The Decade of the 00s Was a Big Zero for Environment

| by NRDC

By David Goldstein

I had begun to write the following...

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“Remember how ten years ago, at the turn of the Millennium, the media were full of retrospectives of the last ten years, or hundred years, and of starry-eyed predictions for the next ten? The authors of the predecessors to blogs were excited about the future, and speculating about what we could call the next decade. If the previous decade was the nineties would be next one be the “aughties”?

If you fast forwarded to today, a viewer/reader would have to be amazed at the lack of interest—and the lack of confidence, as we move to the next decade. It is evident that the right name for this decade would have to be the Decade of Zero. Because the main story of the last ten years, at least for America, is the story of failures, of missed opportunities, or at best of laying the foundations for future progress, as opposed to achieving it.”

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...when I happened to look at Paul Krugman’s column, where he says the essentially the same thing.

Dr. Krugman explains the economic failures of the decade: the failure to see growth in family income, in jobs, in housing values, or in the stock market, or in America’s importance in the world economy. Commenters on this column also point out failures in other measures of American success and welfare.

The environment is also beset with failures to take action. Global concentrations of greenhouse gases are more than 5% higher than they were in 2000. America has made almost zero progress as a nation in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions (although some individual states and regions have done a lot). We are ten years closer to potential tipping points in the global climate system, and still operating without a global plan to solve the problem. Climate change can still be mostly averted, but it is that much harder now than it would have been if we started in 2000 (much less 1992).

For both the economy and the environment, we (meaning the public policy decisionmakers in the federal government and in businesses organizations) closed our eyes to obvious problems, hoping that if we could convince everyone to have confidence, the problems would go away. Or at least not be noticed. This is a key problem that we need to overcome to avoid another Decade of Zero: we need to face facts and recover the recognition that problems demand solutions.

The first solution we need to address is to pass a climate protection bill. Anyone who worries that solving climate change will compromise the economy should take note: during the decade where we dithered and procrastinated on taking action on the environment, the economy stagnated and developed systematic problems that still are not under control.

But this is actually a reason for hope, not for gloom. We can solve both problems with the same policies. There is a tool for job creation and economic recovery that is dramatically underutilized in the economy: Energy Efficiency. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a study showing the potential to invest almost a half trillion dollars in energy efficiency in buildings alone over the next decade, an investment that will pay itself back in less than three years and then go on saving over $150 billion a year for the foreseeable future.

My own analysis will be presented next month in the new book Invisible Energy, to be published by Bay Tree Publishing. It highlights something buried in the details of the NAS study: that the assumptions understate the true potential for stimulating the economy by reducing emissions of greenhouse pollution through efficiency. We actually have the opportunity to invest trillions of dollars in climate solutions that also address some of the core causes of the Great Recession of this decade, causes that are still only minimally discussed in the national economic dialogue.

Tackling the climate change problem will provide an impetus to solving American’s underlying economic problems, and Invisible Energy will show how.

Krugman’s op-ed notes that it is hard to find anyone, of either party, willing to address the fundamental causes of the problem. The same is true for energy efficiency. But we have the choice. There are ways to exploit this immense resource for economic recovery and climate stabilization in a way that enhances markets and helps make America more competitive. We need to make them a priority for the decade of the teens.