There’s a Battle Outside and It Is Ragin’

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David Brady's picture

There’s a Battle Outside and It Is Ragin’

Extreme heat, droughts, and wildfires across the United States have once again made the effects of climate change more visible. Since the recession, climate change has taken a back page to the economy. The media and policy makers have focused more on jobs and the deficit and less on protecting the environment and reducing carbon emissions. But with recent disappointing employment numbers and extreme weather patterns, it is clear that both issues must be addressed. They do not have to be treated separately. The United States can stimulate an economic recovery by creating jobs that help reduce carbon emissions and end the addiction to foreign oil.

The most vivid signs of climate change have been the record-setting wildfire in Colorado and this year’s shattered heat records. Princeton University geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer said, “What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like. It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this type of environmental disaster.” The record high temperatures, low levels of precipitation, and mild winter are all part of the blame for the wildfires. Climate change will make these extreme weather patterns more common, and the wildfires will increase every year with these warming trends (Yandell 2012).

With all of the information regarding climate change, the debate has changed from denying that global warming exists, to it whether it is essential that we do anything about it. Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation, admits that carbon emissions in the atmosphere have a warming impact. But he says that providing electricity is more important than reducing carbon emissions. He recently said that climate change is “manageable,” and people will adapt to rising sea levels and changing weather patterns (Polson 2012). But life has adapted to fit the current climate. If global warming continues as projected, and temperatures rise 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, scientists project that 50% of the species on Earth could become extinct. “[Curbing global warming] is needed if we are to preserve life as we know it” (Hansen et al 2012).

In addition to our climate problems, we have a depressed economy with high unemployment. The reason for the high unemployment is weak aggregate demand brought on by high levels of household debt from the bursting of the housing bubble and financial crisis, rather than structural problems or business uncertainty, as theorized by some (Mian 2011). In a depressed economy with weak aggregate demand, in which interest rates are near zero, we need more government spending, not less, to make up for the inadequate demand of the private sector (Krugman 2012). Recently, economist Alan Blinder has argued that the debate about austerity should be over, and the United States government should take advantage of the record low interest rates and high unemployment rate among construction workers and enact a modest stimulus focused on creating jobs. Currently, the United States government can borrow for five years at around 0.6% and for 10 years around 1.5%. These rates are well below the expected inflation rates, making the real cost of borrowing negative (Blinder 2012).

The U.S. economy desperately needs fiscal stimulus to end the slump and get back to full employment, and something desperately needs to be done about climate change. Yet many politicians think that we need to reduce spending and lower the deficit, and the U.S. cannot afford spending on infrastructure and clean energy. For example, last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott rejected plans for a high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando saying it cost taxpayers too much (Williams 2011). Furthermore, Congress rejected President Obama’s American Jobs Act, which among other things, called for investments in infrastructure and repairing school buildings (Cooper 2011). However, as Blinder says, “stimulus isn’t a dirty word.” The deficit reduction should come later after the economy has recovered (Blinder 2012). But with these low rates and high unemployment, stimulus should be used now to create jobs and “clean” the environment.

There is overwhelming empirical evidence that government spending creates growth and jobs when it is not offset by monetary policy (Romer 2011). A big increase in government spending for the military buildup before World War II is what got the U.S out of the Great Depression (Krugman 2012). Obviously, we do not want another world war to get us out of this slump. However, we do have a real threat in climate change. Just as the increased military spending for World War II ended the Great Depression in the U.S. and ended the fascist threat, we can fight climate change in a way that brings us back to full employment and ends the threat of global warming.

To stop climate change, we need to reduce carbon emissions and move to clean energy sources. Congress should enact something like the Natural Resources Defense Council’s five step plan that will “repower, refuel, and rebuild America, starting today.” This plan calls for setting limits on global warming pollution; investing in green jobs and clean energy; driving smarter cars; creating green homes and buildings; and building better communities and transportation networks (NRDCa).

            Historically, government research has funded some of our greatest technological advances. It has played a large part in developing the technology to extract natural gas from shale rock formations, which has allowed the U.S. to generate as much electricity from natural gas as from coal. Over the last several years, the United States, European, and Chinese governments have invested hundreds of billions of dollars on clean-energy research. As with any investment in nascent technology, there were some failures such as ethanol and Solyndra, but the successes have outweighed the failures. This research has already allowed the price of wind and solar energy to fall sharply. The world now uses much more alternative energy than experts predicted. However, funding has decreased dramatically since 2009. Just as the new technology has allowed the price of natural gas to drop dramatically, we need more research to further close the gap between the prices of electricity generated from clean sources and dirty fossil fuels (Leonhardt 2012). We cannot continue to wait until clean energy is cheaper. Federal subsidies can lower the price gap until enough research is done to further lower the costs.

To make it more expensive to pollute and make this cleaner energy more economically attractive, Congress could enact a tax on carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, like British Columbia has done. Its tax has been around for only four years, and data shows that carbon emissions are down 4.5%, even with a growing population and economy. A similar tax in the United States would generate $145 billion a year at first, and less in time as carbon emissions decline (Bauman 2012). The revenue from this tax could be used to fund these other projects.

Investments in clean energy, like wind, solar, geothermal, and other energy efficiency programs, would create millions of jobs and replace dirtier forms of energy such as coal and oil (NRDCb). To reduce carbon emission from transportation, the U.S. can take advantage of its great supplies of natural gas and wind power to replace coal power plants to produce cleaner electricity to charge plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Medium and heavy duty trucks can be directly fueled with natural gas (NRDCc).  Retooling auto plants will create manufacturing jobs and allow U.S. car manufacturers to keep up with demand for fuel-efficient cars and natural gas powered trucks (NRDCa). Investments in public transportation such as commuter rails and high-speed rails should also be done to create jobs and provide cleaner forms of transportation (NRDCa). This cleaner energy, more fuel efficient vehicles, and improved public transportation would not only create jobs and improve the environment, but would also end our addiction to foreign oil and make the United States energy independent.

In conclusion, the United States can stimulate an economic recovery by creating jobs that help reduce carbon emissions and end the addiction to foreign oil. We can continue to live with high unemployment, rising sea levels, and changing weather patterns, or we can stimulate an economic recovery that helps end global warming. Despite what some people say, we can afford to spend on these projects, but we cannot afford to ignore climate change and continue to let the millions of people who are out of work suffer. Climate change no longer needs to take a back page to the economy. The battle to reduce carbon emissions can end the current economic slump and end the threat of global warming.

  1. (Title inspired by Bob Dylan’s song, “Times They Are A-Changin.’” 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music
  2. Bauman, Yoram and Shi-Ling Hsu. 2012. “The Most Sensible Tax of All.” July 4 2012.
  3. Blinder, Alan. “Stimulus Isn’t a Dirty Word.” June 25, 2012.
  4. Cooper, Helene and Jennifer Steinhauer. 2011. “Obama Offers Jobs Bill, and the G.O.P. Balks.” September 12, 2011.
  5. Hansen, James; Makiko Sato; and Reto Ruedy. 2012. “Perceptions of Climate Change: The New Climate Dice.” January 5, 2012.
  6. Krugman, Paul. 2012. End This Depression Now! W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2012. Page 230.
  7. Leonhardt, David. 2012. “There’s Still Hope for the Planet.” July 21, 2012.
  8. Mian, Atif and Amir Sufi. 2011. “What Explains High Unemployment? The Aggregate Demand Channel.” November 2011.
  9. NRDCa.
  10. NRDCb.
  11. DCc.
  12. Polson, Jim. “Power for the World Poor More Pressing Than Emissions: Exxon.” June 27, 2012.
  13. Romer, David. 2011. “What Have We Learned about Fiscal Policy from the Crisis.” March  2011.
  14. Williams, Timothy. 2011. “Florida’s Governor Rejects High-Speed Rail Line, Fearing Cost to Taxpayers.” February 16, 2011.
  15. Yandell, Kate. 2012. “Pondering a Link Between Forest Fires and Climate Change.” June 28, 2012.  climate-change/.