Are green jobs meant to help the economy or the jobless?

Feb 11, 2013 Posted by

Grist

By Philip Bump

Image (1) green_jobs_economy.jpg for post 31361Over the weekend, two very different media outlets ran two very different takes on green jobs.David Leonhardt, writing for The New York Times, begins with a common critique: Green jobs produce more expensive energy, so they’re a net loss for the economy.

Green jobs have long had a whiff of exaggeration to them. The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day — a necessary effect of helping the climate — is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.

Not when framed like that, certainly. Leonhardt doesn’t address the built-in economic advantages fossil fuels enjoy, nor the recent examples of price parity between fossils and solar, for example. He’s trying to make a broader point: The climate should be fixed for its own sake, because the economic cost of climate change over the long run will be enormous. The goal is preventing disaster, not worrying about jobs.

This is an easy argument for the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times to make. Contrast Leonhardt with Aaron Alton, as profiled in a thoughtful piece by Brentlin Mock at Gawker.

After an intense six-week training program, the only thing that stands between Aaron Alton and a $90,000 fracking job is a commercial driver’s license. It’s August of 2012. The job, at a natural gas drilling company, is Aaron’s ticket out of Harrisburg, PA.

Waiting at the PennDOT, the state’s motor-vehicle office, Aaron thinks he’s all set until they run his information. They tell him that his driving privileges are suspended. …

A suspended regular license means no commercial license, which means no fracking job. Aaron thinks about his current job at the city’s notorious alternative school for kids labeled delinquent, where he’s overworked and underpaid. He thinks about the teens he counseled there. They are 15-year-olds. Much of their drive is already dissolved. He’s seen many of them buried or hauled off to prison.

Standing at the PennDOT counter, Aaron thinks of his own friends in and out of prison and the few free ones who he’d told that he had finally found an escape hatch in fracking.

Mock portrays another side of the push for green jobs — an effort to break the long-standing link between dirty jobs and workers with no other decent choices. Heavy industry and fossil fuel-burning power plants go where the land is less valuable, often meaning poorer neighborhoods. Not only do those neighborhoods have less political power; they’re eager for high-paying jobs.

“Aaron understood the climate change crisis,” Mock writes. “But it didn’t matter. In places like Harrisburg, people were suffocating, and in the fracking industry — no matter how dirty or dangerous it was — Aaron saw hope.” The inability of green jobs to grow to scale, in part because the pressures and biases that Leonhardt skips over, means that Alton must seize opportunity where it’s presented.

Green jobs projects … were mostly pilot programs in random cities — nothing long-term or widespread like the jobs offered by the fossil fuel industries. In Pennsylvania, coal, the dirtiest of all fuels, was still king. As king, the coal companies did [their] mightiest to keep green jobs in the pilot phase. Together with oil and gas companies, the coal industry did a PR blitz, even trying to convince Americans that they could burn “clean coal.” They also filled Republican candidates’ coffers with millions of dollars to fight clean energy policies. Their goal was to obstruct and delay renewable energy, and block wind and solar from any license to operate.

Environmentalists and most Democrats lined up with the green energy companies, while anti-regulation capitalists and Republicans lined up with the fossil-fuel empires.

While they duked it out, natural gas slowly seeped to the top. And my friend, Aaron Alton, needed a better job and a way out.

In the Times, Leonhardt summarizes his argument: “[T]he strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs.” But why not an aggressive response to joblessness leveraging the landfall of climate change? Leonhardt’s economic argument is clearly much different than Alton’s.

Philip Bump writes about the news for Gristmill. He also uses Twitter a whole lot.

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