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What Shade of Green Best Suits the Economy?

• January 22, 2009 • 9:00 PM

President Obama’s call for ‘green jobs’ has created both general confusion and competing interpretations of the term.

Barack Obama has been busy talking about one of his primary pre-election goals, energy independence, in mid-recession terms, with the creation of millions of proposed “green jobs.” The phrase suggests two elements long considered at odds with each other — the economy and the environment — may in fact have a common and even co-dependent set of solutions.

Exactly what a “green job” is, though, most people aren’t quite sure yet. Does it refer to Ph.D.s in white lab coats or blue-collar workers gone green? If the windmill engineer has a green job, what about the janitor who also works in his plant? A trucker hauling soda cans clearly isn’t green, but what if he trades his cargo for solar panels?

“Green job” — like “e-commerce” and “social networking” before it — is so new a term that it is open to both general confusion and competing interpretation.

“There’s no such thing; that’s my definition,” said Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I’m greatly in favor of investing in things that will promote a clean environment, fight global warming, and those investments will all create jobs, and I don’t really care what color they are.”

He recalls a New York Times poll from April 2007 that found 52 percent of respondents would support protecting the environment over stimulating the economy. The premise of the question, which even Al Gore adopted in urging us to make the right choice in An Inconvenient Truth, was that the two are mutually exclusive.

“That showed the nature of mainstream thinking at that moment in history, less than two years ago,” Pollin said.

Today, he traces the evolving notion that saving the environment will require not just cutting carbon emissions but employing everyone from climatologists to caulking-gun operators. Pollin helped author a report, in conjunction with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, that calculated the U.S. could generate 2 million such new jobs over the next two years with a $100 billion investment in a “green recovery.”

But even he is wary of the term “green jobs” for its limiting connotation with elite researchers extracting biofuels from algae.

Most of the jobs he’s talking about are ones that commonly exist and that people have already been doing, if not to environmentally friendly ends, like roofers and construction workers — and that janitor who sweeps the floor of the windmill factory. Pollin uses the most expansive view possible of job creation tied to the environment (the 2 million figure in the “Green Recovery” report consists of 935,200 direct jobs, 586,000 indirect jobs and 496,000 induced jobs, all of which someone more cozy with the “green job” term might label as such).

Obama’s campaign pledge called for creating 5 million “green jobs” over the next 10 years with a $150 billion investment, figures Pollin says the Obama camp got from the Clinton camp, which in turn got its numbers from advocacy groups, which were not using much actual research. Those groups were offering “aspirational” figures, a fine exercise for advocacy groups, according to Pollin, but not for economists and politicians.

An economist can calculate how many jobs will be created by a million-dollar building retrofit program — a calculation Pollin says he’s been inundated with requests to make these days. “How many ‘green jobs’ you get,” Pollin said, “is a distraction to me.”

David Kreutzer, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation — who, Pollin jokes, has made a “green job” for himself out of criticizing Pollin’s “Green Recovery” report — is suspicious of the fundamental argument that saving the environment will also now save the economy (he’s also suspicious of where all this money will come from).

“We’ve always wanted this,” Kreutzer said of the strategy, “and now we’re trying to sell it as the solution to what you’re most worried about today.”

Jobs Both Green and Good
Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of urban studies at San Francisco State University, defines “green jobs” as the catch-all term for people doing any kind of work, whether mental or manual, that in some way relates to improvements in environmental quality.

She has coined a subset of the group — “green-collar jobs” (not to be confused with “green jobs” in general, although Obama’s campaign has done that, using the two terms interchangeably). Green-collar jobs, Pinderhughes says, refer to the specific manual labor opportunities in a green economy that would be open to low-skilled workers in industries like bicycle repair, recycling collection and waste composting.

“The idea that there are certain entry-level positions people can be trained up for relatively quickly is a very important idea,” she said. “As the (green) economy deepens and gets stronger and more vibrant, there will be room in it not only for people who are already successful in the labor market but also for people the pollution-based economy has rejected.”

She defines the pollution-based economy as essentially the entire economy as it has existed since the beginning of the industrial revolution. A green economy, she says, could specifically provide a pathway out of poverty for the people who have been considered chronically unemployable.

Existing green-collar jobs in the Bay Area, Pinderhughes’ research has found, offer living wages, good working conditions and occupational mobility, which typically don’t exist with traditional blue-collar work. While the average food-preparation and serving job in San Francisco pays about $21,000 a year, she says green-collar jobs in the city — requiring, before basic training, the same level of skills — average more than $34,600 with benefits.

These jobs, like retrofitting homes, have the key benefit of being unexportable, a frequent claim made of all green jobs (Obama’s plan says all 5 million of his proposed jobs are “good jobs that cannot be outsourced“).

Kreutzer counters that there is no reason windmills can’t be made overseas. If they’re made in ready-to-install formats, the U.S. is also essentially outsourcing assembly. What’s left are the caulking jobs, the green-collar installation that by definition must be done where the buildings to be retrofit exist.

“If we focused on creating jobs that ‘can’t be exported,’ that means we’re focusing on creating jobs that do things, the product of which can’t be exported,” Kreutzer said. “We’re going to focus our economy, our labor and our training and investment on making things that we cannot sell to the rest of the world.”

A United Nations Environment Programme report on green jobs went a step further than Pinderhughes (in a direction she applauds) by defining green jobs as also “decent jobs,” with good working conditions that include the right to organize.

The report identifies complexity not only in “shades of green” but also in the intersection of environmentally friendly work with worker-friendly conditions. The recycling industry in China, for example, has particularly poor and dangerous working conditions.

As the report concludes (and this is a warning author Michael Renner says applies to America just as it does China): “A job that is exploitative, harmful, or fails to pay a living wage (or worse, condemns workers to a life of poverty) can hardly be called green.”

Renner, a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, concedes that talk of labor unions in conjunction with green jobs may further turn off those already skeptical of the idea. If anything, the recent push to make the American auto industry more efficient and green has been oddly intertwined with labor concessions.

“Unfortunately that is of course a concern,” Renner said. “We’ve seen quite a strong anti-union sentiment in parts of this country, but ultimately the question I would have is, What is the economy really for if it’s not to provide for the well-being of people?”

Renner salutes Obama’s appointment of Congresswoman Hilda Solis to head the Department of Labor for her apparent agreement on that question. She has been an advocate of both unions and green jobs, and she authored the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which called for an investment of $125 million in job-training programs.

But Renner also calls dismaying a trend in the opposite direction: European leaders, long far in front of their American counterparts in addressing climate change, began to backpedal at U.N. talks in Poznan, Poland, in December. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s explanation? She didn’t want to endanger German jobs in an already shaky economy.

That old either/or model, Renner knows, is dying slowly.

Greenest Story Gets the Greenbacks
Ultimately, a common definition for jobs in an environmentally conscious economy matters (whether we label them “green” or not) for two reasons.

As economists like Pollin prepare policy proposals and statistics for both the new administration and public consideration, we cannot measure potential job creation tied to the environment — and stemming from significant government investment in a cleaner environment — if people can’t agree on what these jobs are.

The U.N. report counted 2.3 million jobs worldwide that currently exist in the renewable energy sector, but it called the estimate “conservative” in part because of the sketchy statistics available. That figure also counts only some of the most obviously “green” jobs and not the others that may radiate out in areas like retrofitting, construction and transportation (gray-area green jobs?). In measuring future potential growth, the most expansive definition will invariably lead to a picture of more expansive job creation.

Government, however, will likely need to rein in the definition when it comes time to dole out loan guarantees, contracts or tax credits to the creators of “green jobs” in any stimulus plan.

Kreutzer cynically suggests Obama will have plenty of help in defining the term from lobbyists. The time-management consultant who shows workers how to do in 45 hours what they used to do in 40 — allowing them to turn off their computers an extra five hours a week — suddenly has a “green job.”

“Virtually every new thing is more energy efficient than the older model it replaces,” Kreutzer said. “So, the same thing is now ‘green’ and deserves special subsidies. And on and on.

“Here’s the net effect: The lobbyist who is best able so spin the ‘green’ story will get the most greenbacks.”

The government could certainly curb carbon emissions — by imposing caps on industry, for example — in a way that wouldn’t directly create jobs, just as it could stimulate the economy with no regard for the environment. Pollin, though, argues that we all get the best recovery for our money if billions of dollars — and it appears beyond debate that Obama plans to spend billions of dollars on something — are spent retrofitting public buildings rather than printing more stimulus checks people will stash in their mattresses (or even if that same amount is spent on jobs in the oil industry).

“It’s really not the green part that creates jobs,” Pollin said. “It’s the fact that you’re spending on things that are labor-intensive and have a high domestic content.”

Renner’s hopeful vision is that we should be aiming for an economy in which every job is green, or at least as green as it can be in terms of consciously minimizing its impact on the environment.

The alternative consequence: To continue to ignore the environment could actually lead to job loss, Renner says, as climate change disrupts agriculture and tourism or halts oil production and distribution in the wake of more hurricanes. And it will be much harder to come up with a term for that phenomenon.

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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