Monday, January 5, 2009

Thoughtful economic stimulus package needed, emphasis on 'thoughtful'

The economy is ill. We all know it. Several hundred point fluctuations in the stock markets have become so common place that they barely raise eyebrows anymore. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost. Too many homes foreclosed. Banks and large corporations are going belly up. The auto industry is on life support.

President-elect Barack Obama has called for the creation and implementation of a massive economic stimulus package, something on par with (or greater than) the New Deal policies of the 1930's. He wants hundreds of billions of dollars to go toward unfreezing the markets and creating enough new jobs to get us all back on track again. A major attribute of those jobs, Obama says, should be that they are in "green" sectors of the economy.

Because the environment is ill, too.

Some people don't believe that we can both right the economy and the environment at the same time, that focusing on conservation and sustainability will only hinder the markets and make things worse for us all.

What many other people are saying, though, is that we can have it both ways. We'll all need to ante up and kick in, work hard, to make it happen--but it can happen.

The November/December issue of Mother Jones includes a series of articles dealing with this very conundrum, and they're all well worth the read. Perhaps the most important thing to take away from them, though, is this number: 350.

And what does that mean, precisely? James Hansen, the NASA scientist who in 1988 was one of the first public voices to warn that burning fossil fuels was warming the earth, recently published a paper in which he (and several coauthors) laid out the case for "Target Atmospheric CO2" levels. It says:
If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.
The Mother Jones article goes on to clarify:
Get that? Let me break it down for you. For most of the period we call human civilization, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hovered at about 275 parts per million. Let's call that the Genesis number, or depending on your icons, the Buddha number, the Confucius number, the Shakespeare number. Then, in the late 18th century, we started burning fossil fuel in appreciable quantities, and that number started to rise. The first time we actually measured it, in the late 1950s, it was already about 315. Now it's at 385, and growing by more than 2 parts per million annually.

And it turns out that that's too high. We never had a number before, so we never knew whether we'd crossed a red line. We half guessed and half hoped that the danger zone might be 450 or 550 parts per million—those were still a little ways in the distance. Therefore we could get away with thinking like the young Augustine: "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet." Not anymore. We have been told by science that we're already over the line.

Scary as that is, it's not an impossible goal. Some might balk at how much of a challenge it might be, or how much reaching that number will alter the economic world as we know it. But, as always, I ask this: Would you rather the alternative? A world toxic to life itself? I hope not.

The fears of the greedy souls so thoroughly entrenched and invested in a fossil fuel dependent society are well-founded, and frankly I'd like to see their worst nightmares come true--A world powered by human innovation that leads to sustainable, renewable sources of energy and technologies.

Obama has the right idea when he calls for a vast stimulus package that focuses heavily on creating "green jobs" - but the devil's in the details.

His promotion of so-called "clean coal" is, unfortunately, misguided. Coal is not and is not likely ever to be clean. From its extraction through habitat destroying processes, to its harnessing through pollutant spewing factories, coal is far from the answer.

We should also be wary of the calls for more infrastructure spending. While it's incredibly important to upgrade our aging bridge, sewage, and power transmission systems, we shouldn't allow expensive and unnecessary road building projects to weasel their way into the game, too.

Unfortunately, all too many state governors and mayors have sent reams of just such proposals off to the Obama administration. Right here in Wisconsin, Gov. Doyle is requesting funds for a much disputed plan to expand I-94 from Milwaukee to the Illinois border. John Norquist, CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism, writes that:
Though it will achieve only minimal reductions in drive times, it is projected to add more than 200,000 automobile miles per day. Say hello to 130,000 pounds in new daily carbon emissions (assuming the average miles-per-gallon of cars on the road climbs to 30). It’s the kind of project Exxon might dream up to get cars back on the road after seven unprecedented months of declining driving.
That's not the direction in which we want to go if we want any chance at getting our emissions down to the recommended 350.

We should instead be focusing on developing better mass transit systems, like the proposed Midwest commuter railway that would link cities like Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Things like that would get more cars off the road while helping a wider range of people to get from city to city, all the while cutting down on emissions and creating jobs (we'll need people to build, operate, and maintain those rails, after all).

Intentional, well-thought out urban infill would help, too, making more people less dependent on their cars to get them to their jobs, grocery stores, schools, etc. It would free up more land for conservation, and for sustainable farming that could serve local communities.

We need to make a serious, concerted push to pump more money into those industries and organizations working to innovate greener modes of transportation and energy. Right now, alternatives and renewables only receive a pittance in terms of tax incentives and government grants, while the oil, coal, and natural gas industries sit pretty and fat. Our priorities need to pull a 180.

And in the meantime, we need to put a hard cap on the amount of CO2 our nation releases, heavily taxing those industries that exceed set limits (and making them pay for permits to do so). The companies would then, presumably, pass those extra expenses on to consumers, who would likely cut their usage dramatically.

To offset the burden placed on the consumer, however, the government could take some of the money earned from the industry payments for their emissions, and maybe money from a gas tax as well, and give it back to us regular folk by way of a monthly check (or something similar), then invest the remainder in helping create newer, cleaner, more affordable means of powering our lives in the long-run.

There are many opportunities to go about this the right way, and just as many to go about it the wrong way. We have lots of smart, thoughtful people out there working on the problems right now. What we lack is the national (and international) willpower and cooperation to properly fund their efforts, and to see this through to the hopefully less bitter end.

We can hope that an Obama administration understands that, and acts on it--but we also need to make sure they do. Hold them accountable. Speak up. Don't allow yourself to be cowed by pretty rhetoric or the easy path. Make it happen. We have to, now, before the pendulum swings so far out and up that there's nowhere to go but crashing down.

(h/t: Sprawled Out)


Anonymous said...

Great post. Far too often we fail to realize that freeway expansion has large negative environmental consequences and that urban infill is truly a way to act in a green manner.

Anonymous said...

well this is really thoughtful stuff. I simply love it.

Mark said...

One "green" project that this country needs badly is a new high voltage electrical transmission grid. It'll cost (up to $60billion, see, but the payback will be fast.

The U.S. economy loses about $80billion A YEAR from power interruptions (see Pretty quick payback, eh. Not to mention that this grid will be needed to move wind and solar power from source to market, no matter how distant.

Let's talk it up. It looks like it could be in Obama's ARRP (American Recovery and Reinvestment Program), but it'll need to be fast tracked, as permits take time.

Our economy badly needs so-called "two-fer" projects that inject needed dollars into projects that create jobs AND leave us better off when completed. This is a project whose time has come.

The Lost Albatross