WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Obama Saddled With National Debt Debate While Clinton and Bloomberg Go Global
Thursday, April 14, 2011
In Washington, President Obama was to give a speech on how our future would be framed by our debt. But he had waited so long to weigh in, his opponents had already thoroughly defined the topic. His speech couldn't break out of that "me too" sound. If he thought the world faced a pressing environmental, public health or youth unemployment crisis, there was no hint of it in his speech.
In New York, it was one of those precious damp spring mornings at Gracie Mansion. A hard overnight rain had cleared the air. From the manse's generous porch, you could see the East River, just beyond the rolling lush lawn and bursting magnolias. A tanker glided effortless upstream. It was a day of limitless possibilities.
On this day, that kind of integrated vision was to come out of Gracie Mansion's Upper East Side parlor. There Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former President Bill Clinton announced a merger of Clinton's Climate Initiative and C40, the global coalition for environmentally enlightened world capitals led by Mayor Bloomberg.
C40 got started under London Mayor Ken Livingston. David Miller, the Mayor of Toronto, took over for Livingston, and now Bloomberg has a two-year stint. The dozens of cities feeling the 'urgency of now' on climate change include Bangkok, Beijing, Cairo, Caracas, Hanoi, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Paris, Rome and Seoul.
Leave it to a mayor and a former president to figure out a way to end=run the gridlock of nation-states and glacial pace diplomacy; These were two men with a plan - and if they pull it off, it could land them the Nobel Prize.
"The cities consume 75 percent of the world's energy and produce 80 percent of its greenhouse gasses," said Bloomberg. "So even as national governments regrettably all too often dither and delay, cities around the globe must lead the change addressing climate change. We must lead the charge."
"A few years ago I organized a climate change initiative in my foundation with very limited funding with a very specific purpose," recounted Clinton. "We did not get an agreement in Kyoto" and "we failed to get an agreement in Copenhagen," because "people are not sure we can meet these ambitious greenhouse gasses reduction targets by 2050 and continue to grow."
Clinton says the energy retrofitting of the Empire State building is the best exhibit to make his case that spending money to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions is the quickest way to full employment and prosperity. In short, it's not a bargaining chip.
"Just go down to the Empire State building, which is the oldest Leed certified big building in the world," says Clinton. "They had a whole floor cleared out to be a factory. They cut all the glass there. They did all the work there. Hundreds of jobs were created and they are going to reduce their utility usage and their bills by a guaranteed 38 percent. Four hundred percent reduction in electric bills, paid off in four-and-a-half years, after which you save all of that money from now until kingdom come, and how many jobs were created in doing the work?"
So if this is such a no-brainer, why did President Obama sign off on compromises with the Republican House that threw the environment and green jobs under the bus?
"One of the real challenges that the president faces in negotiating with the republicans, and it is a similar one I faced in 1995, was captured in the Wisconsin debate," says Clinton. "That is, there is a difference between finding the most effective way to reduce the debt and the deficit and using that to further some ideological goal."
"Now a lot of the people in the new majority don't believe in climate change and don't believe in green energy," says Clinton. "And the tax compromise at the end of the year, the only bad thing about it was they got rid of that payment that was the equivalent of a 30 percent per-employee credit for new green manufacturing jobs."
Clinton said the conventional wisdom that green energy and jobs could not be economically justified was just wrong by the numbers.
"All this business that they have to subsidize green energy more than others is not true," says Clinton. "Coal doesn't pay for the air pollution. The administration has supported and the republicans voted for subsidizing nuclear, giving them big, low interest loans. And in 2005 the Congress, recognizing that no one would write an insurance policy on a nuclear plant, said basically the federal government would do it. How much of a bigger subsidy can you get?"
"For every billion dollars you spend on a coal fired plant, you get around 870 jobs, nuclear less, because it so expensive, natural gas, a little more but it is much better environmentally," says Clinton. "Every billion dollars you spend on solar energy 1,800 to 1,900 jobs. Every billion you spend on wind energy, IF, you make the wind mills and turbines where you put them up, 3300 jobs. Every billion dollars on building energy retrofit - 7,000 jobs and you get a quicker payout."
Yet these days, with a stagnant economy, the environmental debate is so far down the list it seems to be relegated as an elective. The idea that dealing with it with the zeal of an FDR might be exactly the way out of our current stagnation has been eclipsed by the partisan debate the media echo chamber uses as their only script. (Tag words: taxes, rich, debt, deficit only.)
And so a reporter asks Mayor Bloomberg and President Clinton a logical question. Do they think at this point the average American even thinks climate change is actually real?
Clinton couldn't wait to get a piece of that.
"I think you need to examine this - 98 percent of all the climate scientists believe that climate change is a serious problem and that it is caused by man-made activity," says Clinton.
But Clinton says a well-bankrolled effort to cast doubt on that scientific consensus has been funded by the vested commercial interests with the most to lose from a change in direction on energy policy. And "a lot of the mainstream media is so concerned about being accused of being liberal" they feel duty-bound to give the well-financed contrarians equal weight, observed Clinton.
The former president says that false equivalency plants doubt in the mind of the public still feeling anxiety about a poor economy that the global warming opponents say will only get worse if the nation makes combating global warming a top priority. (We will get around to saving the planet after I find a job...)
Clinton says the only winning case for confronting the challenge of global warming now without delay is the business case. And Bloomberg says the most effective place top make that case is in town halls around the world. “It is when you bring it down to a level that it impacts your life or your family's life people tend to focus," says Bloomberg.
Both Clinton and Bloomberg have plenty of examples of U.S. cities not waiting for Congress, a captive of big energy. Houston is retrofitting 171 public buildings. Los Angeles is retrofitting its street lights, employing people and saving $10 million dollars a year in electricity and maintenance costs annually.
And while our national political debate sounds like an endlessly looping tape of two people yelling at each other, what it the rest of the world doing?
They say the world’s most populous nation seems to get the connection between sustainable energy, saving money and creating employment.
"We used to say we are not going to do anything until China wakes up and stops polluting," says Bloomberg. "China is hell-bent for leather to stop polluting. Their rivers are in many cases undrinkable" and their air is polluted. "They recognize this and they are trying to do something about it. My great fear is America is going to keep looking for excuses to not do anything and we are going to find ourselves exactly on the other side of this where we are the ones not taking care of our people."
Clinton said the nation's most populous nation was not looking back. They have leapfrogged Japan, the U.S. and Germany in solar voltaic cell production and are pushing wind hard.
"Just as our Congress is defunding rapid rail they have tested a train that runs 306 miles an hour, almost a hundred miles faster than the fastest Japanese and German trains."