The pandemic could steer us toward a sustainable, resilient future

The pandemic could steer us toward a sustainable, resilient future
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The blow delivered by the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for American businesses and workers. Although the full impact may not be realized for months — or even years — it is evident that bold, innovative programs will be needed to reignite the American economic engine. One of the most effective ways to get our economy moving again as we emerge from the virus’s deadly stranglehold will be to create jobs and competitiveness in the clean energy economy to climate-proof our future. 

To meet this objective, we urge Congress to establish a “Citizens Energy & Environmental Corps” (CEEC) to put Americans back to work building a sustainable and resilient clean energy future.

Our nation is immediately focused on protecting the health of our citizens. To blunt the spread of the disease, we have made countless changes in our behavior, and that has had the secondary effect of dramatically reducing our use of climate-polluting fossil fuels. Energy demand has cratered as we hunker down in our homes and communities, and oil and petro-products remain in oversupply with most strategic petroleum reserves around the world close to full. Not surprisingly, carbon emissions have dropped, and the planet, temporarily at least, is healing itself. 

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When economic activity rebounds, we have an extraordinary opportunity to choose a new path for growth, one of sustainability and resilience. This will require a concerted effort, lest we fall into the trap of defaulting to our old habits of heavy reliance on carbon-emitting energy sources. Indeed, we already are seeing a default to past behavior in China, where that nation’s rising pollution is a sign the economy is  beginning to rebound.

One important lesson we can learn from the pandemic is to think more strategically about future, predictable crises. We know that a climate crisis looms, and we can prepare now by putting America to work for our low-carbon energy future. This will require balancing economic recovery with structural changes that promote sustainable, low-carbon U.S. energy security. 

This effort will take jujutsu — the Japanese martial art of using an opponent’s momentum to your advantage. In this case, the opponent is the coronavirus and the advantage we seek is a healthier, economically sustainable society.  

Subsequent federal stimulus bills could provide vehicles for an advanced energy and water technology policy jujutsu. Among the U.S. national infrastructure most in need of repair are our electric grids that carry energy to factories, businesses and households. The sources of this energy, as well as our water and wastewater treatment plants, are aging and failing. Just look at Flint, Mich.  

With the right infrastructure investments in clean energy research, development and manufacturing, we can make a technological leap to sustainable sources such as solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and nuclear. We’re currently investing half of what we did in the 1970s in advanced energy and water technology. Just as the U.S. used defense production needed for World War II to become the engine of economic growth in the post-war period, the U.S. can leverage future stimulus packages to advance jobs and American competitiveness in clean energy technology.  

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Restoring American leadership in clean energy will require skilled labor. Here, too, we have an opportunity because of the significant job losses caused by COVID-19. Let’s seize this moment and re-train our ready, willing and able workers in advanced clean energy technology and put them to work rebuilding our economy. Critical infrastructure such as electricity generation; coupling energy grids with artificial intelligence and big data; transmission, distribution, storage; and energy efficiency are just a few of the advanced energy growth areas replete with good-paying jobs for Americans willing to learn new skills.

Americans got back to work in the 1930s thanks to ambitious New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, which built some of our most critical infrastructure of that era, including projects led by the Tennessee Valley Authority such as a series of dams and waterworks created to provide electrical power and prevent floods. Now, the CEEC that we suggest would be dedicated to building energy and water infrastructure we need for the 21st century: solar highways, “smart” grids, flood-proof waterworks, and more.   

The CEEC would advance jobs, American competitiveness, and build a future  resilient to climate threats. Its workforce should be diverse, including transitioning veterans, former coal miners, out of work wildcatters, steel workers, the young and restless looking for their futures, and others who want to be part of a movement larger than themselves.  

A generation of Americans is being challenged like never before. But we must confront adversity with an innovative spirit that propels us forward. We can one day look back at the pandemic of 2020 as a terrible, tragic crisis that sparked a movement towards a sustainable, resilient future.  

Sherri Goodman served as first deputy under secretary of Defense in environmental security and was founder and executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board. She serves on the boards of the Atlantic Council and the Center for Climate & Security. 

Greg Douquet is a former Marine Corps colonel, co-founder and managing partner of Red Duke Strategies LLC, and co-director of the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center’s Veterans Advanced Energy Project.