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June 17, 2020; NPR and Minnesota Public Radio (Associated Press)

Even though the US didn’t commit any of the $3 trillion in pandemic relief funds to address the effects of the climate crisis, the subject has been brought to top-of-mind lately.

  • Last week, the Vatican issued a 225-page manual to commemorate the fifth year since the issuance of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s encyclical dedicated to care for the environment and “protect life, nature and defenseless people.” The new work includes a request for Catholics to divest from fossil fuels.
  • This week, on Wednesday, the state of Minnesota filed suit against ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries, charging the companies deceived and defrauded the state’s residents regarding climate change.
  • And we can’t forget the great unplanned experiment we’ve all been under, wherein the number of people staying home during the pandemic has caused greenhouse emissions to drop dramatically. Still, 80 percent of emissions were unaffected, demonstrating how much work it will take to mitigate harm.

The United Nations’ April 22nd Earth Day message called for countries to invest pandemic recovery dollars in environmental resilience and sustainability:

  1. “First: as we spend huge amounts of money to recover from the coronavirus, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition.”
  2. “Second: where taxpayers’ money is used to rescue businesses, it needs to be tied to achieving green jobs and sustainable growth.”
  3. “Third: fiscal firepower must drive a shift from the grey to green economy, and make societies and people more resilient.”

The United States has yet to see the value the idea of using emergency money to promote this kind of business; on the other hand, the European Union is including the UN’s proposals in their recovery.

It’s not as though the US has never seen a great opportunity in directing emergency funding to infrastructural change. During the Great Depression—the first one, at least—President Franklin Roosevelt used the New Deal—again, the first one—to take huge steps to generate improvements and jobs with projects such as the hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which controlled flooding with dams along the Tennessee River. Now, looking back on those dams raises some environmental questions today, but then, they brought electricity to rural areas of the country.

“During the 1920s and 1930s, about 90 percent of the US farms had no electricity,” says Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, who is also the author of a book about the poles and wires that connected homes to power during the New Deal. “That day was the most incredible day for a lot of families—when they finally got to throw that kerosene lantern out the window, which many people did,” says Case.

Decades later, in 2008, President Barack Obama began his first term as the US was swamped in a Great Recession. His stimulus plan, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, invested $90 billion in renewable and clean energy. Still, as the costs of solar power came down in the last dozen years and, combined with wind, created the cheapest electricity sources in many regions of the country, the sector has lost up to 600,000 jobs since the beginning of stay-at-home orders in March.

Nor is there a lack of ideas or plans already out there for using stimulus money for green programs and projects. For example, dollars could go to retrofitting homes and commercial buildings with rooftop solar panels, according to Julian Brave NoiseCat, Vice President of Policy and Strategy at Data for Progress. NoiseCat’s proposal suggests spending $2 trillion on those projects with a goal of energy that is 100 percent carbon-emission-free in 10 years. Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, points out there are existing bills in Congress that could quickly become stimulus programs, even without the will of the administration. There are also carbon tax plans which would put the load of the lift toward lower emissions on the ones that emit the most.

“I think it’s fair to say that carbon taxes are economists’ favorite way of addressing climate change,” says Ioana Marinescu, who is an economics professor at University of Pennsylvania. In a podcast she did for the university, Marinescu acknowledges a tax now would not be popular. However, in a time of stress, when money is being spent to get the US back on track, it is a unique opportunity for momentous transformation.

“It’s a sad time,” Marinescu says, “but also an opportunity to do some investments that perhaps we didn’t have the mojo to get our act together and do before. Sometimes it takes a good crisis to finally move in a whole new direction, just like the New Deal.”—Marian Conway