In The Future, The Only Jobs Left Will Be Green

In the future, the only jobs left will be green.  Last year, the NY Times reported, “In the energy sector alone, the deployment of new technologies, like wind and solar power, has the potential to support 20 million jobs by 2030 and trillions of dollars in revenue, analysts estimate.”

Averting catastrophic climate change will generate far more jobs by 2050, as we must deploy more than 10,000 GW of clean energy (see here).  Failing to avert catastrophic climate change will probably generate more jobs, especially post-2030, since we still have to make the transition off fossil fuels, but on top of that we will have to have to make probably 10 times as much investment in sea walls, levees, relocating people and cities, and the like (see Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery).

The inevitable transition to a low carbon, low-fossil-fuel, water- and resource-efficient economy is apparently lost on many in the media.  We expect confusion and misinformation on this point from the right wing media (see Conservative Media Inanely Declare Solar Power ‘Doesn’t Work’).  It is surprising, though, when even NPR runs the headline, “Is Obama’s Bet On Green Jobs Risky?”

In fact, the only “risky” move is failing to aggressively pursue clean energy, failing to quickly reduce dependence on petroleum before peak oil forces us too, and failing to embrace a sustainable economy before the global Ponzi scheme collapses.

NPR and many other media outlets have confused the (very high) risks inherent in investing in any single company with the (super-low) risks of placing a large bet across the full portfolio of green tech, as I discuss here.

The rest of this post imagines Labor Day a couple of decades from now, updating an earlier piece, “When the global Ponzi scheme collapses (circa 2030), the only jobs left will be green.”

In my March 2009, post, “Why the United States REQUIRES a strong climate bill to remain competitive,” I reprised the thesis first documented by Harvard’s Michael Porter — strong, leading edge, pro-innovation regulations promote national competitiveness. As President Obama said (once upon a time):

We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for our lasting prosperity.

It is Obama’s final point — “lasting prosperity” — that is the focus of this post. Obama is hinting at a point I tried to make explicit in my interview with NYT’s Tom Friedman and subsequent post:

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm.

To perpetuate the high returns the rich countries in particular have been achieving in recent decades, we have been taking an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and, the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all “” a livable climate.

In short, we have failed to designed a system capable of lasting prosperity. Quite the reverse.

Like all Ponzi schemes, the system must collapse. When it does, the only jobs left standing will be those that are “green” “” which can be defined as those jobs that do not plunder nonrenewable energy resources and natural capital and/or do not to destroy a livable climate.

Strong action on climate legislation and clean energy are not the only measures needed to avert the collapse, but they are an essential first start. Absent such action, the collapse is all but inevitable.

When will be collapse begin and what will it look like? I expect most opinion makers and the majority of the public to get desperate about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the 2020s. But desperation is not collapse. I have tended to think that the inflection point is around 2030.

Now it just so happens that the UK government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, laid out something very close to the collapse scenario in a speech to the government’s Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster. He warned that by 2030, “A ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions,” as the UK’s Guardian put it.

You can see a five-minute BBC interview with Beddington here. The speech is now online.  Here are some excerpts:

We saw the food spike last year; prices going up by something in the order of 300%, rice went up by 400%, we saw food riots, we saw major issues for the poorest in the world, in the sense that the organisations like the World Food Programme did not have sufficient money to buy food on the open market and actually use it to feed the poorest of the poor.

So this is a major problem. You can see the catastrophic decline in those reserves, over the last five years or so, indicates that we actually have a problem; we’re not growing enough food, we’re not able to put stuff into the reserves….

So, what are the drivers? I am going to go through them now very briefly.

First of all, population growth. World population grows by six million every month — greater than the size of the UK population every year….  I am going to focus on the year 2030 and the reason I am going to focus on 2030 is that I feel that some of the climate change discussions focusing on 2100 don’t actually grip”…. I am going to look at 2030 because that’s when a whole series of events come together.

By 2030, looking at population terms, you are looking at the global population increasing from a little over six billion at the moment to about eight billion…

… you are going to see major changes but particularly in the demand for livestock — meat and dairy….

By 2030, the demand for food is going to be increased by about 50%. Can we do it? One of the questions. There is a major food security issue by 2030. We’ve got to somehow produce 50% more by that time.  The second issue I want to focus on is the availability of fresh water….  The fresh water available per head of the world population is around 25% of what it was in 1960. To give you some idea of this; there are enormous potential shortages in certain parts of the world….  China has something like 23% of the world’s population and 11% of the world’s water.

…. the massive use of water is in agriculture and particularly in developing world agriculture. Something of the order of 70% of that. One in three people are already facing water shortages and the total world demand for water is predicted to increase by 30% by 2030.

So, we’ve got food — expectation of demand increase of 50% by 2030, we’ve got water — expectation of demand increase of 30% by 2030. And in terms of what it looks like, we have real issues of global water security.

…. where there is genuine water stress [in 2025 is] China and also parts of India, but look at parts of southern Europe where by 2025 we are looking at serious issues of water stress….

So, water is really enormously important. I am going to get onto the climate change interactions with it a little bit later but water is the one area that I feel is seriously threatening. It is so important because a shortage of water obviously interacts with a shortage of food, there are real potentials for driving significant international problems “” what do you do if you have no water and you have no food? You migrate. So one can have a reasonable expectation that international migration will occur as these shortages come in.

Now, the third one I want to focus on is energy and, driven by the population increase that I talked about, the urbanisation I talked about and indeed the movement out of poverty….  For the first time, the demand of the rest of the world exceeded the demand of energy of the OECD….  Energy demand is actually increasing and going to hit something of the order of a 50% increase, again by 2030.

…  But we also have, of course, the issue of climate change. Now, this is a very familiar slide to you all but we are shooting for a target of two degrees centigrade, a perfectly sensible target. There is enormous uncertainty in the climate change models about that particular target. It is perfectly reasonable to say ‘shouldn’t we be shooting for one degrees centigrade or, oddly enough, it is perfectly reasonable to say ‘shouldn’t we be shooting for three degrees centigrade’, the only information we have is really enormously uncertain in terms of the climate change model.

Shooting for two seems a perfectly sensible and legitimate objective but there are enormous problems. You are talking about serious problems in tropical glaciers “” the Chinese government has recognised this and has actually announced about 10 days ago that it is going to build 59 new reservoirs to take the glacial melt in the Xinjiang province. 59 reservoirs. It is actually contemplating putting many of them underground. This is a recognition that water, which has hitherto been stored in glaciers, is going to be very scarce. We have to think about water in a major way….

The other area that really worries me in terms of climate change and the potential for positive feedbacks and also for interactions with food is ocean acidification….

As I say, it’s as acid today as it has been for 25 million years. When this occurred some 25 million years ago, this level of acidification in the ocean, you had major problems with it, problems of extinctions of large numbers of species in the ocean community. The areas which are going to be hit most severely by this are the coral reefs of the world and that is already starting to show. Coral reefs provide significant protein supplies to about a billion people. So it is not just that you can’t go snorkelling and see lots of pretty fish, it is that there are a billion people dependent on coral reefs for a very substantial portion of their high protein diet.

… we have got to deal with increased demand for energy, increased demand for food, increased demand for water, and we’ve got to do that while mitigating and adapting to climate change. And we have but 21 years to do it”….

I will leave you with some key questions. Can nine billion people be fed? Can we cope with the demands in the future on water? Can we provide enough energy? Can we do it, all that, while mitigating and adapting to climate change? And can we do all that in 21 years time? That’s when these things are going to start hitting in a really big way. We need to act now. We need investment in science and technology, and all the other ways of treating very seriously these major problems. 2030 is not very far away.

Some of this can be avoid or minimized if we act now. Some of it can’t. But if we don’t act strongly now, then by 2030 we will be in the midst of this “perfect storm” of catastrophes — and everyone in the world will know we face much, much worse probably for hundreds and hundreds of years to come.

That is the inflection point, “Planetary Purgatory” — and you’ll want to make sure you and your children have a sustainable job by then.



14 Responses to In The Future, The Only Jobs Left Will Be Green

  1. diogenes says:

    Aren’t the biggest suppliers of wind turbines and solar panels Chinese? Wind farms and solar panels don’t need a lot of workers. On the other hand, nuclear power plants and drilling for Marcellus Shale gas do produce domestic jobs while reducing coal-based soot, deaths, and excess carbon.

  2. Eric Adler says:

    David Brooks has an rebuttal to the idea that Green Jobs will be a significant source of employment in the US in the future. He argues that so far very few jobs have been created for the large amounts of government investments in green technology businesses. He pointed to this article:

    I would like to know whether there are some successes that have been neglected by Brooks and the article that he cites.

  3. Bill Goedecke says:

    When considering economic issues in view of capitalism in the US, it is necessary to note that “the principal problem under monopoly capitalism was the absorption of the enormous economic surplus resulting from the constantly expanding productivity of the system. This economic surplus could be absorbed in three ways: capitalist consumption, investment, or waste. Capitalist consumption was limited by the drive to accumulate on the part of the capitalist class, while investment itself was constrained by market saturation (due principally to the repression of wage-based consumption and conditions of industrial maturity). Hence, capitalism in its monopoly stage was threatened by a problem of markets and a declining rate of utilization of both productive capacity and employable labor. Under such circumstances, the deepening reliance on economic waste served to keep markets going, becoming a necessary part of the monopoly-capitalist economy.” (John Bellamy Foster, The Ecology of Marxian Political Economy, retrieved from

    Production of waste is a driver of our economy. The structure of our economy as it is today will not provide for sustainable industries. For our complex society to continue, the economy needs to be restructured into something akin to a socialist economy. How that could be supported by our underlying sociological constructions I have no clue.

    If all other industries disappear and the society did not restructure, unless we have reached nirvana, I am afraid that the society as currently structured will have collapsed and there will be no ‘jobs’.

  4. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Yes. I agree.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    Wind Energy Expert

  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Renewable power- will be too little, too late. Those communities that get in early will be the lucky ones (relatively).

    Sea walls – will be post event and too small for the event after next. We are doomed to see on reactive defense after another washed away. Even the regulars here do not seem to get that sea levels will keep rising to tens of meters above today, even if we stop polluting today. 2100 will not be the end of the matter.

    The Tea baggers and the GOP are ensuring that by 2100 the US will be a third rate power economically. All empires end, but this is now going to be spectacularly fast.

    Tick, tick, tick TOCK.

  6. Joe Romm says:

    That article has already been widely debunked, including here!

  7. Joan Savage says:

    We haven’t raised our sights enough about the climate-forced changes along the time line, and the kinds of *recurrent* work that come from those.

    Let’s note that the Springfield MO hospital was theoretically ready for a tornado until one more powerful than expected tore the roof off.
    Stick-built homes have fared miserably in the Hurricane Irene floods, the Alabama tornadoes, the Mississippi flood. I doubt if most stick-built houses have the insulation and internal thermal mass to carry a family through a week of 100F without air conditioning.
    Ways to go overland when the road is washed out? In New England, the kids learned how to walk to school, shock! That means shoes and boots that are more practical to wear.
    Lately some friends and I have been joking about a more nomadic life, as aboard one of Leif’s boats. (I don’t work for Leif and I haven’t actually tried out one of his crafts.)
    In short there are easily thirty years of constructing more adaptive or resilient infrastructure, making adaptive clothing, etc. It goes way beyond that, but it is too restrictive to think that green jobs are only about solar panels and wind turbines.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Using asterisks seems to throw a comment into moderation.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    Or forgetting to click on the terms of use..

  10. Eric Adler says:

    Thank you very much. We need some letters to the NY Times to counter Brooks’ column.

  11. Prdcat says:

    Amen to that!

  12. Pangolin says:

    We really don’t have until 2030 to get our act together. Texas and Oklahoma are basket cases today and unless they get a year of very regular rains they are going to get worse. “Some” rain simply isn’t going to do anything but prolong the pain.

    The grain that Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas aren’t producing means more stress on an already overstressed global grain market. There are other grain growing areas also stressed by drought and/or flooding. High grain prices lead to political stress.

    The continuous economic thrashing of the U.S. and EU is due to very real structural defects. Rising energy costs and environmental damage can no longer be financially whitewashed. The whole mess is like a drunk man standing on the top rail of a fence. He’s up there now but the situation is likely to change rapidly.

  13. dbmetzger says:

    speaking of Green technoloy
    Energy from the Sea in Northern Ireland
    There is copious energy in waves and tides, enough to supply all of humankind’s power needs. Scientists all over the world are experimenting with small tidal and wind generators. The largest such tidal power generator is in Northern Ireland.

  14. Lazarus says:

    It’s OK to use Professor John Beddington as a good example of an authority in the UK but unfortunately we also have deniers one example being my own Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Roger Helmer and his ‘Green Jobs? What Green Jobs?’ type posts;

    He is also proud of organising a ‘Counter Consensual Climate Change Conference’;