Monday, December 12, 2016

ELC Essay #8: Making Economic Development and Job Creation Drivers of Serious Action on Climate Change and Environmental Protection

by John C. Dernbach

We’re fighting for policy changes that will make it possible for us to have better choices; utilities that offer us renewable options, electric trains that make short-haul flights obsolete, public transit. Exxon and its ilk have been fighting for decades to keep these choices out of our reach, and then claim that we are voting with our dollars every time we sit in traffic or heat our homes with fossil fuels supplied by a utility that has a monopoly. They can play gotcha as much as they want, but all it proves is how badly we need better options.

                        Bill McKibben

One of the most longstanding narratives in environmental law and politics is the alleged necessity of choosing between development and environment. The narrative persists in industrial projects, dams, mines, shale-gas development, highways, construction projects, and in a variety of other projects and activities. As Bill McKibben points out, it also persists in the debate about what to do about climate change. In every case, some people win, and some people lose. The narrative, based on conventional development, has a built-in zero-sum game—development or environment. 

A competing narrative, which has been slowly gaining supporters over several decades, is built on the idea of sustainable development—development and environment.  When there are attractive ways of making environmental protection and economic development mutually reinforcing, there is a way of escaping the zero-sum framing of environmental issues, including climate change.  As Bill McKibben says, people want better choices. 

The conflict between these narratives goes to the heart of the divide on environmental policy between the national Republican Party (which tends to embrace conventional development and tends to see environmental programs as a diminution of national wealth) and the national Democratic Party (which, without a lot of fanfare, has tended to embrace sustainable development). As of this writing, it appears that President-elect Donald Trump, in the name of conventional development, may be willing to wreck much of the climate change law and policy that the Obama administration built on sustainable development grounds. In the name of economic development and job creation for fossil fuels, President-elect Trump may be willing to destroy or weaken programs that that build the economy and create the very jobs that he envisions for the renewed America.

Yet the economic and job creation benefits of action on climate change can be enormous. The same could be said of positive action on most other environmental issues.  If properly and forcefully understood by public officials, economics and job creation could change the narrative of development or environment that the incoming Trump Administration appears to embrace.  Environmental protection and climate change were not major issues in this election, and the political truth may be that the electorate is interested in economic development and job creation no matter what the source of or driving force for these jobs. Thus, economic development and job creation need to be understood as drivers for action on climate change and environmental protection, and not simply forces to be blunted.  Economic development, in fact, has been a principal reason for many of the environmental protection laws that have been adopted in the U.S. over the last several decades—including those for renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling, and organic food. Making economic development and job creation a driver for serious action on climate change and environmental protection, of course, subverts the conventional development model.    

The conventional development model on which the first narrative builds has had large global consequences, both positive and negative. It can be described like this:

Conventional Development


Price of Progress

Peace and security

Economic development

Social development/ human rights/healthy    communities

Environment and natural resources

Living people who depend on environment and natural resources who are harmed (health, property, etc.)

Future generations that are harmed

Conventional development, or simply development, is built on the idea of maximizing peace and security as well as economic and social development. It was given considerable impetus by a variety of treaties and international institutions created at the end of World War II, and is directed at improving human freedom, opportunity, and quality of life.The model has worked in many ways; there has not been a third world war; the global economy has grown considerably; and people are living longer, tend to be healthier, and are better educated. Most of us would call that progress.  

But the model comes with a price, and it begins (but does not end) with widespread and growing environmental degradation, including climate disruption. Simply put, the model is based on an approach to decision making that treats the environment as secondary in importance or as an afterthought. If it were just about the environment alone, that would be bad enough. But nearly all damage to the environment also hurts other humans in some way, sooner or later—through air or water pollution, disrupted communities, and the many ways in which a changing climate is already making life harder and more expensive. And many of the people who will be harmed have not yet been born. 

Conventional development, then, comes with a built-in tradeoff. It can only be justified in utilitarian terms—if the benefits outweigh the costs.  Yet many of the environmental and human costs are not, or cannot be, calculated.  In environmental and human rights terms, moreover, conventional development asks too much. By benefiting some people at the expense of others, conventional development is also inequitable. Finally, any system with such substantial built-in costs is an inefficient way of improving overall human wellbeing. 

             The basic idea behind sustainable development is to transform development, not simply to re-label it. Sustainable development can be depicted as follows:

Sustainable Development


Peace and security

Economic development

Social development/ human rights/healthy    communities

Environment and natural resources protection and restoration

Essentially, sustainable development moves environment and natural resources from the “price of progress” column into the “progress” column. Because the adverse effects of environmental degradation tend to disappear as a result, there is no need for the “price of progress” column. Sustainable development is also directed at human freedom, opportunity, and quality of life, but places greater emphasis on future generations. 

In any given sustainable development context, from specific projects or activities to national plans and policies, decision makers are to integrate environmental considerations and goals into the decisions they make. Sustainable development provides a framework for creating new approaches that produce both environmental and development benefits, and encourages a more aggressive use of legal and policy tools that had been often considered of marginal value.  Energy efficiency standards adopted or strengthened in the U.S. since 2009 for appliances such as clothes washers and air conditioners, for instance, are projected to save consumers more than $540 billion by 2030. U.S. government-funded research and development—another tool that is often overlooked—has played a substantial role in reducing solar energy costs and thus increasing global demand for solar energy. Both of these advance equity because they reduce the amount of money that people, especially poor and low-income people, need to spend on energy.   Sustainable development thus provides a way for public and private decision makers in all countries to get past the apparent conflict between development and environment. 

These new approaches are increasingly evident in a variety of contexts, including business and industry, higher education, local governance and sustainability, and brownfields redevelopment, but progress thus far has been slow and uneven. Where progress has occurred, a key factor is that sustainable development generally produces greater net benefits than conventional development. These benefits include higher quality of life, reduced costs, and economic development.  The sustainable development framework can also generate a variety of economic, social and environmental benefits, not just one type of benefit. In addition, the total economic, social, and environmental outcomes of a project or activity animated by sustainability are likely to be greater than they would be if these outcomes offset each other in major ways (e.g., when the economic development benefits of a project or activity are offset to some degree by its environmental and human costs).  For all the benefits that coal has brought to the national economy over two centuries, for example, air pollution from coal fired-power plants (sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and particulates) caused $62 billion in public health damage and significant premature human mortality in 2007, even after more than three decades of air pollution control.

The critical point, in other words, is that sustainable development can produce greater  net economic benefits than conventional development, and can also provide a range of social and environmental benefits.  Sustainable development also provides a more politically compelling frame for justifying serious action on climate change than perhaps any other possible frame.  For more than two decades, both red and blue states have taken action to address climate change, primarily by fostering energy efficiency and renewable energy, through a variety of different legal tools, and they have done so primarily for economic development, job creation, technological innovation, and social equity reasons.  Similarly, the Obama Administration and others have justified action on climate change on economic development and job creation grounds.  Professors Hari Osofsky and Jacqueline Peel have synthesized a large body of psychological research and concluded that that refocusing climate change efforts on economic development and disaster resilience is likely to provide a way of getting past partisan divisions on energy and climate change. If we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change and protect the environment, we must use the sustainable development framework to give a higher priority to economic development and job creation—starting now.

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