Skip to main content

A Green Stimulus to recover from the COVID Recession

Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy | June 2, 2020

A Green Stimulus to recover from the COVID Recession

Daniel Aldana Cohen and Daniel M Kammen

The COVID-19 epidemic is ravaging our tattered health care system and shredding our economy. In the past month, over 20 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits, compounding the fear that unemployment could breach 32% absent massive public action. This is an unmitigated human disaster, of a proportion unseen since the Great Depression. It gets worse. We’re also facing the climate emergency. Immediate relief is necessary—but not sufficient. To tackle all these crises at once, we need a Green Stimulus that creates jobs and lifts up communities in ways that are consistent with tackling climate change, and develop a just and modern economy.

No one can predict when Speaker Pelosi and President Trump agree to turn to economic recovery. But behind the scenes, the planning has already begun. It’s not a question of whether we spend big on stimulus, but what kind of stimulus.

And while Republicans will decry anything “green,” we can win the argument. Climate change is about to supercharge the coronavirus emergency. In April, California’s wildfire season will start. Restrictions on work caused by the pandemic will make it harder for firefighters to conduct controlled burns that steer fires—and smoke—from homes. Californians’ lungs could face COVID-19 and unusually intense smoke at the same time. A third of the country also faces significant flood risk through the spring. And in summer and fall, forecasters predict “above average probability for major hurricanes making landfall along the continental United States.” We’ll need to find ways to do the needed relief work without deepening the pandemic. Amidst all this suffering, the case for tackling the miseries of inequality, covid, and climate will get clearer.

Moreover, green stimulus is the only option for a smooth transition to the 21st century green economy. The era of dirty energy is ending. Even CBNC analyst Jim Cramer—a conservative who helped inspire the “Tea Party” movement—has warned investors that oil stocks are no longer safe investments, as society is increasingly repudiating fossil fuels.

Indeed, green stimulus is the best way to create good jobs through investment. According to a 2011 World Bank study, one million dollars invested in the oil and gas in the United States creates just 5 jobs, compared to 17 jobs per million dollars invested in energy-saving building retrofits, 22 jobs for mass transit, 13 for wind, and 14 for solar. Other research concurs that investment in the modern green economy is a more efficient job creator than dollars spend on fossil fuel projects.
Through the mechanisms of public investment and procurement, we can also ensure that projects are union-friendly and that any fossil fuel worker who loses their job has their salary and benefits maintained for years, while they find new work (or retire with a secured pension). We also can invest in STEM education for all children and create apprenticeship programs in vulnerable communities, matched with new careers for workers to enter. And by directly investing in frontline communities, following best practices in California, we can bring technologies like solar and battery storage to neighborhoods that have been scandalously left out of the clean energy boom so far. Plus, these same nimble, local solutions make neighborhoods more resilient to extreme weather. We’d be making environmental, economic, and social improvements in the same places, at the same time.

And we should speak of green investments in concrete terms. Polling conducted by Data for Progress in March finds majority support for massive green spending overall. More interesting is the finding of even greater support—including majority Republican approval—for specific public green investments, like electric buses, retrofits to low-income housing, and renewable energy. Strip away abstract rhetoric, and the substance that we’re advocating is incredibly popular.

For these reasons, we recently joined nine other experts in social and climate policy to outline a menu of policy options for a Green Stimulus to help power our recovery. Our proposals span eight sectors of the economy. But fundamentally, a Green Stimulus is about investing massive public funds—say, $2 trillion to start—in specific green investments to create high-quality jobs and improve the quality of life, especially in low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities, which have suffered the most disinvestment and pollution in recent decades.

The initial publication of our detailed Green Stimulus recommendation is:

View at Medium.com

It seems counter-intuitive, but the timing for such a Green Stimulus is perfect. Bridge-loans and advance payments on public green purchases of goods like solar panels and electric vehicles for public use would stabilize firms’ and workers’ finances. Announcing initiatives like a Climate Conservation Corps would give young people eager to work jobs to apply for, and plan to start. And desk workers across the economy could get on Zoom and do paperwork to make green projects shovel-ready the minute it’s safe to break ground. (Indeed, a major reason the 2009 Obama stimulus faltered was months wasted on paperwork.)

Each of us has lived through climate-fueled disasters—in Cohen’s case, Hurricane Sandy, and in Kammen’s, last year’s devastating wildfires. We agree with the environmental justice advocates who argued then that we shouldn’t to bounce back to how things were before the disaster. We don’t want to bounce back to a January 2020 economy when half the country lived paycheck to paycheck; unchecked carbon pollution endangered our future; and inequalities made us more vulnerable to disease. Rather, by deploying a Green Stimulus that centers workers and communities, we can bounce forward.

Daniel Aldana Cohen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, or (SC)2, and a Senior Fellow at Data for Progress. @aldatweets

Daniel Kammen is Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and former Science Envoy for the United States Department of State. @dan_kammen

First published in The Guardian, April 20, 2020.