Prof. Robert Pollin of Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) and Prof. Chris Williams of Pace University say that Obama can avoid a fight with the Republicans and still save taxpayers money and legally advance energy efficiency


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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. I’m in conversation with two economists thinking about the green economy. Joining us from New York, New York, is Chris Williams. He is a longtime environmental activist, professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University. He is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. Also joining us from Amherst, Massachusetts, is Robert Pollin. Pollin is professor of economics and founding codirector of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of two forthcoming books: Green Growth and The Global Clean Energy Transformation. Thank you both for joining us. ROBERT POLLIN, CODIRECTOR, POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH INSTITUTE: Hi. CHRIS WILLIAMS, AUTHOR, ECOLOGY AND SOCIALISM: Thank you. PERIES: So, Bob, what is the feasibility of–even if President Obama wanted to do some of what you are advising him to do, what is the feasibility that this would actually be able to get addressed by this administration? POLLIN: There are things that he can do that would be wildly popular and that are within his legal authority. One of them is a law that was passed in 2007, the Energy Security and Independence Act, which mandated that 75 percent of all the federal buildings in the United States, federally–government-owned buildings, would be retrofitted to become, to achieve 30 percent reduction in energy use, so that you would raise energy efficiency by 30 percent. And that law was signed by President George W. Bush, so it is bipartisan. And it also mandated that the law was supposed to–all the buildings were supposed to have been retrofitted by 2015. Well, we’re already in 2015. So we’ve got 11 and a half months to go. As it happens, it’s maybe less than one half of one percent of all the buildings have been retrofitted. Even with that tiny proportion, the government itself reports that it’s saving taxpayers about $800 million a year, even with that. So why not just make a big deal out of that and say, I’m going to save the taxpayers money, and just do that? He can do that. As Chris said, a second thing he can do: it’s already a matter of law that controlling CO2 emissions from power plants is within the purview of the government. So proceed with that. And so start cutting the power plant emissions by serious numbers. You know, in absolute terms 3 percent a year, if you do that over 20 years, you’re going to make a lot of progress. So that is–Obama has talked vaguely in those terms, but he has to insist on it and proceed, and he will be supported, as Chris also said. Renewable energy as a substitute is at cost parity in a lot of areas. In Germany and a lot of Western Europe, they are running their economies at very high efficiency levels and increasing their use of renewables. So Obama has talked about those things, but in his remaining two years he has to push relentlessly on them, and he will be wildly supported if he does so. PERIES: Right. And one of the other points that he made is that the Pentagon actually considers climate change a great national security threat. What did he mean by that, Chris? WILLIAMS: He means that the Pentagon uses more oil than pretty much anybody else on the planet. And so they have a direct interest in making sure that they can get it. It’s impossible to explain the invasion of Iraq in 2003 without talking about where oil happens to be located. So, in one sense it’s also–in Afghanistan, one of the major issues was logistics for the U.S. army, because they had to get oil to fuel the trucks and the tanks and the entire infrastructure of a modern army. So the Pentagon is very much concerned with this question. They’ve produced a number of [heavy-duty (?)] reports saying that climate change is a threat to not just the war machine of the United States, but its ability to operate in the future. It causes instability around the world, geopolitical problems that we can see repeated over and over again in many different areas. And, obviously, the Pentagon is committed to continuing to exist and expand. Well, one of its biggest problems, which is not talked about that much but affects the Navy, is where do you think their bases are? Obviously, they’re on the coastline. And one of the biggest bases and is in North Carolina, which is sinking into the waters because the waters are rising along the East Coast faster than they are in other areas of the world. So they’re already talking about what are they going to do with naval bases that end up underwater. So this is a threat multiplier, in the language of the Pentagon, on many, many different levels. It affects their ability to wage war across the world. It affects their ability to have bases next to coastlines, ’cause the coastlines are disappearing below the waves. And it affects their ability to control and establish forward operating bases anywhere in the world that they want to, as social disintegration due to inequality, poverty, and the migrations that will occur, as climate change worsens. So the Pentagon is analyzing this and taking climate change extremely seriously and is why it has all kinds of programs in place demanding more money, so that they can, the war machine of U.S. can continue to operate on every continent in the world. So Obama threw it in there because he probably assumes that talking about climate change in the context of waging war will get Republicans on his side, and therefore he can do something on climate change. But, frankly, I’m not very interested if we’re going to weapon climate change. I think we should be reducing the size of the Pentagon, not increasing it. And, for example, the Pentagon gets $800 billion a year of taxpayer money. The amount of money that was supposed to be put into the green climate fund for developing nations to transition away from fossil fuels is supposed to be $100 billion a year by 2020, and there’s less than $10 billion in it. Nobody’s pledged any money, hardly. And so we could take money away from the Pentagon and put it towards actually productive uses that don’t involve killing people in more and more efficient ways, but would protect not just people outside of the United States, but also people inside the United States, by providing jobs and taking away the foreign-policy impetus to generate all kinds of economic, social, and political instability around the world. PERIES: Right. And, Chris, as you said, the military is one of the greatest consumers of fossil fuel, therefore one of the greatest emitters of CO2 as well. Bob, do you want to jump in in your comments on the continuing increases of the Pentagon budget versus the kind of budget allocations we need in terms of green jobs? POLLIN: Well, the Pentagon is the biggest consumer of energy as an entity in the world. So, as Chris accurately said, the Pentagon is the biggest consumer of fossil fuel energy. The Pentagon has said that within ten years they are going to use 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources. They need to stick to that and increase it. And, ironically, that will be a major impetus, in my view, supporting the expansion of green energy. I’m not saying that the Pentagon is doing good things around the world or that we shouldn’t have a smaller Pentagon budget, but if we look at an analogy or an important analogy, the Pentagon, for better and for worse, is responsible for the development of the internet. And the Pentagon nurtured the technology and the process of commercialization. If the Pentagon is going to do anything positive here, this is something that they actually can do is to themselves transform–yes, obviously, not be running the world and doing imperialist wars all over the place, but within the framework of transforming the Pentagon’s own mission, if they actually stick to the idea of becoming 25 percent renewable within a decade and setting an example and nurturing private-sector initiatives in those areas, that will actually have a major positive effect. So I want to make sure that that happens and that the Pentagon at least sticks to that commitment. WILLIAMS: Yeah. And just one other thing briefly on the Pentagon question, because it’s true that they have a plan to become more renewable, but that plan and the reason that they’re doing it is to more effectively wage war. So, because it’s becoming difficult based on fossil fuels, they’re going to move towards biofuels, which have their own negative consequences in terms of farming and food, and nuclear power, which we also know has enormous negative implications. And the objective of moving away from fossil fuels towards those kind of renewable energies is in order to prosecute more war. So I don’t really think that the Pentagon is the answer. I also think that it illustrates, if you give unlimited funds towards something, then you can do some amazing things. The question is: what is your objective? So there’ve been all kinds of things that have come from government that have been appropriated into the civilian sphere, but it illustrates that the state has enormous sway and has enormous amounts of money to put towards things more productive than expanding the war budget. PERIES: Bob, do you want to respond to what Chris is saying? POLLIN: Yeah, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that the Pentagon was a positive force in the global economy. What I was saying was that, as I said, ironically, yes, as Chris said, the Pentagon has such enormous resources, including research and development, commercialization, if the Pentagon, for its own bad reasons, wants to develop renewable energy, they have the power to do so. And the fact that they are saying they want to do so is a positive development, just in the sense that the internet, I think we can agree–or we wouldn’t be having The Real News Network without the internet–came out of the Pentagon. So it’s the same bad circumstances created the internet, which enabled us to have a more democratic system of news dissemination, such as The Real News Network. So we have to build from that. PERIES: Very good, Gentlemen. Thank you both so much for joining us today. POLLIN: Thank you. WILLIAMS: Thanks very much. POLLIN: Great. PERIES: And thank you, Real Newsers, for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Robert Pollin

Robert Pollin is Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He is the founding co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI). His research centers on macroeconomics, conditions for low-wage workers in the US and globally, the analysis of financial markets, and the economics of building a clean-energy economy in the US. His latest book is Back to Full Employment. Other books include: A Measure of Fairness: the Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States, and Contours of Descent: US Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity.