NOEL KING, HOST:
Some countries are literally printing money to rescue their economies from the ravages of COVID-19. The U.N. and some others argue that some of that money should be spent to fight climate change. The European Union has a plan to do that. The U.S. so far does not, despite the fact that this country has a tradition of overhauling our energy sector to promote economic recovery. Here's NPR's Jeff Brady.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Consider President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal a century ago. Electricity may not come to mind, but a big element was building massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River. Then, the government paid Woody Guthrie to write songs about them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLL ON COLUMBIA")
WOODY GUTHRIE: (Singing) Roll on, Columbia. Roll on. Your power is turning our darkness to dawn. Roll on, Columbia. Roll on.
BRADY: The legacy of those dams is mixed. They forever changed the environment, but they also brought electricity to rural America.
TED CASE: During the 1920s and 1930s, about 90% of the U.S. farms had no electricity.
BRADY: Ted Case is executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association. His co-op members exist because the New Deal brought utility poles and power lines down many miles of dusty roads and connected homes to the grid.
CASE: That day was the most incredible day for a lot of families, when they finally got to throw that kerosene lantern out the window, which many people did.
BRADY: Decades later, President Obama was sworn into office amid an economic downturn. His stimulus plan included $90 billion that helped reshape the U.S. energy landscape.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: It's an investment that will double the amount of renewable energy produced over the next three years.
BRADY: Solar and wind grew quickly and are now the cheapest source of electricity in some places. But hundreds of thousands of renewable energy jobs have been lost. Scientists say carbon emissions must be reduced dramatically to avoid the worst effects of climate change. That requires significant changes at a time the country already is spending a lot of money - about $3 trillion on relief packages so far. Julian Brave NoiseCat is with the group Data for Progress.
JULIAN BRAVE NOISECAT: It is irresponsible from, like, a very basic good-government perspective to not have any of that money go to clean energy and fighting climate change.
BRADY: NoiseCat says money should be spent creating jobs to build and retrofit houses, install rooftop solar and deploy electric vehicles. Heather Reams also is concerned about climate change, but her politics are more conservative and market focused.
HEATHER REAMS: If we're talking about - if you're going to put taxpayer money someplace, put it where you're going to get a good return, and that is in clean energy.
BRADY: Reams heads Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. She says there are bills in Congress that could become stimulus programs even with an administration that shows little interest in climate change.
REAMS: They do recognize the economic value that clean energy brings, the jobs it brings, particularly to a lot of red states. So I think the business certainty trumps, if you will, any kind of political challenges.
BRADY: Another idea has the support of some conservatives and big oil companies - taxing carbon dioxide emissions.
IOANA MARINESCU: I think it's fair to say that carbon taxes are economists' favorite way of addressing climate change.
BRADY: Ioana Marinescu is an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. But she says this would be a bad time to levy new taxes. She suggests the government invest lots of money in clean energy upfront and then levy a carbon tax to pay for it when the economy recovers. It's one idea among many. The point is that climate change arguably is the biggest problem humans face now, and fixing it requires sweeping solutions at a time the U.S. is spending lots of money.
MARINESCU: It's a sad time but also an opportunity to do some investments that perhaps we didn't have the mojo to get our act together and do before. Sometimes it takes a good crisis to finally move in a whole new direction, just like the New Deal.
BRADY: Here's what's different, though - after the Great Depression and the 2008 recession, the country had presidents who believed in fixing the big energy problems of their day.
(SOUNDBITE OF THURSTON MOORE'S "THE SHAPE IS IN A TRANCE")
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