As a new administration took over in Washington in the midst of a massive economic decline, the media kept asking members of the new energy and environment team if the U.S. could "afford" their agenda in light of the economic condition of the nation. (Witness the Washington Post interview with Carol Browner.) The New York Times reported 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.
No doubt the priority given the economy today would be greater, given Friday's numbers on job losses and unemployment.
But it's a silly question and a false, unnecessary choice. It hides the most rational course of action: doing both simultaneously.
The question ignores the fact that a public dollar -- or $1 trillion such dollars -- can be spent in ways that simultaneously:
- produce new jobs and incomes,
- help fight global warming, and
- save money for people on tight budgets.
Public investment in the energy efficiency of homes and other buildings can do all of that -- and might even make it easier for budget-strapped homeowners to pay their mortgages, so it could stabilize neighborhoods and help unfreeze the lending system as well. That's a pretty powerful answer to those who say we can't afford green concerns because of economic problems.
A dollar can accomplish more than one objective at a time. The problem is that we have come to think of "efficiency" as pursuing a single objective at the expense of all others, even those that might logically be complementary. Environmental advocates see industry only as sacrificing the environment to the efficient pursuit of profit maximizing. Industry for too long has seen environmentalists only as regulating and constraining their pursuit of profits. Of course, it is difficult for private parties -- businesses pursuing profits, or neighborhood residents protecting their air or well water quality -- to pursue multiple objectives at once. That's a role for government. It's a role government plays exceptionally well.
This brings us to the U.S. in 2009: facing huge government deficits, uncertain energy costs, rising unemployment and growing poverty, and a threat from global warming that requires action sooner rather than later. The spending legacy from 2008 includes a $700 Billion "Toxic Assets Relief Fund," of which half has been spent in ways that seem to have had no effect, and plans going forward include spending the other $350 Billion of TARF money and implementing a massive, ~$800 billion stimulus plan.
If there was ever a time we needed efficiency in pursuit of multiple goals, it's now.