Selling Action On Climate Change

While intense opposition from “coal counties” strategically situated in battleground states had a lot to do with the president muting any discussion of climate change during the 2012 campaign, there’s something more going on that could inhibit the administration’s rhetoric in this area, says the New York Times‘ David Leonhardt: the standard “green jobs” rationale doesn’t seem to be working:

Green jobs have long had a whiff of exaggeration to them. The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day — a necessary effect of helping the climate — is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.

Unsurprisingly, in his State of the Union Address the president seems likely to talk less about green jobs and more about climate change itself, as exhibited in the violent weather patterns of recent years.

But even if Obama finds his rhetoric groove on why action on climate change is essential, he still has to choose a strategy for doing something about it. And with a cap-and-trade system being permanently blocked in Congress barring a return to big Democratic majorities, and regulatory mandates certain to produce psychotic shrieking and big lawsuits, it would be nice to have another arrow in the quiver for forward momentum on climate change.

At Ten Miles Square today, Sanjay Kapoor suggests a comprehensive effort to used the purchasing power of the federal government to reduce the carbon emissions that go into products and services we all pay for. What makes this an unusually interesting idea is that it has already been pioneered in the private sector by a company conservatives will be loath to attack: Walmart:

In 2005, Walmart under then-CEO Lee Scott started to see sustainability for the business potential that it had. Its first step was to look into its own operations for ways to eliminate unnecessary energy use. It found plenty. For instance, it reduced the amount of packaging on a toy truck made in China, saving 4,000 trees, 497 fewer cargo containers to be shipped from China and a million gallons of fuel – $2.4 million in savings. It changed the shape of their milk jugs so that 224 gallons of milk could be stored in a cooler that previously stored 80 gallons – and it was able to reduce the price of the milk it sold by over 15 percent. These and many and other improvements have helped the company save money -more than $231 million last year from just waste reduction and recycling, and another $150 million expected in FY 2013.

Then, recognizing that less than 10 percent of the carbon emissions associated with the products it sells lies within its own operations, Walmart took the next logical step: it invited its over 60,000 suppliers to reduce their carbon footprints. It did so by asking its suppliers, starting with the largest, to fill out a questionnaire developed by the nonprofit Carbon Disclosure Project to disclose their carbon emissions. Some suppliers suspected that the effort was just another costly compliance burden. But the main aim of collecting the information was for the companies themselves to look at their operations with fresh eyes and to see what Walmart saw: that carbon is money and cutting carbon saves money.

As Kapoor points out, the Obama administration has already moved in this direction by requiring federal agencies to pay attention to their own carbon footprint. Extending this effort to contractors could have a significant ripple effect throughout the economy, and would not produce the kind of backlash and bad publicity of a flat mandate on the private sector. If all else fails, which it often has on this subject, it’s certainly worth a try.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.