality? As candidate Obama famously said, Yes we can. But a Global Green Deal would amount to almost a revolution in how Washington works. It requires fundamental changes in where government money goes, including taking billions of dollars away from some of the most powerful lobbies and corporations in the country, above all the oil and coal industries. Obama promised to change how politics is done in Washington, but does he have the stomach for this? We'll see.

In any case, such change will come about only if President Obama and others in government are pushed from below -- by intense and sustained public pressure. As Obama explained to an audience in January 2008, when few gave him much of a chance to be president, "Change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up.... [People] arguing, mobilizing, agitating and ultimately forcing elected officials to be accountable.... That's how we're going to bring about change."

Mark Hertsgaard, the environment correspondent for The Nation, is the author of six books, including "Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future." His next book is called, "Living Through the Storm: How We Survive the Next 50 Years of Climate Change."
 
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