The Price is Right, Energy Edition

Obama, journalists tie efficiency and environmental protection to the economy

Monday morning, President Barack Obama signed two executive orders to spur an economic recovery plan founded upon clean energy and environmental protection. It is a move that is sure to please the many journalists who long ago realized that the success of sustainability goals would ultimately depend on strong financial incentives.

A poll released last week enviroconcernsmall.jpgby the Pew Research Center found that addressing the nation’s energy problems ranks sixth among a list of twenty voter concerns, with sixty percent of those polled agreeing that it should be a “top priority” for government. On the other hand, concern for protecting the environment and dealing with global warming has declined precipitously in the last few years, with those issues ranking seventeenth and dead last, respectively. The takeaway message for journalists is that those “stewardship” frames will not be sufficient in terms of galvanizing support for clean energy. In the pursuit of public engagement, the press would be better advised to link sustainability issues to economic growth and “green” jobs.

Andrew Revkin summed up this idea—and presciently forecast Obama’s speech Monday—in an article that was unfortunately buried on Page A13 of last Friday’s The New York Times:

The declining interest in global warming and other environmental issues might be unsurprising at a time when Americans face far more imminent threats to their jobs and homes…

But some experts in climate and energy policy say, given Americans’ continuing concern about filling their gas tanks and lighting their homes, [President Barack] Obama might still succeed in shoring up public support by packaging his climate policy as part of a larger push for a safer, cleaner menu of energy choices.

Monday morning, Obama did just that. But media outlets have been employing a similar strategy in their own stories for some time. In the January 12 issue of The New Yorker, for instance, Elizabeth Kolbert had a long and fascinating profile of environmental activist Van Jones and his quest to “green the ghetto.” Jones wants to ensure that the poorest orders of society profit from any shift toward a clean-energy economy. “That’s the only goal that’s morally compelling enough to generate enough energy to pull this transition off,” he told Kolbert. His persuasive logic led to the passage of the Green Jobs Act in December 2007, which targets low-income trainees.

No money has yet been appropriated to support that legislation, but that seems bound to change rapidly. Obama urged Congress to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, saying that the $825 billion stimulus package will create “millions” of jobs tied to energy efficiency and sustainability. Still, like most news accounts, Kolbert’s article contains a measure of skepticism:

[T]he basic premise of Jones’s appeal—that combating global warming is a good way to lift people out of poverty—is very much open to debate. Economists generally agree that the key to addressing climate change is to raise the cost of burning fossil fuels, either directly, through a carbon tax, or indirectly, through a cap-and-trade program. Low-income families are the ones that would be hardest hit by such a cost increase. They could be compensated through some kind of rebate, or a cut in other taxes; it’s been proposed, for example, that revenues from a carbon tax could be used to reduce the payroll tax. But it’s not at all clear that the number of jobs created by, say, an expanding solar industry would be greater than the number lost through, say, a shrinking coal-mining industry. Nor is it clear that a green economy would be any better at providing work for the chronically unemployed than our present, “gray” economy has been.

Perhaps such clarity is impossible at this point, but reporters might note that there is a growing consensus that the green economy will pay off. Friday’s Los Angeles Times carried an interesting op-ed column from Frank Luntz, a conservative pollster and political consultant who, unlike most Republicans, has warmed to the federal government’s economic stimulus package. According to a poll he conducted in December:

Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government — and 83% wants more spent by state governments — to improve America’s infrastructure. And here’s the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause…

… And Americans understand that infrastructure is not just roads, bridges and rails. In fact, they rated fixing energy facilities as their highest priority. Roads and highways scored second, and clean-water treatment facilities third.

California is the first test case for such spending. On Monday, Obama ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider granting a waiver (denied under the Bush administration) that would allow the state to set automobile emissions standards that are stricter than those of the federal government. Obtaining the waiver would be a major step toward achieving the goals set out in AB-32, a 2006 California law that requires the state to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and many others think enforcing that law will be a boon for the economy, but there are still hurdles to clear. The most important of these is how we allay the burden of rising energy costs for the poorest orders of society.

Last Monday night, as President Obama celebrated his inauguration, PBS’s Nova broadcast a well-timed, hour-long documentary on California’s “Big Energy Gamble.” The piece opens by reporting that drought, fire, rising sea level, and other predicted impacts of climate change “seem particularly dire” in California. But that is just a reminder, really; that clean energy would help the environment is a given. What Californians really want to know is this: Will laws like AB-32 help the economy?

Van Jones, the subject of Kolbert’s New Yorker profile, also pops up on the PBS show. Jones, who is based in Oakland, takes Nova around Richmond, an impoverished city on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, and points out how retrofitting energy-inefficient small businesses and homes could save occupants hundreds of dollars per year on utility bills. Likewise, other sources, including Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, tell Nova that new technologies will provide California companies with “worldwide business opportunities.” The bottom line is always cost, however. While most efficiency improvements are guaranteed to pay for themselves, Nova talks to low-income homeowners and small businesses alike who say they cannot wait even a few years for the return on their investment.

The economics of sustainability is clearly a frame that is of particular interest to readers and audiences these days. Nova spends relatively little time discussing the impacts of global warming, which are presented only as contextual background. Though there remain many points of climate science that the media can and should explore, this seems a positive development because it implies that the press has accepted the basic threat of warming and is now prepared to address the cost and feasibility of various solutions. In an excellent analysis of the Pew Research Center survey, which found that Americans are far more concerned with energy than they are with the environment, Matthew Nisbet offered this advice:

It’s time to turn the page on the “war on science,” “inconvenient truths,” and “denier” rhetoric that were battle cries for the Left during the Bush administration and 2008 election … It’s also time to stop focusing narrowly on remote polar impacts, looming environmental disaster, or symbols such as polar bears. These exemplars are either not personally relevant enough to most audiences, are dismissed as remote and far off in the future, or easily re-framed as “alarmism” sending interpretations back into the mental box of lingering scientific uncertainty.

Nisbet’s message is not specifically intended for the press, however. “It’s time to stop blaming the public, journalists, and the media,” he argues, “The communication burden instead rests with political leaders, scientists, advocates, and policy experts.”

It is a very astute point. The media should not be held solely accountable, as they often are, for explaining why the world needs to manage its resources more efficiently. But part of the burden—indeed, a large part—is still theirs and cannot be passed off to other communicators. In particular, the press must improve its reporting of clean-energy economics. In the same way that early, science-oriented coverage swung between catastrophe and hoax, stories about the economics thereof gravitate toward extreme opinions. Journalists must stop quoting sources that say this transition can be achieved with no sacrifice as well as those who say that it will lead to economic ruin. Neither is true.

Furthermore, reporters must also not be fooled into asking themselves whether or not clean energy is worth pursuing. Obama’s speech Monday morning should have erased any lingering uncertainty: this is the plan, and it is founded upon mounting evidence that efficiency and sustainability can both save and earn money for individuals and businesses alike. “We owe [to the millions who have lost jobs in the last year] and to every single American to act with a sense of urgency and common purpose. We can’t afford distractions and we cannot afford delays,” Obama said.

There will be financial strain, of course—but the question should not be can we manage it, but rather how we manage it and what policies and technologies we will need to do so. There is always room for disagreement, of course, and many individuals and industries will continue to resist this change. Currently, though, clean energy is our best (and perhaps only) strategy for working our way back to global financial solvency. Reporters should absolutely seek out those who disagree with that strategy, but they cannot keep regurgitating the simplistic free-market argument that it will leave the economy in tatters. It already is, and reporters must ask their sources, if not this plan, then what? Doing nothing is no longer an option.

Obama said it perfectly: “These are extraordinary times, and it calls for swift and extraordinary action. At a time of such great challenge for America, no single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.