For most of the past generation, the aims of environmental sustainability and social justice were seen as equally worthy, yet painfully and unavoidably in conflict. Tree huggers and spotted owls were pitted against loggers and hard hats. Fighting global warming was held to inevitably worsen global poverty and vice versa. Indeed, the competing demands of the environmental and social justice agendas were frequently cited as a classic example of how public policy choices were fraught with trade-offs and unintended consequences–how you could end up doing harm while seeking only to do good.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a dramatic reversal of thinking: the idea has emerged that protecting the environment–in particular, defeating global warming–can also be an effective engine of economic growth, job creation and even poverty reduction. A small band of determined activist organizations, including the Apollo Alliance, Green For All and 1Sky, deserve credit for pushing this idea into the mainstream. Labor and environmental organizations like the Steelworkers and the Natural Resources Defense Council were open to persuasion. By the time the presidential campaign began, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had both incorporated variations on this idea as major planks in their platforms.
Now, under President Obama, the idea of a green recovery–an investment program to promote energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy–is a central feature of his $825 billion program to defeat the most severe financial crash and recession since the 1930s.
Of course, arguments about trade-offs and unintended consequences have not disappeared. Robert Stavins, chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Faculty Group at Harvard, recently offered this analogy: “Let’s say I want to have a dinner party. It’s important that I cook dinner, and I’d also like to take a shower before the guests arrive. You might think, Well, it would be really efficient for me to cook dinner in the shower. But it turns out that if I try that I’m not going to get very clean and it’s not going to be a very good dinner.”
A weighty intellectual pedigree does undergird the Stavins story. This is a proposition developed by Jan Tinbergen, co-recipient of the first Nobel Prize in Economics and a lifelong leftist. Tinbergen held that you need separate policy tools to address distinct policy aims–that, in other words, trying to kill two birds with one stone is not likely to succeed. As the Obama administration begins spending in the range of $150 billion to create jobs and fight global warming through a single tool of green investments, it is clearly an appropriate time to examine how much Tinbergen’s law might actually apply to our current situation.