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How to End the Recession

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This post is based on remarks by the author at EcoAmerica's "Change of Atmosphere" conference, October 4, 2011.

Economic Stagnation. Recession. According to Paul Krugman and George Soros, we face now perhaps even Depression.

Hard Times is the American story, now and for the next several years at least. How we find the way back to jobs and growth is the only question. And we have the answer, because changing the energy system is the way back to economic growth. According to some economists, it's perhaps the ONLY way back. The only new engine of growth, as there is no great new wave of technology, pharmaceuticals, housing, consumer spending and certainly no credit bubble on the horizon.

Saving the climate is the path out of the economic mess. The great waves of growth set off by the intercontinental railroads, the interstate highways, the internet, production for WWII -- energy transformation is the next wave.

This should be our message for these hard times.

Here are some examples of how to talk about this.

As Bill Clinton so eloquently explains, deploying armies of workers to insulate every building in America will bring immediate and guaranteed cash flow at high rates of return from the energy savings. Better returns for bank and other capital than the stock market by far. It will put 1.5 million Americans back to work right away. And it will keep saving money for decades. Why aren't we doing this? Who is in the way?

In California today, solar energy is now beating -- that's right, beating -- the price of new natural gas power plants. It's far cheaper than new nuclear, and now competitive with filthy coal. Solar's price has dropped 70% in only three years, and like cell phones and dvd players, will drop more as demand soars till in just a few years it will be competitive in the rest of the nation.

Like with cell phones, you can now get solar on your roof even in New Jersey and Maryland for free when you sign a contract. No cost to you. With immediate utility bill reductions, and a guaranteed level price for 20 years. It sounds too good to be true, but it's a fact. Believe me people are attracted to prices that can never go up and power that can't run out. Shouldn't we tell people?

Solar creates 7 times the jobs per dollar as fossil fuel investments. Building a smart grid with fuel-free renewable power sources will mean more affordable electric bills, with zero price volatility. Isn't it time we told people, and seized the economic high ground?

Driving an electric car already costs no more than the equivalent of 75 cents a gallon or less. Now there's a great bumper sticker -- I PAY 75 CENTS A GALLON. In time, car batteries will also get cheaper and store power from the grid.

Energy transformation -- and along the way preserving civilization from burning up -- is the way back to sound growth. Not only to jobs, but to prosperity.

This is a winning message, and it's the truth. It is also a message that will cross the political divide we face, where so many Republicans oppose climate action. It will attract business and split Republicans, which is essential. How will they look standing in the way of economic growth as the recession or worse continues to smolder?

Meanwhile, to continue the narrative, energy business as usual will cause accelerating economic decline as we keep sending ever greater sums out of the country for oil rather than using the money to employ our own people. Energy business as usual will guarantee higher fuel prices as world demand grows -- why don't we tell people? Instead the environmentalists are branded as the folks who will raise energy costs. This is truly upside down.

Storms, fires, floods and droughts will also get increasingly costly, along with the price of food, not to mention the vast sums that will be needed for insurance losses, or to build sea walls and levies in Miami, New York and along the Potomac and the Mississippi as water levels rise. Or the massive cost of trying to save irrigation for agriculture in California's Central Valley as San Francisco Bay rises to saltify the Sacramento and San Joaquin river deltas, making crops ungrowable. Are sea walls productive investments? What rate of return do they create?

We need to stop allowing ourselves to be depicted as the forces that will hurt the economy by the greedy and ignorant few who will cripple it. Enough.

We know from cognitive science that people learn best from moral metaphors and stories. Meanwhile, everything in human affairs can be found in the stories of Shakespeare. Talk about a dramatic moral narrative! Here's today's production. The greedy CEOs of less than a dozen unpopular oil and coal companies -- and their agents in Washington and the media -- are blocking America's recovery to jobs and a prosperous future. So greedy -- like one of Shakespeare's tragic characters -- that they would literally bring down the Kingdom and everyone else along with them. Only this time the Kingdom is the whole planet.

For those of us in this room, who know the urgent and harrowing science of what the climate will soon bring, the story is literally Peabody Coal, Exxon, Koch Industries, Halliburton, Chevron, BP, Massie coal and a few others versus the survival of civilization. It's a tiny few, paralyzing democracy and polluting the media with propaganda. This is a dramatic story indeed, accurate, and hopefully not the final act.

What great Shakespearean characters are the oil and coal CEOs who would be Shylock while the world burns. It is time to feature them -- by name -- as the villains in the story. Every story needs heroes and villains. We have both. CEO Rex Tillerson of Exxon is pulling the strings for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, in order to protect the biggest profits ever made by any company in history. He is as un-American as Rush Limbaugh, standing in the way of recovery and American jobs. They are in the way of restoring the American Dream.

So our message should be prosperity, jobs and economic recovery from energy modernization. Our target audience should be business and those honest Republicans not on oil and coal's payroll. Our narrative is that both the economy and the climate can be saved but for the corruption of a tiny few. Will they get away with it? Stay tuned.

David Fenton is the CEO of FENTON, the public-interest communications firm in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and soon London.