What It Takes to Wear Green
What will it take to implement a green-jobs agenda?
Before signing the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, President Obama reminded Americans that the bill will not just boost the country’s ailing economy but will help modernize the nation. “Because we know we can’t power America’s future on energy that’s controlled by foreign dictators, we are taking a big step down the road to energy independence, and laying the groundwork for a new, green energy economy that can create countless well-paying jobs,” Obama said.
Environmentalists see the stimulus as an opportunity to spur a revolution that will transform America’s old, gray, industrial economy based on coal, oil, and other dirty fossil fuels, into one that runs on clean, renewable energy. While green initiatives make up less than one-eighth of the stimulus bill, the chatter is all about green jobs, green infrastructure, and green energy. Green, green, green. But what exactly green jobs are and how such an infrastructure can be implemented are some of many questions that have yet to be answered.
The green jobs movement saw a major victory in December 2007 when Congress passed the Green Jobs Act as part of the energy bill. The act was supposed to set aside up to $125 million to train workers for jobs in the clean energy sector, but President Bush’s budget requested $0 for the initiative. The issue gained increasing notoriety during the 2008 campaign with the publication of Van Jones’ book The Green Collar Economy and his many moving speeches, like his most recent one at Powershift this year. Jones founded Green For All, a national organization dedicated to building a green economy, and has laid out his vision for a “Green New Deal” that would create programs and policies designed to fight both global warming and urban poverty by creating millions of green jobs. With more than $80 billion dollars of the $787 billion economic recovery package going toward investments in clean energy, the bill takes an important first step. Jones’ vision is still incomplete, but there are compelling reasons to take the rest of the green-collar jobs movement seriously.
Why go green?
As the economy lags, some experts say that going green may be the best way to revive our economy and save the planet. Climate scientists predict that unless we curb global warming emissions, average U.S. temperatures could increase by 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Global warming has been linked to deadly heat waves, an increase in wildfires, the spread of disease, and a host of public health and weather catastrophes. And while the United States makes up only four percent of the world’s population, the country is responsible for emitting 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide pollution. Low-income communities and communities of color also tend to be disproportionately affected by the negative impacts of a high-carbon economy.
President Obama’s Energy Secretary Steve Chu said that an environmentally friendly, energy efficient economy is America’s only option in the fight against climate change. In an article last month in The Root, Chu warned that “without swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Americans might see their way of life grind to a halt.”
That news sounds even more dismal than today’s enormous economic crisis. But the good news is that at last we have an Administration that is determined to take the action necessary to address global warming. More good news is that investing in environmentally friendly projects may be the best way to put thousands of Americans back to work. According to the Department of Labor the U.S. unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in January, the highest in 16 years. But according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, investments in energy efficiency and renewable resources create more jobs per dollar invested than tax cuts, military spending, or oil and natural gas investments.
What is a green job?
Industries that clean up environmental damage count toward the green-job tally, as well as jobs that help America transition away from fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate toxins, and protect our natural resources. Jessica Tovar of Communities for a Better Environment told Green for All that “the movement for green jobs is a fight for a ‘just transition’ from reckless industry practices to new, ethical and eco-friendly ones. Green jobs are about respecting and empowering both workers and the communities they live in.”
While Tovar and other politicians and activists’ vision sounds positive, the rhetoric surrounding green jobs is still unclear. Not all green jobs are created equal. A “green” factory may produce a green product but produce tons of carbon dioxide each year. Employees that mine “clean coal” in Appalachia can endanger their own health while destroying huge areas of natural habituate and contribute to an industry that still releases large amounts of pollutants into air and water.
Who qualifies for the green collar?
Green collar jobs encompass a wide array of industries. There is no one-size-fits-all description of a worker who is qualified for the field. Green careers can be found in the non-profit world of advocacy and activism, in manufacturing, construction, engineering, agriculture and even the federal government.
Currently, jobs that qualify for the green collar are workers that install solar panels, retrofit buildings, erect wind farms, and install new light rail lines. Many organizations are assisting workers in finding green collar employment. At this year’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference in Washington, D.C., organizers put together a Green Jobs Expo, showcasing the numerous green careers available to job seekers. The expo included more than 85 booths run by academic institutions, manufactures, non-profits, and government agencies.
According to a January report by the American Solar Energy Society, popular green jobs include electricians, mechanical engineers, welders, metal workers, accountants, analysts, environmental scientists, and chemists. The report found that more than 37 million jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency could be generated by 2030—more than 17 percent of anticipated U.S. employment.
While some green jobs are limited to college educated professionals who hold advanced degrees in the sciences, engineering, and other highly technical fields, others require only a high school diploma. According to Green For All, many green collar jobs are “middle-skill,” requiring more education than high school but less than a four year degree. Many workers will be able to use the skill set they already possess to find greener, more ecological job opportunities. For example, a factory worker who helps produce gas guzzling SUVs could easily transition to work at a factory that produces parts for hybrid cars.
Some green jobs will require workers to acquire new skills. The stimulus directs $500 million over two years to the Green Jobs Act. These funds will be used to train approximately 70,000 workers for renewable energy and energy efficiency jobs.
The stimulus and green jobs
According to Green For All, greening America’s infrastructure offers the biggest bang for our buck. Green projects will create jobs and cut energy bills, pay living, family wages, and provide opportunities for professional advancement. The Natural Resources Defense Council said that investments in energy efficiency save consumers and taxpayers so much money they more than pay for themselves over the lifetime of the project.
NRDC also reported that according to a green jobs study conducted by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a two-year, $100 billion green investment program would create 2 million green jobs for American workers, more than 3 times as many good jobs as the oil industry. These new “good green jobs” would pay at least $16 an hour.
But such an investment might not be easy; the green economy has been hit as hard by the current financial crisis as the rest of the economy. Bank failures have made credit difficult for wind and solar developers to come by, causing them to delay projects and lay off workers. The stimulus might be able to recharge these clean energy projects. Environment America detailed the portions of the stimulus dedicated to green energy. The final bill invests $32.80 billion in clean energy, $26.86 billion in energy efficiency, and $18.95 billion in green transportation.
Big Oil still gets help
The green initiatives in the stimulus bill can help to put America on a path to clean, renewable energy, creating more jobs and protecting our planet. However, these initiatives are just a good start. To completely transform the American economy and combat global warming, the United States will need to take a stand against “big oil.”
While one-eighth of the stimulus bill directs funding towards green energy, large chunks of money are also being directed towards “business as usual” projects that will continue the cycle of pollution. For example, $27.5 billion is included for highway investments, compared to only $8.4 billion for public transportation systems. The stimulus also directs $3.4 billion for fossil energy research and development.
From regional to national, a grid that works
The United States current energy grid is regionalized and often described by environmentalists and scientists as “last century.” The current system was designed to draw energy from nearby plants, and transfer this energy to local customers. But the greenest energies do best in the most remote areas, like the plains of North Dakota to the deserts of Nevada. To transmit power from solar panels and windmills thousands of miles away to customers who need the energy, the United States will need a national system that is not only bigger but “smarter.” A New York Times article last month explained that different parts of the grid will need to be integrated and designed to deal with clean energy sources such as solar and wind, which fluctuate with weather conditions. Creating a national grid will not only take money but also work on the part of citizens, local, state, and national governments.
When people find out new powerlines are going to be built throughout their communities, there are often shouts of “not in my backyard” followed by lawsuits and other bureaucratic hurdles to completing new energy projects. The stimulus package provides $11 billion for smart grid related activities, but the New York Times article points out that money is only one of the many factors which is delaying much needed clean energy projects. The American Transmission Company, which operates in four Midwestern states, spent two years building a line of about 220 miles from Duluth, Minn. to Wausau, Wis. But it took eight years before that for the firm to win the necessary permits. As global temperatures increase and the demand on the U.S. electricity grid rises, our country does not have decades to waste in bureaucratic scuffles.
Sarah Karlin is an Editorial Intern at Campus Progress and a senior at George Washington University.