Green Jobs 2.0: Re-Framing The Politics Of Clean Energy Around The Climate-Informed Economy

If the recent election taught us anything, it’s that we need to re-frame the politics of clean energy.

Sure, advocates celebrated a victory last November by keeping President Obama and many others who understand the importance of the clean energy economy in office. After more than a year of spurious political attacks against Solyndra, green jobs, and the clean energy stimulus, that was a considerable achievement.

But those victories have come at a considerable cost.

In Washington, some of the political hostility has died down after the election. However, as negotiations around raising the debt ceiling unfold, there are already renewed calls to cut federal funding for key programs supporting renewable energy, efficiency, and other cleantech industries. That’s because many Republicans see cleantech as just another special interest feeding off government — not as a core driver of environmentally-minded business in the 21st century.

A lot has changed since since the mid-2000’s when the sector had overwhelming bipartisan support in national politics. Two things happened: The cleantech sector got a considerable boost through the stimulus, making it a punching bag for conservatives targeting government spending; and the commercialization of fracking technologies caused a resurgence in the U.S. oil & gas sector, directly challenging clean energy.

As the editors of MIT’s Technology Review pointed out recently, making cleantech a part of the stimulus package was necessary and important for helping lay the foundation for a clean energy transition. But simply selling it as a short-term jobs creator did some damage to the political credibility of the sector.

“We cautioned against conflating economic stimulus with a sustainable and effective energy policy. Leading economists noted that job creation needed to happen quickly, while transforming our energy infrastructure would take decades,” wrote the editors.

Of course, there were a lot of real and undeniable successes spurred by the stimulus package that deserve to be mentioned. (Time Magazine’s Michael Grunwald does a great job reporting on the many success stories in clean energy and other sectors in his recent book on the stimulus).

Consider this: In 2006, wind turbine manufacturers were only able source 35 percent of components from American companies. Today, in large part due to the stimulus, there are now 500 manufacturing facilities in operation around the U.S. that supply nearly 70 percent of components for American wind farms. That’s a doubling of domestic sourcing in five years.

Since 2008, America’s production of renewable electricity has nearly doubled; we have increased home weatherization by 1,000 percent; the industry was saved from a complete financial collapse by a Treasury grant program that supported 75,000 jobs; the solar and wind industries now support nearly 200,000 American jobs combined; and economy-wide, there are roughly 2.7 million green jobs spread across a range of sectors.

We should embrace these successes. But when taking them in a broader economic context, we must also state the obvious: The green jobs revolution that was touted before the stimulus package passed did not fully emerge.

That’s because the economic revolution spurred by clean energy isn’t really a revolution — it’s a multi-decade evolution. While this sector will certainly continue to create good American jobs, they don’t just appear in a four-year political time frame. Combine these less-than-expected green jobs numbers with a few high-profile bankruptcies of flashy government-backed cleantech companies, and you get a toxic political result.

“The outcome, which we foresaw in our 2009 article, was an entirely unnecessary black eye for the clean-energy effort,” wrote the MIT Technology Review editors in their assessment of the stimulus.

The situation came to a head during an election year when fossil fuel interests spent $270 million to beat down clean energy, promote outright lies about green jobs, and push more oil, gas, and coal.

(Important note: many of the predictions for green jobs figures were based on a comprehensive suite of policies that would nurture the industry — including a carbon price and a national target for efficiency and renewable energy — not just the one-time stimulus. That’s a necessary distinction that often gets lost in critiques).

At the same time, the boom in unconventional oil and gas has challenged traditional economic and energy security arguments traditionally pushed by clean energy advocates. Five years ago, very few people foresaw the dramatic expansion of domestic oil and gas that was on the horizon. The common wisdom was that oil was scarce, natural gas prices would stay extremely volatile, and the U.S. would continue to import more of its energy. Now, with America on track to become the world’s largest producer of liquid fuels, the political urgency behind renewable energy has died down (or vanished) among political leaders who are simply concerned about energy independence and energy security.

“Sure, the cost of low-carbon energy technologies — wind, solar, biofuels and others — is coming down. But improvements in technologies for extracting fossil fuels are making it harder for renewables to reach cost parity,” wrote economist Severin Borenstein, last February in a Bloomberg News op-ed. “The only compelling argument for policies to boost renewables and reduce fossil fuels is the environment.”

I strongly disagree with Borenstein that the environment is the only argument for policies to boost renewables. But he does correctly highlight the need for a better strategy framing the importance of government support for clean energy and green jobs.

We must use the environmental imperative — primarily climate change — to drive the political narrative.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean abandoning positive economic messaging around green jobs. We can’t walk away from the years of hard work that finally made green jobs and clean energy mainstream terms. But in political circles, green jobs have been sold as a short-term economic solution first and environmental solution last. That needs to be flipped on its head.

Green jobs are a favorable economic consequence of a sound energy and environmental policy based on reducing carbon emissions. They are a natural product of the “climate-informed economy,” as Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, so succinctly described it to me recently. Creating green jobs shouldn’t be an end political goal. Rather, the rallying message should be for a de-carbonization strategy to deal with climate change.

This isn’t inconsistent with how people talked about green jobs in the first place. The political problems arose when advocates put far too much emphasis on the short-term jobs boost we’d get from the stimulus (my parent organization, the Center for American Progress, included). Green jobs became the goal, not a desirable consequence of the end goal, which is to create a more sustainable society. So when all the jobs didn’t materialize as claimed, advocates got stuck playing defense.

Re-framing the environmental imperative will get advocates away from defensively bean counting jobs. It also helps us think about the consequences of the domestic oil and gas boom. If we want to go “green” just to create jobs, why wouldn’t we simply focus on drilling every square inch of America to create jobs? Because doing so would keep us on a path toward climate disaster.

When we actually embrace the economy-wide transition scientists say we need in order to deal with climate change, jobs in nearly every sector will be begin to look “green” in some way.

Our economic, energy, and environmental policies should not be focused on creating green jobs. Instead, they should all be focused on helping de-carbonize America. When that happens, the jobs will follow.

It is with both sadness and excitement that I publish my last piece as Deputy Editor of Climate Progress. I will be heading over to Greentech Media where I’ll be reporting/editing on the business of cleantech. To keep in touch, follow me on Twitter: @Stphn_Lacey.

14 Responses to Green Jobs 2.0: Re-Framing The Politics Of Clean Energy Around The Climate-Informed Economy

  1. Superman1 says:

    I’m starting to believe the paradigm many in the climate movement have been using needs re-thinking. Many people are using military crisis analogies as the paradigm. While the WWII/Manhatten Project analogies to what is needed in climate change might be correct, they appear to not be taking hold with the public. The threat is not sufficiently close to have adequate impact and elicit the level of sacrifice required. Perhaps our paradigm is mis-directed. Perhaps what we need is to sell climate remediation as an Apollo-type project. Apollo specifically, and Manned Space flight generally, are perhaps the biggest wastes of money this country ever made. Yet, it was wildly successful, because of how it attracted the public’s interest, and also how it created jobs throughout the country. Is there a way to generate an Apollo project for climate change that would not only rapidly convert us to renewables, but somehow force some of the large fossil fuel reductions that are required here and now? This is not my first choice, which would emphasize large fossil fuel use reductions above all else, but I don’t think my first choice can be implemented voluntarily.

  2. Chris Potter says:

    Congrats on the new gig! Good luck and thanks for all you excellent work on this blog.

  3. The issue does need a refreshed frame. The WW2 analogy hasn’t had enough of a chance yet, largely because, as you point out, the threat just isn’t personalized. Yet.

    I think the thrust of this article is that selling the positive non-climate aspects, which we have been doing for the past 4 years, hasn’t worked. It’s taken us off-message. So doubt the moonshot frame would be effective.

    The WW2 trope certainly has not had the push that the jobs trope has had. It can still work. Unfortunately, it will take some really bad stuff happening first. Like the ice cap disappearing one summer soon. By then, of course, it’s probably too late.

    I think the word “environment” has become a trigger for the right wing. To them, it connotes an irrational devotion to forms of life other than human. We need terminology and framing that puts human peril front and center.

    The risk with that is being labeled alarmist. It is in fact as alarming as the rise of Germany and Japan in the 30s. But the climate doesn’t have a funny mustache and bad intentions. It just is, and we all are implicated. So it’s hard for people to work up the passion to take action. It’s just too abstract.

    That’s the sales job. How to make the crisis less abstract.

  4. Two comments: First, Congratulations on your new job, Steve. Hope someone fills your shoes as well as you did.

    Second: I was a bit surprised by a retweet from Glen Greenwald @ggreenwald this AM that went like this: “Glad NYT closed its environment bureau. Reading abt climate crisis is depressing. Hope they replace it w Family Circus …” While this is obviously sarcasm, perhaps there is truth here. Greenwald is a popular progressive voice with about 3 x as many twitter followers as Climate Progress. He is obviously more concerned about US Drone policy than he is about Climate policy. This attitude implied is that the lack of coverage is not worth serious concern.

  5. Ricky Bradley says:

    Stephen congrats on the new gig!

    I agree with re-framing the argument. We should never shy away from what we are actually for. What are your thoughts regarding the jobs/$invested metric, in that a dollar invested in clean energy creates more jobs than a dollar invested in traditional energy jobs?

    (Obviously, not just one dollar).

  6. pbullenviro says:

    Nice outgoing post, Stephen. You’ve opened an important new platform for clean energy discussion during your tenure at Climate Progress Glad. I’m glad to see that you’ll still be in the broader circle of clean energy communicators in your new role at Greentech Media!

    Re Superman1: The Apollo program did indeed attract a lot of positive public interest and achieved a pretty awesome goal of putting people on the moon. However, the program was part of a larger, longer-term context (the Cold War) and was framed and subsequently understood quite clearly to a wide swath of the American public as a “beat the Soviets” technology arms race (and of course included dreadful nukes).

    Unfortunately climate change does not afford us a clean & crisp “us vs. them” framework that drove much of U.S. R&D, military and foreign policy affairs for the last half of the 20th Century. Instead I’d argue that climate change is a hybrid of the ethical question “now vs. future” frame and globally as a “we all go in together or don’t go in at all” frame.

    And so to tie back to Stephen’s post, while I agree we advocates over-hyped the potential short-term numbers of green jobs resulting from the Stimulus and other very good Obama Term 1 clean energy deployment policies, we have to continue to build the most compelling economic and jobs case that we can to build political strength to power through the climate change socio-political paradigms I point out above in order to get bigger and better clean energy deployment policies. As you mention Stephen, we’re up against hundreds of millions of dollars of opposition advocacy — spinning doubt and heresy — that I bet even tobacco companies of the 1960’s would marvel at.

    So while I agree that continuance in doing broad brush green jobs beancounting is meeting diminishing returns, we have to continue building political momentum for clean energy policies by showing politicians that green jobs matter and are a growing significance in our U.S. economy. That means leading new advocacy efforts to advance and defend state and federal clean energy policies by showing that clean energy jobs are real, local and happening in policy decision-makers districts. By doing so, I believe policymakers will see clean energy as an incumbent industry in our energy future that’s providing jobs and economic benefits now and that their constituencies will be more willing to take action and hold them accountable for their energy policy choices.

  7. Paul Klinkman says:

    Certain specific types of green energy are like minting American jobs because they are labor intensive. Buttoning up houses with insulation is carpenter-intensive work. Home photovoltaics is partly equipment (which should be made here but China wants to monopolize production through monopolistic tactics) but somebody local needs to put it up and wire it. Putting things on existing house roofs such as solar hot water panels is more labor-intensive than building some solar farm in the desert.

    There’s also a galaxy of solar heat and daylighting applications waiting to be made inexpensive. Solar heat should be dirt cheap someday because solar arrives on everyone’s roof daily, solar heat storage can in theory be done with the dirt/rocks on everyone’s property, and solar heat can reach almost any desired temperature through concentration.

    As long as solar progress is sandbagged by the government, not too much will be done. There’s almost no such thing as an independent environmentalist interested in solar progress, and the government is bought, so the fossil companies don’t worry.

  8. Pat Ravasio says:

    We need to do two important things:

    1) To bring the environment under the defense department, and divert some of those (wasted and substantial funds) toward the transition away from fossil fuels, and preparing for a rock ride to get there.

    2) We need substantial government investment in “zero point” energy development. Look up Justin Hall’s Ted Talk on this. Nano technology has already figured out how to harvest clean renewable energy out of the ether. Now entrenched corporate interests (who won’t be able to meter this energy) need to get out of the way. Buckminster Fuller had it all figured out!

  9. Aussie John says:

    I fear any ‘re-framing’ of the problems associated with development of renewable energy to replace fossil fuel sources under growth orientated capitalism is doomed to fail; a fundamental revision of how we share and consume resources in a finite planet Earth is required.

    The following linked article provides much food for thought on the many uncomfortable governance issues confronting citizens:-

  10. John McCormick says:

    Yes, many thanks Stephen.

  11. John McCormick says:

    Change: “I think the word “environment” has become a trigger for the right wing.”

    No, it is a trigger and the bullet.

    We may have squandered three decades following Al Gore and the big green as we fumble through a ‘framing’ session of what is a social, engineering and economic challenge human kind has ever faced and absolutly not prepared to address.

  12. Dave Bradley says:

    There are ways to make green energy, and particularly lower cost of energy renewable energy (wind energy) economically viable WITHOUT taxpayer subsidies (either tax avoidance or direct grants from governments). For some god-forsaken reason, most environmentalists in the US remain addicted to government subsidies. They also tend to be profoundly ignorant of the effects of casino electricity pricing on renewable energy economics and financing, and that has proven to be unfortunate and tragic on so many levels/ways.

    We get recessions more frequently, more or less as a function of income inequality – the more unequal things get, the more severe are the effects of speculation bubble burstings, and the more frequently they happen. And when these occur, tax revenues fall and demands for the already too small amounts of government revenues soar – often to prevent widespread starvation (food stamps) and hypothermia/people freezing to death. and that leads to this Hobbesian choice between keeping people alive or funding other things, like bloated military expenditures or the meager subsidies for rernewable energy. Guess which one almost invariably comes up on the short end of the stick…..

    At this point, it’s either more indebtedness of chopping subsidies. And now comes along the drive for Austerity (= stupidity, insanity, etc) and the crazy, disproven to work theories of the neo-liberals, like von Hayek:

    Feed-In Tariffs (FITs) and the next best alternative, massive Request for Proposals renewable energy allocations (quotas, which are rarely of the size needed) do not require ANY government subsides that allow below the cost of production renewable energy to be sold (the difference made up with the subsidies). Customers for the electricity pick up the total tab. For example, in Quebec (where quotas are used), RFPs were issued and the winning bids were around 10.5 c/kw-hr for wind projects. But they have wind resources significantly better than those that exist in NY State (similar to the Great Plains wind resources), so the cost of electricity production is a lot lower than in NY State. And yet, in NY State, the going rate for the price paid to electricity generators this year will be in the 3 to 4 c/kw-hr range. So a huge variety of subsidies (MACRS, ITC or PTC, State RPS, for starts) are needed to take 11 c/kw-hr (or more, due to that casino electricity pricing that raises the cost of borrowing money significantly, which raises the cost of production) electricity able to be “sold” at 3 to 4 c/kw-hr. Take away the subsidies, and that ends any prospect for green energy installations and jobs derived from making and installing these.

    Oh well, at least this is not PV, where the actual cost of production (subsidy free basis) is still above 50 c/kw-hr, and subsidies needed to allow this to be sold at 3 to 4 c/kw-hr are humongous. It’s a loser game

    As for the idea that CO2 pollution taxes will make renewables more economically viable, that too is absurd. Renewables need viable prices, period; the cost to make renewable energy (biomass based excepted) are not a function of pollution based electricity generation. But that “carbon taxes are good for renewables” fallacy dies hard. Shame on environmentalists for perpetuating such ignorance…. assuming they have shame on that aspect of things. It seems to be too much like a religion…

  13. Anne says:

    In the 1990s there was much pressure on the renewable energy industries to claim they could be job-creating, more so than the fossil industries. I was worried about the pressure to over-accommodate then, just as I am now. The message needs to be crystal clear: fossil fuel combustion kills and maims human beings and puts major ecological systems at risk. Prematurely dead people don’t need jobs; but their families most certainly must have needed them to live longer.

    Echoing the sentiments of many here: superb job, Stephen Lacey, and may the wind be at your back going forward. So to speak. :)

  14. Dean Drake says:

    Clearly, there is a need to reframe this issue, but all the suggestions miss the real challenge and opportunity. World population is expected to max out at 10 – 12 billion people within the next fifty years. This is within the lifetime of most people under 30 today. In spite of this, there is no comprehensive vision from either the left or right of how we will meet the needs of all these people with the resources at our disposal. Lacking such a vision, most young people assume it cannot be done, and live their lives accordingly. Provide them with a comprehensive and comprehendable vision, and the political support will follow.