“The key challenge before the Atlantic nations is to develop a new sense of common destiny in the age of jihad, the rise of Asia, and the emerging universal problems of poverty, pandemics and energy, among many others.” — Henry Kissinger. October, 2001.
Please consider the following profiles: the rural, pro-life, gun-owning, church-going Appalachian coal miner dependent on state welfare but instinctively supportive of politics for small government; (2) the pro-choice, fiscally-conservative, metropolitan financier in New York City comfortably established as part of the global ‘1%;’ (3) the middle-class engineer in Leipzig who opposes immigration to Germany, but who works for a small family Mittelstand company dependent on global trade; (4) the French farmer at the heart of the country’s cultural industries, but fundamentally reliant on economic support from Paris or Brussels.
What binds the people behind these profiles together, beyond their obvious contradictions? For much of the post-War era, public and NGO institutions could readily espouse the common bonds that cut through the heterogeneity among the Atlantic community, namely, shared commitments to democracy, the rule of law, free trade, and greater social and environmental justice. The 21st century continues to drive immense economic and cultural shifts across the West that have stressed this transatlantic narrative. Yet, however troubling, populist calls to retreat from globalization and technology into the embrace of a protectionist nation-state too often stem from profound, inescapable financial and social insecurities.
Status quo politics in many Atlantic nations have largely failed to address these deep insecurities – social inequality continues to increase at a disturbing pace, public education sputters, and too many feel a bitter sense of unfairness and economic injustice. These insecurities hardly excuse racism and xenophobia, but many are hurting, and they want the national drawbridges up. Multiculturalism, free trade, technology and like pillars of the 21st century have become scapegoats for the decline of collective prosperity. The repeated failure of democratic institutions to address the needs of the working class through effective economic reform has led to the rejection of government, punctuated by feelings that the ‘system’ no longer works for average folks.
The morning after Donald Trump became president, Berlin’s B.Z. tabloid captured the evening before as “the night that the West died.” The West is far from dead, but must urgently take action to embody transatlantic values into a new social contract, one fit for the technological realities of the 21st century and that otherwise addresses the challenging economic predicaments unique to the modern working classes. Forging such a social contract could last a decade, and thus initial priorities and results matter immensely. With this in mind, a mobilizing priority of this social contract must focus on infrastructure, specifically, the greatest infrastructure challenge in history: retooling today’s economy with the clean energy products & services necessary to adapt to and mitigate climate change. Clean energy infrastructure can provide the ‘quick wins’ necessary to help the working class today, while sustaining broader reform efforts to address economic inequality and social injustice.
Since the Marshall Plan, infrastructure and technological progress have sat at the heart of the Atlantic relationship as a means to solidify democratic values in public goods. As Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller has commented, millions in the working class – including millions of Trump voters – desperately want not just a decent wage and benefits, but financial agency towards realizing greater societal purpose. Simply putting people to work building bridges and airports is not enough to create purpose. Rather, the US and EU must embrace the historic opportunity to put people to work in high-tech, forward-looking industries focused on local jobs, manufacturing, research and deployment, with global impact.
Clean energy has put people to work, and done so at lightning speed. The fastest growing job category in the United States is wind turbine technician. Since the 2008 recession, solar & wind power, LED lighting, demand response, smart system, and other clean technologies created close to one in everything 33 jobs in the United States. Astoundingly, more people work in solar than on oil & gas rigs in the United States. In Europe, clean energy employs nearly 1 million people and has annual revenues of ~$129bn per year; moreover, more than 40% of all patents in environmentally-friendly technologies come from the European Union. Collectively, this progress has occurred despite the financial turmoil and policy volatility familiar since the 2008 recession.
The US and EU should modernize historic roots in infrastructure by developing cross-border financing mechanisms to open up investment in energy infrastructure; such mechanisms might include infrastructure investment banks, public investment trusts, and shared R&D spending. Today, there is woefully too little attention across the Atlantic towards opening up capital flows into priority industries. Investment in clean energy remains walled off behind niche financing sources on both sides of the Atlantic. While initiatives like the “Transatlantic Climate Bridge” are noble, they focus too much on comparative storytelling across the Atlantic, not institutional capacity building, particularly among large companies and financial services, and have struggled to engage bipartisan audiences in the United States. Boosting transatlantic focus on capital deployment, infrastructure, and energy system operations will streamline capacity-building in areas poised for controversy in coming years, such as defense and free trade.
This plan will face aggressive skepticism. Populists on both sides of the Atlantic dismiss climate change, and label climate policies as job-killing, expensive and ‘establishment.’ Since the facts run counter to these claims, clean energy policy has a branding problem, not factual ones. The climate movement must turn into a passionate jobs movement based on infrastructure with purpose. In doing so, climate policy must turn into a consequence of clean energy infrastructure, not its public-facing rationale, and must make unprecedented efforts to bring job growth to rural communities.
The time for mourning the post-War era is over. The generation native to globalization and the Internet, the millennials, are ready to build a new institutions for Western values, to bind the profiles like the above together. Apathy is the only force that can kill the West. The disenfranchised want a better future for them and their families. We have the tools to help them achieve these goals, while laying out the framework for the next 50 years of prosperity. So let’s get to work today.