New course needed to fight climate change

Bob Dylan famously sang that “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” We could update Dylan’s adage to say that in 2017, you don’t need a climatologist to see we’re in the midst of an ecological crisis. By way of review: 2016 was the hottest year on record. Before that, the hottest year was 2015. Before that, it was 2014. In fact, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

The warming is having dramatic consequences. Here in New Mexico, we are experiencing record high temperatures, deadly dust storms and wildfire evacuations. In coming decades, the Rio Grande is expected to lose one-third of its water. Warmer winters will threaten our ski industry. We could even lose the piñon – our state tree.

Understandably, these challenges often take a back seat to more immediate economic concerns. Unemployment is still a major concern in parts of our state. Middle-class incomes have stagnated, and families are increasingly living paycheck to paycheck. In an age of drones and self-driving cars, things are likely to get worse. Some 47 percent of jobs may soon be at risk from automation.

Faced with these enormous economic and environmental challenges, we need to think big. Luckily, there is an elegant solution to both problems, with precedent in U.S. history. The solution is to create a Climate Conservation Corps to put Americans to work fighting climate change.

In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, the Great Depression was at its nadir. Less often remembered is that the nation was experiencing an ecological crisis. Forest coverage was at all-time lows. Overplanting and overgrazing were contributing to dramatic soil erosion, foreshadowing the Dust Bowl. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps in response to these exigencies. Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed more than 3 million young men who planted nearly 3 billion trees, developed 800 new state parks and constructed 13,000 miles of hiking trails, helping to restore the environment and bring the country out of the Great Depression.

Since the Great Recession, a number of prominent commentators have called for bringing it back. Unsurprisingly, commentators have argued that a reconstituted CCC should focus on the battle against climate change.

The obvious place for such a program to begin would be with energy efficiency. Energy efficiency has the potential to save consumers a tremendous amount of money while greatly reducing emissions. The McKinsey consulting firm estimates that an aggressive approach to energy efficiency could save U.S. consumers nearly $600 billion while preventing 1.1 billion tons of CO2 emissions.

Government intervention is needed to realize this opportunity. According to the Department of Energy, the U.S. economy could support 3 million additional construction jobs in the energy efficiency sector, but over 80 percent of employers reported difficulty finding qualified employees. A Climate Conservation Corps could remove a key impediment to this sector’s growth by training and deploying a new generation of workers.

Such a program would more than pay for itself in energy savings. It would also stimulate the economy as a whole. A 2009 study found a ten-fold increase in economic activity for every dollar invested in energy efficiency in New England. This stimulus effect was a result of lower energy costs, which lead to increased consumer spending and a reduction in the cost of doing business.

The scope of the energy efficiency opportunity is such that there would be little need to focus on anything else in the near term. But the new CCC should be designed with sufficient flexibility to take on other projects that contribute meaningfully to the fight against climate change, like solar installation, reforestation and wetland restoration.

The challenges we face are daunting. But we have the opportunity to take a huge step against climate change while jump-starting our economy. We should seize it.

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