Why President Obama Is Wrong To Separate The Economy And Climate

President Barack Obama raised expectations for climate action when he said in his election night acceptance speech that “we want our children to live in an America that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

But in his first post-election press conference, he backed away, implying that climate must take a back seat to dealing with the country’s economic woes – a distinction echoed by his spokesperson Jay Carney shortly thereafter. The President is exactly right in his first statement and dead wrong in his second.

Sweeping action to address climate change faces enormous political opposition, especially when the economy is the dominant issue of the day. But the reality is that they can be approached simultaneously. In fact, this decision to separate of the economy and the environment is a marked reversal from the president’s previous statements.

In March, for example, Obama stated quite clearly that environmental and economic prosperity are not mutually exclusive:

“There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and a growing economy, between doing right by our environment and putting people back to work. And I’m here to tell you that is a false choice. That is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.”

In addition to addressing the urgent need to curb our carbon emissions, the economic benefits of dealing with climate change should merit their inclusion in both short-term policy discussions about deficit reduction and long-term economic growth strategies.

For example, a recent analysis from the Congressional Research Service found that a modest carbon tax of $20 per ton that rises 5.6 percent annually could cut the projected 10-year deficit by 50 percent — from $2.3 trillion down to $1.1 trillion. If designed correctly, a carbon tax could help shift the burden of paying for pollution (and solutions to it) from taxpayers to polluters, as well as generate much-needed revenue that could be used for a variety of purposes, including paying down the debt, incentivizing clean energy, and building our resiliency to climate change.

Climate action through clean energy investment has a variety of economic benefits in both the near and long term, driving investments that put people back to work now and increase our economy’s productivity over time. Such policies simultaneously reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, curb carbon emissions, and mitigate the negative effects of climate change. A few specific examples:

•Investment in energy efficiency is a win-win for the climate and the economy. The U.S. wastes an estimated $130 billion a year on inefficient buildings and appliances, an obvious and costly drag on the economy. Buildings consume nearly 49 percent of all energy in the economy and emit nearly half of total carbon emissions. A 2011 CAP analysis found that retrofitting just 40 percent of the nation’s residential and commercial building stock would create 625,000 sustained full-time jobs over a decade – especially in the hard-hit construction and manufacturing sectors – generating as much as $64 billion per year in cost savings for U.S. energy ratepayers.

•As climate change diminishes our natural resources, efficient use of lands and oceans will be benefit both the planet’s health and the country’s economy. On public lands, conservation-related industries – such as tourism, recreation, and renewable energy development – have enormous economic value and job creation potential. The same can be said for the various sustainable ocean and coastal industries that fuel our nation’s blue economy – with coastal restoration in particular providing a tremendous opportunity to create jobs across a wide range of skill sets, diversify local economies, and help protect coastal communities from the increasingly severe storms that result from climate change.

•Though significant action to address climate change will require a substantial investment, failure to act will be far more costly. A new World Bank report released yesterday carried the dire warning that we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world by as soon as 2060, a catastrophic scenario “marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.” With the impacts of pollution currently costing us $500 billion a year and climate destruction already hurting lower and middle-class Americans the most, the implication that climate action would come at the expense of economic growth becomes even more glaringly off-base.

Far from distinct and unrelated, climate and the economy are inextricably linked. The transformation from a predominantly carbon-intensive economy to one built on clean energy will be an enormous undertaking, but one that bears vast potential for job creation, economic diversification, and equipping communities to cope with the devastating impacts of climate change. This shift is not an option. It is imperative.

Last week the International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook report which made headlines for projecting that the U.S. could become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020. The much bigger story, however, is their warning that over 2/3 of the world’s proven reserves need to still be in the ground in 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.

A new PriceWaterhouseCooper study echoed this urgency, concluding we need to quadruple our current rate of decarbonization in order to avoid the absolutely devastating 4°C scenario. We must aggressively deploy clean technologies, internalize the actual price of pollution by putting a price on carbon, and make major investments in climate resiliency. In short, the time for piecemeal solutions has passed.

When it comes to finally tackling climate change head-on, rhetoric will not suffice. It is no longer an option to continue kicking the can down the road, hoping for a better political climate or more stable economy.

As David Remnick writes in the New Yorker, Obama must escape the dangerous Washington mindset that believes “a difficulty delayed is a difficulty allayed” because in the case of climate change, “there will not be a better time. There will only be worse times.”

The President must stop separating climate action from economic well-being. It’s a wrong — and dangerous — policy stance.

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