By The Herald Editorial Board
We hate to ruin a good quote, but John F. Kennedy got it wrong when he said during a 1959 speech in Indianapolis: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”
Lost in translation, according to a University of Pennsylvania professor of Chinese language and literature in a 2009 blog post, was the fact that the second of the two characters most closely represents the word for an impending moment, not opportunity.
Yet, Kennedy’s quote lives on — and on, notes Victor Mair in a whole industry of “quick-buck business, pop psychology, and orientalist hocus-pocus” — because the point it attempts to illustrate has some useful truth to it; in facing a dangerous situation there can be opportunities not just to alleviate the crisis but to improve upon the conditions that caused it in the first place.
Which brings us to the two most prominent crises facing the nation and world as we near the end of 2020: the economic downturn of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. The opportunity — in simple English — comes in resolving the latter in how we address the former.
With both crises past the point of deniability for most, the urgency in taking action is clear, for the sake of the economy and the climate.
“We can lose them both if we don’t get this right,” said Paul Roberts last week during a conversation.
Roberts is the veteran Everett City Council member who has advocated for developing a “green economy” and related environmental issues, not just before the council but in the region and state, putting his proposal before the Association of Washington Cities and the state Legislature, which charged the state Department of Commerce to lead a work group that has now forwarded its final report, “Washington’s Green Economy,” to lawmakers.
The report recommends policies and investments that can take advantage of the state’s strengths in education, its manufacturing and technology base, trained labor, available property, venture capital and proximity to world markets and the global supply chain that are needed for success, not just for the economy’s sake but in developing technologies and systems that can address the impacts of climate change and lead to the transition to a green, carbon-neutral energy grid that significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The threat the pandemic has posed to the regional economy is obvious in the announcement earlier this fall by Boeing that because of the loss in orders by airlines that followed the drop in air travel worldwide it would consolidate its assembly lines for the 787 Dreamliner — moving the line and its jobs that were first launched in Everett — to South Carolina.
While air travel and Boeing’s orders will rebound at some point, there’s a resource there in highly trained engineers, machinists and other workers who can be employed in developing green energy projects, Roberts said. The same is true elsewhere in the state.
The recent report, Clean Jobs Washington 2020, by Environmental Entrepreneurs, a pro-environment business advocacy group, found that clean energy employed 11 times more workers in Washington state than did the fossil fuel industry, and employed 1 in 4 construction workers as of the fourth quarter of 2019. Those numbers have of course taken a hit during the pandemic, the report finds; after reaching a high of more than 85,000 workers before the pandemic, more than 17,000 lost clean energy jobs this year and remain unemployed.
But the report finds optimism in how quickly the clean energy sector built up after the 2008 recession, in part because of the investments made by Congress in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It credits the act with helping to create some 1 million clean energy jobs nationwide in the years that followed, including 100,000 in wind, solar and other clean energy projects. A similar investment now by Congress of $99 billion nationwide would create more than 15,500 jobs in Washington state and generate $6.4 billion in economic activity in the state over the following five years.
Making the most of that funding, would require having projects and proposals ready to go, Roberts said, and he’s encouraged by examples of such preparatory work in the county, including by the Snohomish Public Utility District and the Port of Everett.
The PUD has been an industry leader in development of energy storage technology and its Arlington Microgrid, which includes a solar installation, that as well as providing power to PUD customers and electricity in an emergency, also includes electric vehicle charging stations that serve as additional battery storage when fleet vehicles are not in use. Roberts hopes to encourage more projects that build on the network of electric vehicle charging stations throughout the region.
And there’s work ahead — with jobs that pay well — for the Port of Everett, in preparing its facilities for the slow but inescapable rise in sea level, as outlined recently for The Daily Herald by writer Julie Titone. Taller pilings are being installed to secure docks for a future with higher tides, and plans are underway throughout the port to accommodate a rise of between 2 and 3 feet, based on a University of Washington report that anticipates regional sea levels to rise between 4 and 56 inches by 2100.
Along with the region’s ports, other local governments will need to make infrastructure investments — particularly for storm water and wastewater treatment facilities — that take the effects of climate change into account.
Four years on from President Trump’s denial of climate change and his promise to pull out of the Paris climate accords, it is encouraging to see President-elect Biden pledge a return to that international partnership but more so to see recognition of the importance of addressing climate change and economic recovery by pursuing development of clean energy and investment in infrastructure.
We can count ourselves as fortunate that during the past four years — rather than simply waiting for a change in the White House — those who took climate change seriously continued their work to develop solutions and find the opportunities in crisis.