Use the Coronavirus stimulus bill to seed a better, GREENER future

  • Published on March 25th, 2020

Our economy is in free fall. Already, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly one in five workers to lose jobs or hours. We are seeing the largest spike in unemployment claims since the 2008 financial crisis. According to Goldman Sachs, the number of initial joblessness claims could rise to 2.25 million by the end of this week.

seed seedling growth

By Michael Brune
Sierra Club

Working people are already worrying about how they will pay their bills and put food on the table. Thankfully, many members of Congress recognize the imperative to pass an economic stimulus bill. That bill’s first priority must be to support the working people who already are hurting because of this pandemic. Servers. Retail workers. The 3.3 million clean energy workers who fear their emerging industry might soon collapse.

But an economic stimulus is like fertilizer. Wherever we spread that money, things will grow. So now is the time to think about what we need more of. First and foremost, we need to grow good jobs. Even before this pandemic, many workers were struggling to make ends meet – and cover health care costs – despite working two or three jobs.

So let’s start by stipulating that any industry requesting stimulus funds should commit to pay family-sustaining wages, follow high labor standards, and ensure fair employment opportunities for all. There’s no reason taxpayers should subsidize the growth of jobs that keep people who work 40 or more hours a week in poverty.

We also need to use the stimulus to grow industries in ways that are in line with a sustainable future. Airlines are requesting tens of billions in assistance from the government – money that would seed the industry’s future. Let’s insist that future be a lower-emissions one. In 2019, the airline industry was responsible for about 2.5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. If it were a country, it would be the world’s sixth-largest emitter, between Japan and Germany. And it’s expected to triple its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

Instead of spending their profits on stock buybacks that enrich shareholders and executives, as they’ve done over the past decade, airlines should be required to direct a portion of those funds into cutting pollution and making their fleets environmentally friendly. That will benefit everyone in this country – all the taxpayers whose dollars are going to shore up the industry. Without these accountability measures in place, the stimulus package put forth by Senate Republicans is woefully inadequate.

After the short term-stimulus package passes, Congress will likely turn its attention to boosting the economy for the future. Representatives will be asking themselves what industries they want to see flourish in the coming decades. Chief among them should be the clean energy industry, which we know will be foundational to preserving a safe and habitable climate for generations to come.

The clean energy industry isn’t just an employer for millions of Americans now at risk of losing their jobs, although that’s true. It isn’t just, under normal circumstances, one of the fastest-growing sectors of our economy, although that’s also true. It is one of the keys to a liveable future for today’s young people and for the generations not yet born. It is especially deserving of extra fertilizer.

Any medium-term stimulus must include a robust package of clean energy tax incentives. It should also plant the seeds of a regenerative economy to sustain us over the long term – one that will create millions of good, family-sustaining jobs in public transit, restoring wetlands and forests, regenerative agriculture led by family farmers, and much else.

There are also sectors that we know need to shrink — chief among them the fossil fuel industry, which is heating our planet beyond recognition and unleashing fire, famine, and floods across the world. By 2030, its annual death toll is expected to reach nearly 6 million people every year.

The fossil fuel industry is already subsidized to the tune of $20.5 billion a year. Without taxpayer dollars, more than half its investments would be unprofitable, according to research published in 2017 in Nature Energy. It’s overwhelmingly clear that the industry doesn’t deserve further infusions of taxpayer money.

Yet that’s exactly what the GOP’s Senate stimulus package provides. It would pad dirty energy companies’ profits through $3 billion worth of purchases in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And that’s just the beginning: Oil and gas companies could dip into a $425 billion slush fund that supports “eligible businesses,” encouraging them to continue drilling and fracking at the same wastefully, harmfully high levels. Workers in the fossil fuel industry deserve the same protections as those in every other industry. But this legislation — which would allow oil and gas executives to collect government money and lay off workers anyway — is not the safety net they deserve.

In this moment of deep uncertainty, Congress must act decisively to seed a better future for this country — one where workers and the earth can flourish. That means directing investments to the things we want to grow, like good jobs and a regenerative economy, and shrinking what harms us. We can prevent a crushing recession — and we can do it by building a more just and sustainable future.


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