Paying expensive utility bills sucks. Finding a good job can take forever, and it also sucks. Paying off student loans every month sucks, too. I think we all, as a country, can all agree on those three things.
Now with all of us comfortably in the same boat, I will make a “controversial” statement that might cause some of you to jump ship. I challenge you, however, to hear me out:
Climate change is real. It is anthropogenic (human-caused), it is happening now, and it is the single greatest existential threat to humanity. According to the overwhelming consensus of the global scientific community, we are on course for certain self-destruction unless we substantially mitigate or reverse global warming and transition away from fossil fuels now. The Trump administration’s official environmental impact report released last month says the effects of climate change will cost the US half a trillion dollars a year by the end of the century, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have roughly 12 years to take drastic action to prevent it from getting any worse. In other words, if we do not unite and organize our entire country’s collective resolve and resources against this threat — just like we did to save ourselves from the Great Depression, the Axis Powers during WWII, and the “threat of Communism” during the Cold War Era — then we are sure to perish as a nation along with with rest of the world.
Yup, we’re talking about climate change. But, even if you disagree with all or some of what I just said about it, the rest of this post still applies if you’re concerned about the economic future of this country.
The case for clean energy independence
While the United States used to be a major oil net-exporter in the first half of the 20th century, today most of our oil is currently imported from other countries. This represents a problem because from an economic and foreign relations standpoint we want our country to be energy independent. Self-reliance on energy means we don’t have to worry about groups like OPEC or individual oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Russia controlling the supply and price of fuel we need to keep up with domestic needs. It also means those countries have less bargaining power when it comes to adversarial diplomatic issues (e.g. Saudi Arabia’s role in the 1973 oil crisis). Furthermore, being energy independent means we don’t have to keep sending money overseas to import the energy we need in order keep our own country going. We produce the energy here so the money goes back into American companies, jobs, and families.
How do we achieve energy independence? Well, if we were to go prospecting for oil and build pipelines all over North America to increase its availability then yes, energy would probably be cheaper to produce domestically — but not for long. Fossil fuels are an inherently finite resource and will become exponentially more expensive to extract from the Earth in decades to come as we deplete current reserves and go looking for it in harder-to-reach places like deep ocean and shale rock. (Not to mention: the environmental risks that come along with deepwater drilling, drilling near protected and populated lands, and the continual buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.)
It is a fact that energy from renewable sources like wind and solar power will be cheaper to produce than energy from fossil fuels by 2020. This is the singularity event we’ve been waiting for. It’s finally here. Funding large-scale renewable energy projects now makes more financial sense than funding production of traditional fossil fuels.
Just look at Georgetown, Texas, which switched to 100% renewable energy in 2016. Dale Ross, Republican mayor of the city says his residents’ utility bills have stopped going up. His initial incentive had less to do with environmental concerns than it did with practical, financial considerations. “Coal cannot compete with wind and solar on cost,” he said to Bernie Sanders during a recent Town Hall event on climate change. “The future is working in renewables, and it’s not working in coal.”
Every city and state varies in its ability to implement changes to its energy infrastructure at scale. The US is a very large country with diverse regional energy needs, so cases like this are not a cookie-cutter solution for every part of in country. But in Georgetown’s case, or in these 100 other cities around the world, neither were fossil fuels.
The New Deal and the New Debt
So what does all of this have to do with jobs and student loans? First, a quick history lesson.
During the Great Depression millions of Americans (over 20%) were unemployed. When FDR was elected President in 1932, he directed Congress to pass a number of acts creating temporary work-relief programs for unemployed, mostly unskilled workers: the Worker’s Progress Administration, or the WPA; and the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. The Public Works Administration, the PWA, was also created using private construction firms and skilled laborers rather than directly hiring the unemployed to boost America’s economy and update its infrastructure. Between 1933 and 1944 (when all three agencies had been effectively disbanded due to a worker shortage from the US entering WWII) these programs created tens of thousands of buildings, highways, bridges, airports, hydro-electric dams, sewer systems, water systems and many other facilities that are still in use today. The New Deal and its work relief programs helped save America from a ruined economy and did a lot to close the gap between the rich and poor.
Today, unemployment is low but 45 million Americans (about 25%) are collectively saddled with roughly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. The volume of student debt in the US is now greater in size than that of credit cards or auto loans; 22% of borrowers are currently in default on the loans they took out to attend college and 40% are expected to default by 2023. The problem has grown so much that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos claims it represents a crisis in higher education and suggests that the traditional path to obtaining a college degree may not be the best choice for everyone.
An entire generation of heavily indebted Americans is a really bad sign for the future of the economy (especially coupled with the impact climate change could have on the economy’s growth). There are a lot of college-educated people looking for a better job or a higher salary to tackle their massive student loan payments and many are forced to delay saving up for retirement, buying a car, or owning home. Meanwhile, there is a growing worker shortage for skilled labor jobs in craftsmanship and construction as we continue to push children to attend college and obtain white-collar jobs over trade schools and blue-collar jobs.
A Green New Deal for Student Borrowers
Millions of Americans are drowning in student debt and looking for a way out. Utility bills will stop going up and we can achieve energy independence if we switch to renewable energy. So, let’s put that all together:
What if we took a page out of FDR’s book? What if we could help rebuild America into a 100% energy independent country using 100% renewable energy by employing Americans who are struggling financially and/or looking for a way out of debt?
We could enact a massive, temporary, public-works and green collar jobs program similar to those of the New Deal. Imagine skilled and unskilled laborers all over the country: building solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy facilities; coming up with solutions to mitigate sea-level rise in coastal areas, working on answers to potential crop and food shortages, improving on fuel dependence in vehicles, fighting fires in drought-burdened states, implementing carbon-capture technologies, etc. But, instead of FDR’s “work relief” programs we could create “debt relief” programs where the government somehow guarantees a live-able wage and a pathway out of student debt for participants. For example, these incentives could take the form of commitment-based total loan forgiveness programs for individuals with the highest debt-to-income ratios, partial loan forgiveness, interest-accrual suspension programs, tax breaks, or similar means that help to alleviate the burden of debt. There are certainly a ton of Americans out there who would gladly spend a few years building wind and solar farms if it meant eliminating their massive student loan burdens.
A green jobs program like this could solidify America as a world leader in the inevitably prosperous renewable energies sector of the future. It would also provide a model of transition away from fossil fuels that other countries could emulate so we can effectively address the wider, global climate crisis. Even if you are an avid climate change denier, it’s hard to hate the idea of a more independent, less debt-riddled American economy entirely fueled by cheap renewable energy.
Momentum is gaining fast for a Green New Deal with this kind of public works plan in mind. As the legislation evolves, we should make an effort to include student debt relief as part of the ongoing discussion.