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Two Steps Forward

This is exactly the time to be talking about climate change

I rarely get exasperated from reading environmental business media, but a quote last week in a Bloomberg article about sustainability and the U.S. economic crisis got me headed in that direction.

The quote came from Ted Nordhaus, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, a research group whose founders, self-described environmentalists, have made a career out of being gadflies — for example, arguing in favor of nuclear power and natural gas, arguing against putting a price on carbon emissions and claiming that there’s no real limit to the earth’s carrying capacity, or that energy efficiency doesn’t work because of something called the "rebound effect."

I’ll leave it to you to proceed down the wormhole of websites critiquing the group’s analyses. Suffice to say that the Breakthrough Institute has become a darling of the anti-science, pro-pollution conservative right, which frequently cites its work in order to attack environmentalists and climate scientists and their fact-based policy recommendations.

Here’s last week’s quote, in reference to the notion of integrating climate measures into congressional appropriations as we rebuild the economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic:

“Right now I would have no explicit climate or clean-energy angle,” says Ted Nordhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank. “It’s not the time to be talking about climate change or demanding climate policy.”

Nordhaus worries that the economic recession will be deep, and without a “miracle cure,” could go on for more than a year. “That’s going to cause extraordinary economic pain for a lot of people, most of whom don’t have the privilege of worrying about climate change,” he says. “It would be tone-deaf to talk about climate change now.”

It’s a specious ploy often used by conservatives. Following a mass shooting, it’s not the right time to talk about gun control. Following a hurricane, it’s not the right time to talk about climate-exacerbated weather events. Following the police shooting of an unarmed black man, it’s not the right time to talk about race relations and inequality.

Of course, later on, when it’s presumably "the right time," the public’s fickle attention likely has moved on to other front-burner topics.

If we have the chance to start anew, why would we want to rescue and lock in unsustainable systems and industries for another generation or more?
Just because a problem isn’t in the news doesn’t mean it somehow has been solved. All of the above challenges remain, pandemic or not. And, to varying degrees, they all need to be kept alive, even amid other pressing priorities.

So, Nordhaus is dead wrong: This is exactly the right time to be talking about climate change.

In fact, we need to be talking unapologetically about climate, the clean economy, renewable energy, resilient food systems, sustainable mobility, the circular economy and the Sustainable Development Goals with more vigor than ever.

Who CARES?

People like Nordhaus are quick to point out that addressing the climate crisis will tank the economy and ruin the spectacular boom times we’ve been enjoying. And to talk about it, during good times or bad, is somehow "tone-deaf."

Suffice to say, that argument has been rendered moot by a certain spikey-crowned virus. The economy has tanked, globally. (It was never that good for those at the bottom of the wage scale anyway.) The "extraordinary economic pain" Nordhaus fears is already upon us. We’ll spend the next several years rebooting and rebuilding our economic wherewithal.

So, isn’t this the time to talk about how that will unfold, about how to create a robust, resilient and regenerative economy for the next generation or two? And shouldn’t we be aligning our investments — and our tax dollars — in those directions?

Consider:

  • If airlines are taking a nosedive, and we taxpayers are to bail them out, shouldn’t we ensure that going forward, air travel’s substantial climate impacts begin to descend, even as air travel is projected to take off in the coming decades? Why not ensure that the aviation sector follows the rest of industry by aiming for net-zero emissions by mid-century? (In reality, the "Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security," or CARES Act, signed into law last week, eliminated the provision that would have required that airlines reduce carbon emissions in exchange for relief.)

  • If we’re to prop up farmers and agribusinesses, shouldn’t we help them adopt climate- and ag-friendly techniques and technologies? Shouldn’t we take measures to ensure that our food systems provide healthy and affordable food for all without biting the land that feeds us? (CARES provided a garden variety of mechanisms to support farmers and extend food assistance programs for the poor, both worthy activities, but provided no incentives to change how food is grown or produced.)

  • If keeping fossil fuels in the ground is a climate imperative, shouldn’t we be viewing the oil and gas industry’s economic travails as an opportunity to support an orderly transition away from fossil fuels while building the next generation of clean energy companies and skilled workers? (The provisions supporting renewable energy ultimately were stripped from the CARES Act.)

We’re about to inject trillions of dollars of taxpayer money into the U.S. economy, hoping to lure it out of the abyss into which it is quickly falling and, hopefully, fend off a depression. Many jobs being lost won’t be coming back, leaving potentially millions of workers economically stranded. Isn’t this the right time to be envisioning the kind of economy and careers we want to build out of those ruins?

If we have the chance to start anew, why would we want to rescue and lock in unsustainable systems and industries for another generation or more? Why wouldn’t we want to create a more sustainable and resilient economy? Isn't this, a moment of rebuilding, the right time to talk about this?

Based on the mindset of Nordhaus and his fellow travelers, I’m afraid I don’t have high hopes. Indeed, America’s track record at addressing existential crises already is "abysmal," as New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen pointed out last week:

We have responded to crises by exacerbating the fundamental problems of society, including the root causes of the crises themselves. Our response to 9/11 sacrificed civil liberties and human rights. Our response to the financial crisis of 2008 created even more wealth inequality. If our response to the coronavirus pandemic follows the same patterns, it will make previous crises look like child’s play in comparison.

It will take everyone’s hard work and best intentions, not to mention visionary thinking, to ensure that the solutions to our economic woes align with where we want to go, not where we’ve been. We simply can’t slough off the climate crisis and other environmental and social challenges as expendable conversations during tough times. Much as we need to mobilize and remain unflinching as we fight the pandemic, we can’t put other pressing issues on hold. The climate, for one, won’t wait.

So, going forward — starting right now — we need to double down on sustainability. We need to unapologetically talk about climate and sustainability writ large, even as the pandemic rages on. This is exactly the right time.

Doing any less will risk another existential global crisis, one for which there will be no vaccine.

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