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.