Three Things Obama Should Do First

The following is adapted from Van Jones' new book The Green Collar Economy.

There are precedents -- FDR's Civilian Conservation Corp and JFK's Apollo Project, to name a couple -- for government support of paradigm shifts and massive world-changing projects. And so, today, the U.S. government must again make a fundamental shift. Right now, the government is spending tens of billions of dollars supporting the problem makers in the U.S. economy -- the polluters, despoilers, incarcerators, and warmongers. The time has come for the nation to give greater support to the problem solvers -- the clean-energy producers, green builders, eco-entrepreneurs, community educators, green-collar workers, and green consumers.


In fact, at the very beginning of his inaugural address, the new president would be wise to fully embrace the agenda of the climate solutions group 1Sky. That organization has fashioned an ambitious set of goals based strictly on what the world's scientists say is minimally necessary to avert a global climate catastrophe.

Following 1Sky's lead, the forty-fourth U.S. president should stand before the American people vowing to enact policies that will: (1) create five million green jobs as a part of a plan to conserve 20 percent of our energy by 2015; (2) freeze climate pollution levels now, then cut them to at least 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050; and (3) ban the construction of new coal plants that emit global-warming pollution, promoting renewable energy instead. Better yet, the new president should publicly pledge to meet Al Gore's challenge of making the United States 100 percent free of fossil fuels by 2018. Such bold proposals would immediately signal the end of the status quo, stun the pro-pollution contingent, and begin to rally the nation to meet our crises head-on.

To begin making good on those commitments, the administration would then need to implement multiple policies aggressively, immediately, and at various levels. The task of meeting these challenges would do more than determine the administration's environmental policy. It would also shape America's core economic program, foreign policy agenda, urban and rural policy, and manufacturing agendas as well.

With Bracken Hendricks of the Center for American Progress, I have outlined three policy tracks the new administration must pursue simultaneously to make dramatic, politically sustainable progress on the climate, energy, and jobs policy. The first track involves exerting immediate leadership within the executive branch, taking measures to coordinate U.S. climate and energy policy across all federal agencies and using executive orders, public communications, and other presidential prerogatives to manage carbon, capture energy savings, and promote renewable technologies.

Second, the White House must engage Congress to pass a suite of global-warming and energy legislation, including both a cap-and trade bill that limits emissions and complementary policies that strengthen standards and drive investment in clean energy. The third track will entail a vigorous diplomatic effort to reclaim U.S. moral leadership abroad through progress on international climate negotiations, clean development, and addressing adaptation and energy poverty.

1) The next president should take bold and immediate action.

He should use climate solutions to frame a positive domestic economic agenda. He must place the issue at the center of his agenda for economic opportunity and reconstruction and link it to job creation, rebuilding cities and rural economies, and restoring global competitiveness. He can use the pulpit of the presidency to signal serious commitment to climate solutions, then build a leadership structure within the White House to sustain this focus. This leadership structure should have strong links to economic and national security advisers and clear pathways of communication with all agencies and White House offices to ensure that a unified strategy is employed across the executive branch.

In the spirit of comprehensive action, the president should enlist all federal agencies in building climate solutions, utilizing the power of executive orders and presidential leadership. The president can show immediate leadership by instructing agencies to reduce their carbon footprint through improved purchasing and acquisitions, vehicle fleet management, and facilities management.

If the president launches a signature initiative, the Clean Energy Corps, he will distinguish himself as a true leader in the footsteps of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. A national Clean Energy Corps would combine service, training, and employment efforts, with a special focus on cities and neglected rural communities, to combat climate disruption. The work would focus on retrofitting homes, small businesses, schoolhouses, and public buildings; preserving and enlarging green public spaces; applying distributed renewable energy production technology to underserved communities; strengthening community defenses against climate disruption; upgrading infrastructure; and educating children and communities on how they can contribute to ending global warming. These efforts could pay for themselves through energy savings, making the CEC program largely self-financing, while generating enormous demand for new jobs in communities that need them.

2) The next president should have a comprehensive legislative agenda.

Capping carbon emissions, collecting taxes/profit from permits, and investing in our clean-energy future should be an immediate goal. An indispensable component of cap-and-trade policy is the auction of a substantial portion of emissions permits available to greenhouse-gas emitters. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the monetary value of these permits would range from $50 billion to $300 billion each and every year (in 2007 dollars) by 2020. This money can be invested in the public interest -- to equitably transition the country to a low-carbon economy.

The president should help America's infrastructure mirror its clean energy goals. Establishing a clean-energy smart grid would network a series of smart devices, all communicating with each other, to do real-time balancing of energy need and production. As waste is greatly reduced, carbon reduction and cost savings would follow. Investing in worker training, supportive employment ser vices, manufacturing extension, and community development will be essential to ensure we meet our climate goals.

Carbon caps and green economy infrastructure work best with high-energy efficiency. To achieve immediate efficiency gains, the next administration should implement a National Energy Efficiency Resource Standard to require utilities to cut energy use 10 percent by 2020. A number of simple tasks would also have an enormous impact: increase production of renewable electricity, invest in low-carbon mass transportation and rail infrastructure, increase vehicle fuel economy, block new coal plants that can't safely capture and store emissions, provide sustainable/low-carbon fuels, and eliminate federal tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas. The combined impact of these measures would speed the United States toward an energy efficient future.

3) The next president should show leadership in international negotiations.

Rebuild international credibility through strong domestic action -- allow the US to reengage international climate negotiations. Connect global warming and trade policy. Climate provisions should be given significant weight in international trade policy. Promote adaptation and confront energy poverty. The goal of international development assistance should be to alleviate the crippling energy poverty that denies much of the world's population basic energy ser vices, without increasing carbon emissions.


Whatever the next president does, he must act quickly. Diplomatic, scientific, and economic timetables are all running out. The next president must hit the ground running. On energy and climate policy, it is critical that significant efforts be undertaken in the early days of the administration. A hundred-day strategy is key to making real domestic commitments and advancing stalled international climate talks that will result in meaningful global reductions.

The full power of the presidency, both its political leadership and moral authority, is needed to build deep public support to sustain smart climate policies over a generation. Climate solutions must be at the center of the agenda for the entire administration. This effort will also require broader constituencies in support of action and new strategies for public education. Solving global warming should become a centerpiece and organizing principle for the next administration's program for economic revival.

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