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You can support Van Jones and clean energy jobs

So The Economist is running an online debate about green jobs with online voting. And they have used a poorly worded debate “motion” — some might call it a set up — “This house believes that creating green jobs is a sensible aspiration for governments.”

Online voting is problemmatic to start with, but when you have a motion that frames the issue incorrectly, you are running a doubly pointless exercise.

I won one of these a while back — the motion was “This house believes that we can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations” — but I asked that they changed some similarly bad wording in how the whole thing was framed (and I still wasn’t happy with the final motion, since the terms are ill-defined).

It’s no surprise that current motion is “losing.” Readers of The Economist don’t believe governments create many long-lasting jobs. Who does? Duh.

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The position people like Van Jones (and I) advocate is that government helps create the conditions for the private sector to create green jobs. Indeed, other countries are pushing so much harder to foster green jobs because they know that they represent probably the single biggest source of manufacturing and skilled labor this century — and that peak oil and the threat posed by unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases mean that in the future the only jobs left will be green.

Van Jones lays out the position (and you can vote for him by clicking here — though you have to register):

The private sector””not the government””can and must be the main driver in creating green jobs. The scale of the transition to cleaner, lower-carbon energy sources is simply too large for public-sector resources and programmes to tackle alone. Only a tidal wave of private investment, innovation, invention and entrepreneurship can get the job done.

But that wave will never rise unless the government becomes a constructive partner in the effort. Therefore, it is perfectly sensible for national governments to aspire to create policies that produce green jobs.

After all, John Doerr, a leading light of Silicon Valley who knows a thing or two about innovation and technology, having placed early bets on Sun Microsystems and a little company called Google, has gone so far as to call clean energy “the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century”.

The benefits of moving toward clean energy are potentially sweeping: helping to restore infrastructure, rebuild neighbourhoods, retool factories and ignite innovation. Additionally, energy security, climate stabilisation, pollution reduction and expanded economic opportunity are all legitimate aims for policymakers to pursue.

Critics of green jobs recoil at the notion that governments might somehow tamper with the natural energy market to promote renewables. They sniff and generate a host of objections to market-distorting mandates and wasteful subsidies. But energy markets are already the product of policy, mainly those that support incumbent energy sources like coal, oil and nuclear power. These incumbent technologies benefit from subsidies, regulatory structures that shut out distributed generation of renewable power and pricing schemes that undervalue the economic contributions of energy efficiency.

The critics conveniently ignore the truth that all forms of energy are heavily regulated and often subsidised. This is because energy is the lifeblood of the economy. The precise mix of energy sources being developed and deployed within a country is never the result of pure market forces, but always a result of both private and public choices. It reflects a mix of innovation and investment on the one side, and of regulation, taxation and subsidy on the other.

Because we place no value on our atmosphere, the market acting alone cannot achieve the public interest in a stable climate and human health. Therefore, the question is not whether we will pursue policies to shape energy markets, but what sort of energy markets we want to achieve. It is sensible for governments to enact policies that will maximise the use of clean, renewable and low-carbon energy sources within and beyond their borders.

Public policies are now necessary to correct existing market failures and put clean energy on an even playing field with fossil fuels; to establish the market certainty that businesses need to make long-term investment decisions; and to provide stable, long-term support for clean-energy research, development and deployment, just as they have done in the past for the medical, aeronautical and information technology sectors.

Public investment is also required to bring the ageing electrical and transportation infrastructure that powers our industries and facilitates commerce into the 21st century, and to ramp up workforce and manufacturing infrastructure to meet the enormous new demands for goods and services that will result from new clean-energy markets.

Furthermore, governments will need to go beyond a simple cap-and-trade system for global warming pollution. Renewable energy standards and codes for energy efficiency will help build markets. Green banks and new financing tools will use public underwriting to help unleash private capital. And public investments in infrastructure will create a platform for innovative businesses to thrive and hire more workers.

In this context, policy is not a restraint on trade. It is a driver of innovation.

Fortunately, this approach has a proud and successful history. We can look to the history of the United States for good examples of what is possible. From the Tennessee Valley Authority and rural electrification, to the interstate highway system, to the telecom revolution, new investments in transformative infrastructure have consistently opened up access and opportunity, and brought more people into the middle class. The internet didn’t just create jobs for software engineers; it created work installing fibre optic cable. It created new office jobs in information technology and new career ladders into skilled professions.

Given this aspect of American history, it is ironic that the United States is falling behind in the global race for clean energy. Doubly so, given that the United States invented many of the key technologies that will power future growth, from solar panels, to advanced lithium ion batteries, to the modern wind turbine.

America’s economic competitors in Asia and Europe see the opportunity and are driving hard to secure competitive advantage. China by some estimates invested $400 billion of public and private capital in clean energy just last year.

Given the global competition to dominate clean energy production, one need not believe that green jobs are a panacea to believe that pursuing them is smart and sensible.

After all, practically everything that is good for energy independence or the environment will create a job””a green job. Solar panels don’t put themselves up. Wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves. Homes don’t retrofit or upgrade themselves. The smart grid won’t install itself, nor will bullet trains lay their own tracks. In many places, trees don’t even plant themselves any more.

To argue against green jobs is to argue for government inaction or abdication on some of the biggest challenges of our time. That is not acceptable.

Great and mighty labours are required of humanity in the new century. To mitigate climate chaos and avoid economy-wrecking energy shortages, workers must repower, rewire and retrofit whole nations. As men and women step forward to achieve these ends and accomplish these tasks, their hard-hats””in many cases””will be green

So if you have a spare minute, vote for the motion by clicking here.

The whole debate is worth reading even if the motion and the online voting isn’t terribly productive or meaningful.