The long green? That’s money — and you all know what "going green" is about …

Everyone keeps asking the members of President Barack Obama’s energy and environment team if the U.S. can “afford” their agenda in light of the economic condition of the nation. (Witness the Washington Post interview with Carol Browner as one example.)

Silly question … and they get simplistic answers, such as “we will.” It’s a silly question because it assumes a conflict that isn’t there, as do the typical mainstream surveys of public opinion. The New York Times reports on Jan. 18:

Given a choice between stimulating the economy and protecting the environment, 58 percent of Americans said it was more important to stimulate the economy, compared with 33 percent who chose protecting the environment. In April 2007, 36 percent said it was more important to stimulate the economy, compared with 52 percent who chose the environment.

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That’s a false, unnecessary choice; and simply posing the proposition may generate opposition to the most rational course of action, which is not making the choice.

The way out lies through applying a little concept in economics that many in the environmental community have tended to abhor, at least until attention became focused on energy consumption: efficiency.

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Pursuit of efficiency came to be associated with exploitation of workers, despoliation of landscapes and environments, abandonment of community roots and commitments, and many abusive actions of companies large and small in the 20th century.

But most climate change agendas today start with the pursuit of what everyone seems to agree is the low-hanging fruit of efforts to lower emissions: energy efficiency. Many who challenged the necessity of efficiency in the past are now trying to increase it today and into the future.

What gives?

It’s pretty simple: Companies pursue efficiency in the generation of private profit for their owners and shareholders. Climate change advocates pursue efficiency in the utilization of energy resources.

The issue, then, is not whether efficiency is good or bad. The question is not whether or not to be efficient. (Do you really want to waste any effort in pursuing your goals?) The questions need to be addressed to the goals: Are they good or bad? Are different goals always in conflict or might they complement each other?

This brings us to the Obama administration and the U.S. in 2009 — a massive stimulus plan, huge government deficits, uncertain energy costs, rising unemployment and growing poverty, and a threat from global warming that requires action sooner rather than later. If there was ever an era in which we needed ultimate efficiency in pursuit of multiple goals, it’s today.

And economists — or at least some of us — are well aware of the need to make each dollar do more. See “Principles For Economic Recovery And Financial Reconstruction From Progressive Economists” [PDF].

And, glory, glory, among the most efficient possible things to do to address those multiple problems are investments in energy efficiency and related infrastructure as well as in technology development to promote progress for renewables and new forms of efficiency not now even imagined. This is not news: The Political Economy Research Institute and Center for American Progress released “Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy” [PDF] way back in September 2008.

My background is economic development (not “growth”) as well as environmental protection, and I’m licking my chops over our prospects …

Yes, we can have economic revitalization that serves long-term sustainability in the process. But we need to transition carefully and to avoid generating unnecessary economic, political, social, and environmental costs as we change. Like it or not, that means:

  • Not closing all coal mines and coal and nuclear generating plants tomorrow, or next week, or next year (Yes, we can stop building them, but we need to be building their alternatives.)
  • Not calling for federally mandated congestion pricing or anti-sprawl measures or other actions as conditions for federal aid to states and cities (at least not yet … the time will come)
  • Not telling people to drastically change their lifestyles now (though eventually they will)
  • Not spiking CAFE standards for auto fuel efficiency as far as we’d like and know to be technologically feasible, because U.S. manufacturers will find it harder to jump that high than will their competitors, and we can’t afford more U.S. job losses right now
  • Not taxing carbon or oil or gas anywhere near where it should rationally be taxed to include their externalities (economic as well as environmental), unless we can protect households and businesses from those additional costs when they don’t have the capital to invest in avoiding them
  • Recognizing that equity breeds efficiency by, at a minimum, lowering resistance from possible allies.

Change is coming, folks, and I’m all for that … but it won’t be easy, and ideological — or environmental — purity won’t get us where we need to go, not without autocratic control. (Do you want that? We had a taste of tendencies in that direction for the past eight years.)

So let’s not forget some long-standing and well-worn advice from the consummate politician:

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out … than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who could profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arriving partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had an actual experience of it.

You’ve probably seen the first sentence of that quote from Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince. It’s the rest of the argument that is the key to how we move forward on climate change and economic redevelopment in the new Obama era.