Obama Must Tie Green Agenda to Economy: Panel

President-Elect Barack Obama stands a better chance of advancing a green agenda in his first 100 days in office if he can continue mobilizing the country on a grassroots level around environmental issues and tie green initiatives to the economic stimulus package and recovery.

That's the consensus of a group of journalists and a business advisor that explored the future of the green economy in an Obama presidency during a panel discussion at the GreenBiz-Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) Leadership Dinner held Thursday in New York.

The panel, which included Fortune's Marc Gunther, Business Week's Adam Aston, The New York Times' Kate Galbraith and BSR's vice president of advisory services, Eric Olson, was moderated by GreenBiz.com's Executive Editor Joel Makower in what he described as his version of "Meet the Press."

"I think we've all heard the superlatives about this week in terms of just how extraordinary it was whether your team won or not, but now the question is: What's next?" Makower said.

The economy is clearly at the top of the heap, as President-Elect Obama made clear in his first press conference. The news is grim: Job losses are escalating and he warned that if Congress fails to pass another stimulus package, he'll make the move as one of his first actions in office. Marrying the environmental agenda to the economic stimulus package presents one possibility of advancement, according to Gunther of Fortune.

"You have to come up with a way to say the purpose of this is do two things: do something about climate change but also to stimulate the new green economy," Gunther said. "If it can be packaged that way, as opposed to something that will raise gasoline prices or raise electricity prices -- which it absolutely will do -- then it has a much better chance."

It comes down to politics and tapping into the excitement and energy he generated during his campaign, Gunther said

"One of the really interesting questions to me about Obama is what does he do with to whatever degree it is a movement - - he sent out his thank you email at 12:30 or 1 a.m. Tuesday night -- what does he do to keep that group of people engaged and alive?" Gunther said. "If he says I need your support now because energy is my priority and here are things you have to do, if he can do that, I think he can get his agenda done."

Galbraith, of The New York Times, pointed out that the appeal of green jobs, for example, extends beyond Obama's Democratic platform.

"It's not just Obama that's been talking about green jobs," she said. "It's virtually every Congressman or Senator running for office so in a sense, green jobs is the ultimate centrist issue."

The outreach must extend to the business community, which is ideally positioned to help move the agenda forward, according to BSR's Olson, who noted its strengths in technology,

infrastructure, intellectual property and equipment. He suggested giving the business community an "assignment" to help find the solutions to solve the big problems facing the country.

"One of the amazing things about business and why I think it is about an assignment is if you think about what we're up against, businesses, in terms of resource allocation ... an important part of our job, more important than usual, is going to be figuring out how to do more with less," Olson said.

People in the business community need to be at the negotiating table in greater numbers to build off the efforts already started, Olson said.

Companies are hungry for the dialogue that will offer clarity in various aspects of green business, such as labels, greenwashing and carbon, said Aston, of Business Week.

"All of these things are areas where I have business people come to me and say, 'We need standards. We can't continue to create 50-state code books for all of our operations." Aston said.

Gunther reminded the audience of the dreariness facing the business community at the moment but doesn't believe that businesses will simply abandon sustainability because of the economic downturn.

"Once these companies go down the sustainability path and start asking questions and start looking at the science and start engaging their employees, I think it's really hard for them to turn back, even if there are some short-term losses, and even as grim as some of the other things are," Gunther said. "I don't know of any company that's said, 'you know, we tried the sustainability thing and it just didn't pay off for us so we're not going to do it anymore.'"

He noted a grassroots push toward sustainability coming from the bottom of companies: employees. Tying green corporate initiatives to energy security or patriotism resonates more powerfully that the general green agenda, Olson said.

"If the assignment is we have the opportunity to harness some of the activates that our companies desperately need anyway in the direction particularly in efficiency, and put that in the context of service to country, the broader economic agenda and community agenda, I don't think that's something we need to wait that long for," Olson said.

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