Is the recession good for the environment? (and why Margaret Wente is wrong)

Could an economic recession actually be good for climate change? Such a thought strikes fear into every moderate green’s heart, because if environmentalism is actually antithetical to the capitalist project, if it is incompatible with economic growth and our post-industrial, urbanized society, we might as well fry now and pay later. Reversing centuries of development, infrastructure, jobs, careers, education, the NHL and all the other twenty-first century essentials and luxuries is not going to happen any time soon.

Yet, the incompatibility of these two movements – environmentalism and growth – is often written about like it just one of sad little truths you have to live with. On Thursday of this week, Margaret Wente, wrote in The Globe and Mail:

“Even global warming has moved down the anxiety scale, but that’s okay, because the recession will slow down global warming more than all the carbon-trading schemes put together.”

Wente makes one of those breezy, glib comments that has a modicum of truth, but doesn’t get to the real heart of the issue. What she forgets is how the health of renewable electricity – whether wind energy, tidal power, solar panels or any other clean tech industry – is directly tied to the price of oil. Quite simply, when oil becomes less expensive, people don’t mind using more of it. There is less of an incentive to invest in alternatives and carbon neutral technologies. This is why the recession of the early 1990s was largely seen as a disaster for the clean tech industry. No one wanted to invest in things like concentrated solar power because oil was so cheap and plentiful throughout much of the 1990s. Consequently, the industry stagnated and there weren’t the efficiency gains we have seen in the past five years.

I should also note that an important part of Obama’s economic stimulus package rests on environmentalism fostering economic growth. On Monday, the President-elect explained how he thought acting on the environment could actually help grow the American economy (and ours too).

“We know that there are buildings—school buildings, in particular, but I think public buildings generally—that need to be retrofitted to make them more energy-efficient,” Obama said. “We will get that money back so that not only are we creating jobs, but we’re also making those operations more efficient and saving taxpayers money over the long term.”

In other words, “green-collar jobs”—jobs created when government policy encourages people to install solar panels or research wind power or “weatherize” homes—are an important part of his economic plan. He hopes they will stimulate the economy in the short term (by creating jobs) and tackle climate change in the long term, by reducing emissions and making us more energy-efficient.

Let’s hope he’s got it right.

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