Green Jobs: The Big Picture (Almost)

JR: I mostly agree with this, with one big caveat and one medium-sized caveat I’ll add at the end.

by David Roberts, in a Grist cross-post.

David Frum asks: “What exactly is a ‘green’ job?” His confusion arises from the fact that a number of disparate claims and arguments all get loosely joined under the rubric of green jobs. I want, in this post, to try to pick apart a few of those claims so we can discuss them with more precision and maybe get past the sloganeering that’s surrounded the subject lately.

First, though, I want to endorse what Matt Yglesias says here:

[W]hen politicians want to talk about economic growth, they tend to talk about “jobs.” Absolutely all politicians do this. When governors want to brag about how lots of people have moved to their state, they say they “created jobs.” When critics of carbon pricing say that cap-and-trade will “destroy jobs,” what they mean is that it will slow economic growth. When Newt Gingrich says we can “create jobs” by drilling for oil everywhere, he’s saying that he thinks the optimal long-term growth strategy for the United States is to try become more of a natural resource extraction economy.

It is true that when Barack Obama touts “green jobs” as the future of the American economy, he’s saying something that doesn’t literally stand up to scrutiny. What he means is that he wants a higher productivity economy that also has less pollution. But the only analytic error he’s making here is the exact same analytic error that all politicians are making when they talk about “job creation.” Over the long-term, the quality of economic policy determines productivity and wages, not the quantity of jobs.

Right. At the most general level, “green jobs” is just a kind of signifier, meant to gesture at a cleaner, prosperous economy. Yet for some reason, unlike with other “jobs” rhetoric, the minute it comes up everyone becomes a literalist and a beancounter. If Matt’s frustrated by that, well, welcome to my world, where hippie efforts to make the world a better place are subjected to a degree of skepticism and hostility wildly out of proportion to what faces regular, daily efforts to make the world more polluted and unpleasant. Ahem.

Anyway, as I said, there have always been several different sub-pitches involved in the green-jobs pitch. The “green” part is for environmentalists. For minorities and social-justice groups, there was Van Jones’ “pathway out of poverty” part, the notion that these new jobs could be channeled to the most needy. For unions, there was the “new source of high-skill, high-wage manufacturing jobs” part. And for the country at large, suffering from crippling unemployment, there was the “lots of jobs” part.

This was not some sort of mistake or sloppiness on the part of leftie strategists. It was on purpose, and by necessity. The whole idea was to come up with a pitch that could unify a broad political coalition behind it.

The problem is that the kind of policies that would lower carbon emissions are different from the policies that would help disadvantaged populations are different from the policies that would create domestic manufacturing jobs are different from the policies that would meaningfully reduce unemployment. So while the upside is a potentially broad coalition pushing the same policies, the downside is that any individual policy is going to disappoint a big chunk of the coalition!

Some thoughts on each of the threads:

1. When it comes to meaningfully affecting national unemployment, most of what passes for green policy isn’t going to show up on the radar. The U.S. has an almost $15 trillion economy. It’s really big! Most analyses (that aren’t done by industry groups) tend to show that even the brass ring of green policy — a cap-and-trade program or carbon tax — wouldn’t affect GDP 20 years out by more than a point or two. If you want to move the dial on unemployment, you need big guns: looser monetary policy or substantial public investment.

The U.S. economy desperately needs new sources of economic growth that aren’t based on asset bubbles or debt. I do believe that efforts to lighten our resource footprint and shift to sustainable sources of energy could provide that source of growth. But if we’re being honest, nobody really knows exactly why the economy has stagnated for decades or how it could be kick-started again. Promising that the “green economy” will rescue the U.S. economy is extreme overreach.

2. Then there’s the claim that green policy — carbon tax, renewable energy standards, pollution standards, whatever — will specifically create high-wage, high-skill manufacturing jobs. This is the claim that Frum is skeptical about. He points out that fossil-fuel extraction and processing create tons of domestic jobs, but there’s no reason renewable-energy equipment like solar panels can’t be made elsewhere and imported. In fact, he says, they probably will be.

A comprehensive recent Brookings study might reassure Frum. It finds that, relative to average jobs in the U.S., a higher percentage of green jobs are in manufacturing: “About 26 percent of clean economy jobs are in manufacturing, and the value of exports, on a per-job basis, is twice that of a typical American job.”

Does this matter? Folks like Ryan Avent think the whole manufacturing fetish is silly and oppose targeted manufacturing policy — trade tariffs, “made in the U.S.” provisions, subsidizing domestic investments, and the like. Then again, it’s pretty damn important for getting powerful unions on board with your political coalition.

Anyway, I’m ambivalent on the manufacturing question, but we should be able to see it as a separate issue from green policy.

3. The story on “jobs for poor people” is roughly the same. Brookings did find some evidence that wages in the clean economy are slightly higher than average and that it includes more than an average number of people with no higher education. But the numbers there are small enough that I think we can conclude that a clean economy, in and of itself, is not going to be an anti-poverty program.

And that’s OK. There’s green policy, and there’s policy designed to prepare poor and disadvantaged populations for work and find them jobs, but they are not intrinsically connected. It’s politically powerful when they overlap — it might be a political sweet spot for some politicians targeting some demographics — but I worry that it confuses things to act as though “green jobs” are inherently helpful to the poor.

4. And finally, there’s the green part of green jobs. I take this to be the claim that a massive, society-wide effort to reduce our carbon footprint will create a lot of jobs. And that seems, to me, obviously true. There’s a lot of work to do! A lot of new infrastructure to build, new mechanisms for financing to develop, new technologies to innovate, new industries to build.

In addition to that obvious intuitive point, there’s the somewhat more sophisticated point that any country’s productivity is a recipe involving capital, labor, and energy. Moving aggressively into energy efficiency reduces energy and capital and increases labor — same productivity, more jobs!

The story with renewables is somewhat more nuanced. Dan Kammen and his colleagues rounded up 13 independent analyses [PDF] and concluded that renewables create more jobs than coal or natural gas per megawatt generated and per dollar invested. Of course, economists will tell you that means they’re less efficient — you’re “spending” more labor to get the same product. But that’s nothing to apologize for: We are now, and probably will be for years, in a demand-driven recession, so a little labor-intensive inefficiency is just what the doctor ordered.

Anyway! As I said, for the most part “green jobs” is just an innocuous political slogan and shouldn’t be forced to bear all the weight analysts are trying to put on it. But insofar as we want to dig in, we need to keep all the disparate claims about green jobs distinct. Because you know how important facts and clarity are in politics these days. Ahem.

— David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist.

JR:  I have two issues with this.  My medium-sized caveat is that fuel efficiency and other home-grown substitutes for oil reduce our trade deficit and thus keep money in the country.   Given that we are sending nearly $1 billion a day overseas for oil, that isn’t trivial.

But the big caveat I have is that I have written about many times: In The Future, The Only Jobs Left Will Be Green.  It is unprecedented at the start of any century that we know with such high certainty what the great task of humanity will be — dealing with climate change.  Indeed, we’ve now dawdled for so long that at some point in the next two or three decades dealing with climate change — mitigation and “adaptation” — will start becoming the organizing principle for most of human activity and stay that way throughout the century and beyond.   The only way that could’ve been avoided if if we had listened to scientists  a decade or two ago.  Spilt milk, I know.

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, desperately providing food and water to 8 billion plus people,  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).

Green jobs aren’t like other jobs.  They are the one can’t-miss, every-growing job sector of the near term, medium-term, and long term.


5 Responses to Green Jobs: The Big Picture (Almost)

  1. I strongly agree with Joe’s statement “at some point in the next two or three decades dealing with climate change — mitigation and “adaptation” — will start becoming the organizing principle for most of human activity and stay that way throughout the century and beyond.” I think it very likely that this reality will unfold, and I have asked our faculty to sharpen their focus on the green jobs that will precede and emerge from this economic transformation. In effect, rather than continue to train students for 20th Century jobs, at Unity College we have begun to focus our efforts on those careers in sustainability science that represent the future for this generation of students.

    While I am willing to accept DR’s argument that the present economy associated with green jobs should not be over-analyzed, I am reasonably certain that these jobs will be the dominant component of our future economy. I think that we are at the beginning of an era that will see vast expansion in jobs that address the unfolding planetary crisis. It is interesting that the current expansion in green jobs in the US has occurred with what I think can be fairly called relatively modest subsidies from the public sector. As fossil fuels become increasingly expensive, the playing field will become more level, and we will see progressively rapid expansion in wind, water and solar power. I predict that issues of energy storage and distribution will be solved.

    I would also argue that many jobs that in the past have focused on old paradigms of conservation and natural resource management are in the process of being redefined in the context of climate change. Fields such as forestry, conservation biology, conservation law, wildlife management, and others will change in ways that reflect the impact of climate change on natural systems. I suggest that these new configurations of old professions can be legitimately considered part of this emerging economy. This is reasonable given that demand for these professions with associated new skills is likely to increase. The principles that form the foundation of this transformation are appropriately called sustainability science.

    I suspect that this paper has already been addressed on CP, but after repeated study I continue to be struck that the analysis by Jacobson and Delucchi (2010) provides what appears to be a realistic appraisal of the potential for wind, water and solar to power civilization by 2050 Much of this paper is consistent with the recent SRREN from the IPCC (2011). Jacobson and Delucchi state: “We suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.” This is a remarkable assertion. I offer my apologies if this paper has already been noted and discussed.

  2. Jeff Huggins says:


    Well, although I appreciate the post, it seems to me that it lands somewhere in a confused middle ground. It clarifies some differences, admittedly, but it gets nowhere near the clear bottom or essence of the task ahead.

    Yes, “green jobs” is a mixed-up phrase that carries some sensible information but combines a whole bunch of stuff. It’s mainly a label. It has the political advantage of being almost whatever one wants it to be, to a degree. And I think the post has been very helpful, in some respects, in pointing that out and clearing some of that up.

    But as I say, the post gets nowhere close to providing some insight into what we ought to mean (and will eventually need to mean) by “green jobs” or a “green economy”. We are about 7 billion people, and still growing, on a finite planet. Presently, most of our economic calculus places no real value on natural resources. (It’s not sustainable.) and there are other foundational problems. I’m wondering whether the author has read or considered the sorts of points that are made in books such as Small Is Beautiful (Schumacher), Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth (Fuller), A Sand County Almanac (Leopold), The Value of Nothing (Raj Patel), Collapse (Jared Diamond), and others? The present post doesn’t give us many signs that he has.

    Now, I’ve been grouchy lately, ever since it began to appear that what we are doing in the movement is not working — and that most of our leaders don’t seem to get that. So I may be being a bit harsh on the present post. But the point remains: We should not (especially among each other) claim to have clarified something if we’ve only cleared off one quarter of a very dirty windshield and if we’re still moving along happily in a dense fog.

    This is why I’m worried about President Obama in more ways than just about Keystone XL and so forth. I don’t know if HE really gets it. We have more issues than one, people, and more than just two or three. We need to reinvent some important aspects of our “economics”, ways we understand and acknowledge value, and so forth. Although that can’t be done overnight, and we DO have to begin addressing climate change right away, with understanding we can begin to address climate change in ways that DO move us in correct directions on other matters. Or else, there are ways that we might try to address climate change, unwisely, that deepen the other problems and solidify some of our false paradigms even more than they are already. So we DO need to have an understanding of the larger picture of where we need to move, directionally speaking, even as we address climate change.

    In any case, while reading the post I did not experience the feeling of clarity. It seems to dance around somewhere in “the middle” and does not seem to reflect what we really do need ultimately to mean by “green jobs” or a genuinely sustainable situation economically speaking, ecologically speaking, and socially speaking.

    My two cents worth. Sorry.


  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    We (all humans) will continue to spend $trillions annually on energy.

    As we shift from dirty energy to clean energy, jobs will follow, from dirty energy jobs to clean energy jobs.

    Whether it is a few jobs more or less on any given day or year depends much more on other economic policies and conditions than on how clean or dirty the jobs are.

    Besides, doesn’t the “creative destruction” of free markets destroy jobs all the time?

    So don’t worry, you can’t get green too fast.

  4. Todd says:

    The correct framing of the issue is Joe’s. The starting point is to plan and empower a very fast and effective replacement of the current low-energy-efficiency fossil fuel infrastructure with a high-energy-efficiency renewable one. And do this as fast as possible. It will of course require a lot of new jobs, but ultimately, the high-efficiency renewable energy system will likely require less labor than our current low-efficiency fossil fuel system. Example: An electric motor can easily last 100 K hours of service. An internal combustion only lasts 4-8 K hours. The electric car society will ultimately use much less labor than the ICE car society, but we must do this if we are avoid the coming peak oil crisis and climate crisis.

  5. Chris Winter says:

    “Then there’s the claim that green policy — carbon tax, renewable energy standards, pollution standards, whatever — will specifically create high-wage, high-skill manufacturing jobs. This is the claim that Frum is skeptical about. He points out that fossil-fuel extraction and processing create tons of domestic jobs, but there’s no reason renewable-energy equipment like solar panels can’t be made elsewhere and imported. In fact, he says, they probably will be.”

    Certainly. But the installation of those panels on homes and businesses will need lots of domestic labor. And because they require some skill with hand tools and wiring, those jobs will most likely pay somewhat more than minimum wage.

    Also, of course, there will be a higher level (but a smaller number) of supervisory and engineering positions to plan those jobs and oversee the former workforce.

    All in all, this could add up to hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide.