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On the VERGE

Can a #GreenStimulus lead us from breakdown to breakthrough?

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the activist-turned commentator Van Jones articulate the vision of building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

I was sitting at the opposite end of a packed conference room. It was in 2009, my first week on the job at Green for All, and his last in the Oakland office before heading to Washington, D.C., to step into the role President Barack Obama appointed him as the United States’ first "green jobs czar."

Not only was something captivating and poetic about the framing — and, of course, in Van’s masterful elocution — but it also landed in me as downright obvious. Why wouldn’t we address environmental and social issues simultaneously by ensuring that the people who have been left out and harmed by the current economy get to play a central role in building and benefitting from a new one?

Fast-forward 11 years, and both the urgency of and opportunity to realize this vision are more significant than ever — in most nations around the world, and especially here in the United States. 

Creating a bunch of bad jobs will just perpetuate both inequality and the climate crisis. Now is a time when we think about not just what we invest in but who we invest in.
Global warming is a full-fledged climate emergency; the extreme social inequalities and environmental injustices Jones talked about more than a decade ago are as rampant and visible as ever; and we find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that’s put America on the brink of record-breaking unemployment and economic recession.

At the intersection of these three converging crises — climate, inequality and the pandemic — exists a tremendous opportunity and, at least for now, a critical question: What’s the path forward through this pandemic that ensures climate stabilization, ecological regeneration and an inclusive, just transition to the clean economy?

Enter the #GreenStimulus

Here’s where the "Green Stimulus to Rebuild Our Economy," as it was dubbed in an open letter to Congress last month, comes in: an eight-point proposal, co-authored by an impressive set of environmental advocates — and which my colleague Katie Fehrenbacher touched on in her recent Transport Weekly column.

The plan calls for spending $2 trillion on creating millions of green jobs, investing strategically in aid for frontline communities, expanding public and employee ownership and rapidly cutting carbon pollution — all towards the aligned goals of making our society and economy "stronger and more resilient in the face of pandemic, recession and climate emergency in the years ahead." 

It also advocates for automatic renewal of the stimulus every year at 4 percent of GDP, or about $857 billion, based on 2019 data.

It may sound like Green New Deal 2.0, but there’s more to it. Yes, the proposal does build on many principles outlined in that framework, but it also weaves in expanded ideas from private companies, leading NGOs and academic institutions. And it does all this in the context of our current predicament: a roaring pandemic coupled with a crashing economy.

The proposal for a #GreenStimulus strives to overcome the partisan divides that have hobbled the Green New Deal. It advocates for policy decisions that simultaneously drive long-term economic, environmental and social benefit while recognizing coronavirus mitigation as the highest priority in the short-term.

Given today’s political polarization, debating the viability of such a vision is likely to lead us down a path that’s as infuriating at it is disheartening. But, as Vox’s David Roberts notes in a breathtakingly comprehensive piece on this topic, "Six months from now, different people could be in charge, facing an economy that is still in crisis and a planet that is still warming. They will need ideas that address both crises at once — all the ideas they can get."

The business of a just transition

Similarly, it may behoove companies committed to clean economy leadership to view this proposed plan as if some version of it will be enacted in the future — to ask where these principles align with business interests; whether it’s possible to use the green stimulus concept as an overlay to existing corporate strategies; and what the opportunities are to support the advancement of environmentally and socially beneficial policies.

Companies not only have a responsibility to ask what their role is in ensuring a socially just clean economy transition, but those who do are likely to be well-positioned in the coming years.

"This is something that’s really important as we think about job creation," said Mijin Cha, an author of the Green Stimulus and senior fellow at Data for Progress, in an interview with CityLab. "Creating a bunch of bad jobs will just perpetuate both inequality and the climate crisis. Now is a time when we think about not just what we invest in but who we invest in. Businesses and manufacturers that pay and treat their workers with dignity are the ones that we want to be lifting up and investing in."

Furthermore, a Green Stimulus agenda is broadly popular with the American public, as shown by Data for Progress’s polling around the Green New Deal and green industrial policy. Its most recent polls suggest majority support across party lines for a trillion-dollar investment in clean technologies — from renewable energy, electric buses and smart-grid technologies to retrofitting low-income housing.

Let’s ensure that as we design the new operating system for rebooting the economy, it’s one that lifts all boats. After all, the seas are still rising.
This moment of breakdown holds tremendous potential for a breakthrough in support for a new kind of capitalism. One in which business and government leaders alike reorient from reactively fixing market failures when they arise to proactively creating markets that deliver sustainable and inclusive growth.

Growth in which people get back to work by making coastlines more resilient against future storms and floods — planting mangroves to protect against erosion and to sequester carbon as part of a broader push to plant those trillion trees the Trump administration seems so jazzed about. Growth in which former oil and gas industry workers are retrained to instead lay pipelines for carbon capture and sequestration, which research from the Rand Corporation suggests require similar core skills. Growth that puts millions of people back to work expanding clean energy development, manufacturing electric vehicles and restoring forests — in jobs that reduce emissions rather than drive them up.

Indeed, as Christiana Figueres reflected poignantly in a recent article for Time magazine on early lessons from COVID-19 for tackling the climate crisis, "Social distancing measures have caused economic paralysis, while our response to climate change should actually strengthen and improve the economy." And, as Figueres also notes, we are, as a global society, only as safe as our most vulnerable people.

To paraphrase Van Jones, let’s ensure that as we design the new operating system for rebooting the economy, it’s one that lifts all boats. After all, the seas are still rising.

This article first appeared in GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here

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