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 by 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.