Work with public higher ed to advance a green, just recovery

6 minute read

These remarks were presented at “Rebuilding New Jersey after COVID-19: Advancing a Healthy, Resilient, Sustainable and Fair Garden State” on June 12, 2020

We are facing at least three overlapping and intersecting crises, operating on different timescales: the four-hundred year crisis of racist violence in America, the immediate crisis of COVID-19 and the associated economic contraction, and the climate crisis, which has been building for over a century and has the potential to last for millennia.

All three require major societal efforts to mitigate, and all three are fiercely urgent: now is when justice impels us to address our country’s long-standing inequities, now is when we must figure out how to relaunch our economy safely after the COVID-induced pause, and now is when – if we wish to have any chance of meeting the climate goals laid out in the Paris Agreement – we must get the world on a path of declining greenhouse gas emissions.

To stabilize the climate, at any level of warming, we need net-zero global carbon dioxide emissions. To have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to the Paris goal of 2°C, we need net global greenhouse gas emissions to drop by about 20% in this decade, and to fall to zero over the next five decades. And we need an even faster decline in the United States.

I do not think we are going to get multiple chances at this. I do not think there are going to be trillions of dollars of public funds invested to manage the COVID crises, and then trillions more invested in this decade to address the climate crisis. So, given the geophysical necessity of eliminating our carbon dioxide emissions in order to stabilize the climate, we have to make recovery investments count multiple times over, and address our multiple crises.

Nationally, the best blueprint out there, in my mind, comes from Data for Progress and from Evergreen Action, composed of many of the brilliant climate policy wonks who staffed Jay Inslee’s campaign Progress.

Their “Plan for a Clean Jumpstart to Rebuild America’s Economy” lays out 11 policies and $320 billion of investment to support state action, and another 21 areas for $1.2 trillion of direct federal investment. I want to highlight a few of the state-level initiatives that they call upon Congress to support as part of economic stimulus:

  • expanding Low-Income Home Energy Assistance & Weatherization to support lower and middle-income households while advancing decarbonization
  • letting states access DOE’s Clean Energy Loan Program financing and expanding DOE’s State Energy Program
  • expanding block grants for state and local building upgrades and for hazard mitigation
  • supporting transit systems

There are two items on the Evergreen menu that don’t require additional Federal action:

  • tapping the Federal Reserve’s new Municipal Liquidity Facility to support investment programs like state Green Banks — noting that borrowing for capital expenditures, and especially capital expenditures that help us avoid the escalating economic damages from our current crises – is sounder fiscal policy than borrowing for operational expenditures

  • leveraging the $15 billion provided by the CARES Act for “investments in all key disaster response and hazard mitigation needs under the Stafford Act” to advance the resilience priorities reflected in state Hazard Mitigation Plans – which could provide funds to put New Jerseyans safely back to work while also reducing exposure to growing hazards, such as the flooding and winds associated with hurricanes and Nor’easters. And these funds could be directed to priotize the risk to the most vulnerable.

I also think we have to think creatively about how to use the resources we have in New Jersey - especially because we can’t necessarily count on the federal government to rescue the states from the ongoing fiscal calamity. So we should be asking: how can we make the money we are spending do double or triple duty?

Prof. Keevey talked about the potential need for new taxes; I’m going to focus on the investment side, but I want to note that a $50/tonne carbon dioxide tax would raise over $4 billion for the state, while also incentivizing reductions in harmful greenhouse gas emissions –– money could be used to avoid some of the devastating cuts that might otherwise be on the table, and so perhaps offset the pro-cyclical effect of taxes.

One of the ideas for federal investment in the Clean Jumpstart plan is to create a National Climate Corps, modeled on the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, “to give young people the opportunity to serve in creating new public health and sustainability solutions in their own communities.”

I think this is a great idea. But I also think we already have a public system in this country that mobilizes over 15 million young people every year, including 200 thousand in New Jersey alone: the country’s system of public colleges and universities. And, partially as a result of COVID and partially as a result of longer-term financial trends, that system is facing its own crisis.

Why not put that system to work to solve real problems in real communities?

For those of you who are lawyers, think about how legal clinics work: students gain essential training by freeing wrongfully imprisoned persons, helping qualified immigrants receive asylum, ensuring children get educational services to which they are entitled, and so forth. Why not expand this model?

Indeed, we’ve been doing that at small-scale in the climate area for a few years at Rutgers. Our Coastal Climate Risk & Resilience graduate students take a studio course, in which they work with coastal communities to help them develop resilience plans. This past year, for example, our students worked with Perth Amboy to help them develop a resilience plan.

But C2R2, as we call it, is a small program – roughly a dozen students per year. How could we scale something like this up without increasing overall state expenditures?

Here’s a modest proposal:

Think of the total sum the state and local governments spend each year on intellectual services outsourced to the private sector. I’m not sure exactly how much the state spends on consultants, but it’s substantial.

Let’s take half of that and say we’re going to make that money not only buy us information we need, but also build up public and social sector capacity here in New Jersey. How do we do this?

Let’s give our state’s public research institutions option of first refusal on consulting studies. That’ll be easiest to manage if you have a clearinghouse that knows where relevant capacities are across the state’s research institutions and has the expertise to translate between researchers and end-users. And in the climate arena, such a clearinghouse was created by statute earlier this year: it’s one of our host organizations, the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center.

Let’s use it so that, rather than renting expertise from private sector consultants based largely out of state, we’re using dollars spent on intellectual services to enhance public and social sector capacity here in New Jersey.

And let’s identify projects flowing through clearinghouses like the New Jersey Climate Change Resource Center could be teed up with enough advance notice that project-based clinical courses at institutions across the state could be arranged around them. And then that money would be doing triple duty:

  1. Providing the knowledge decision-makers need to move forward
  2. Building up public and social sector capacity to respond to decision-maker needs
  3. Training the rising generation with the knowledge and the skills needed to solve the crises we are leaving to them

It’ll be great if we have national leadership that steps up to the crises we are facing at this moment and mobilizes the people and financial resources of the United States to address them. There’s a lot we can’t do as a state acting on our own. But there’s a lot we can do – especially if we make it a whole of society effort, with higher education institutions