This week marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, when environmental protection is given the national spotlight. This year, the urgency of addressing global warming will be a key concern. The Latino community has a tremendous stake in this issue””not only in avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change but also in participating fully in the jobs, investment, and innovation that will be required to rebuild our economy on a foundation of clean energy.
This op-ed, by CAP’s Bracken Hendricks, was first published in Spanish here.
Hispanics in the United States lead the country in their understanding that immediate action on climate is necessary. A recent poll commissioned by the National Resources Defense Council shows that 66 percent of Hispanics think tackling climate change should be a “high” or “very high” priority compared to only 48 percent of non-Hispanics.
Hispanics are right to make this a priority. If unanswered, a warming planet threatens vast regions of the country and will affect millions of people. It would lead to longer, more severe droughts in the desert Southwest, increasing wild fires, and crop loss from Texas to California. Costal communities from New York City to Miami will face property damage and lost tourism income from more severe storms. And in Latin America, climate change means threats to human health in cities like Lima, Peru that depend almost entirely on melting glaciers for access to clean drinking water.
But at the same time, taking action to address climate change through energy efficiency can drive a new wave of investment in communities that will quickly create jobs and economic opportunity.
Retrofitting buildings to save electricity is one of the fastest ways to protect the environment since we use more energy in our homes than in our cars. The cleanest, cheapest source of energy is the energy we never have to use, but it takes work to cut those energy bills. So, investing in energy efficiency will jumpstart demand for high-paying jobs, which would be especially welcomed in the hard-hit construction industry. Last month the unemployment rate for construction workers stood at 25 percent””well above the national 9.7 percent unemployment rate. In four states (Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, and Florida), fully 40 percent of construction workers have lost their job since the height of construction.
Hispanics have been hit particularly hard by this “tool belt recession.” During the housing boom of the last decade, the unemployment rates for Hispanics and non-Hispanics were virtually the same according to the Pew Hispanic Center and the Economic Policy Institute. But after the housing bubble burst and construction jobs rapidly diminished, the gap between Hispanic unemployment and non-Hispanic unemployment widened. Hispanic males were heavily concentrated in construction so as jobs declined they suffered disproportionately.
Today, therefore, there is a large pool of skilled construction workers ready to re-enter the labor market. Few areas in construction are poised to grow as rapidly as energy efficient retrofits. The Center for American Progress estimated that cutting energy use 20 percent to 40 percent in just 40 percent of America’s buildings would create 625,000 sustained jobs over a decade driving half a trillion dollars of new investment, while saving as much as $64 billion every year on energy bills.
A federal program of incentives for energy efficiency would cut energy use and rapidly create jobs within the construction industry and in retail, manufacturing, and local economic activity as well. Congress is currently considering HOME STAR, a program that would give consumers a rebate of as much as $3,000 to $8,000 for retrofit projects such as installing a new efficient hot water heater, furnace, or air conditioning system, and it would cut the cost nearly in half of replacing leaky windows, sealing duct work, and insulating attics for millions of Americans.
Working people are struggling to improve their economic security while debate over national energy policy remains divided. But smart policies like HOME STAR stand out by providing a way for all Americans to work together today toward common goals. This Earth Day, let’s get to work immediately, one home at a time, creating clean energy jobs and a better future for the planet through energy efficiency.
Bracken Hendricks is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress