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Hosting heads of state from Norway, Mali, Slovenia, Bangladesh, as well as the head of the European Community and several other nations to discuss climate change, Bill Clinton was anything but diplomatic at the opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative on Tuesday morning. Answering a question from the audience about what ordinary citizens can do to make a difference, the former president replied, “If you’re an American, the best thing you can do is to make it politically unacceptable for people to engage in denial. … I mean, it makes us — we look like a joke, right? You can’t win the nomination of one of the major parties in the country if you admit that the scientists are right?”

He admonished the crowd — and many thousands more watching a live webcast — to educate their fellow citizens, whom he said don’t understand that combating climate change with energy conservation measures is “good for the economy and good for the planet.” “If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, who tells you that climate change is a hoax, and if you don’t know better, if you haven’t seen better,” then people will continue to ignore science. “You have to change the experience of people.”

Moreover, he said, if the United States decided to pursue a truly ambitious strategy of conservation retrofitting in older buildings, “we could create a million new jobs” in construction “very quickly.” In keeping with Clinton Global Initiative’s action plan, Clinton then brought two major American labor leaders up to discuss a massive commitment of pension funds that will steer fresh investment toward that very goal. Joining the former president on stage were AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who have been working in collaboration with Clinton’s organization and the Center for American Progress to move as much as $10 billion in pension assets into energy-efficiency projects nationwide. Over the past three months, the AFL-CIO and AFT leaders have brought several other unions into this project, including public employees, service employees, and firefighters, along with public employee pension funds in California — all of which control billions of dollars. The California teachers and public employee funds have already directed over a billion dollars toward specific green infrastructure projects.

As the former president explained, retrofitting homes, office buildings, schools, and other structures to enhance energy savings is not only a sound financial investment but also the most labor-intensive way to “produce” energy — creating thousands more jobs per megawatt than building a nuclear or coal plant, for instance. “This is a huge deal,” said Clinton, who added that he hopes the labor movement’s innovative investments would help to unlock the trillions of dollars currently held back from investment by banks and corporations in the U.S., which should be putting people to work instead of lying fallow.

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