The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is in, reminding us once again that time is running out for governments and industry to decarbonize the economy: within a generation, policymakers must tighten emissions regulations, shift to clean energy sources, promote greener manufacturing and adapt technologies to reverse climate trends and mitigate the ecological impacts. Yet, while the assessment focuses on policy solutions, it leaves open questions about the labor element of climate policy: At the end of the day, the work of transforming how we produce and consume takes human hands. Where are the workers?
Five years ago, “green jobs” were all the rage in Washington. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was rolled out with a win-win agenda aimed at fixing the economy and healing the environment at once. Candidate Obama touted a “blueprint” for a green economy, with plans to create 5 million green jobs.
Then the stimulus sparked hopes of a Green New Deal—direct job creation to transition the workforce to a low-carbon economy, plus industrial policy to drive investment in green infrastructure and solar and wind sectors.
Today, the green has begun to wilt. Although the green technology and energy sectors are still expanding, the administration has offered little beyond the short-lived stimulus package and short-term tax breaks for renewable-energy development and corporate-friendly “public-private partnerships.”The drop in political enthusiasm for green jobs is in part the result of sustained conservative attacks coupled with continuing economic stagnation. Yet the fading of the green agenda’s populist buzz also reflects more profound social challenges in the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable economy.
Though federal green initiatives have provided vital seed money for wind farms and solar-generation projects nationwide, the blue-collar workers who have the most to gain from the projected clean-tech boom are still struggling to find any job, much less a green one.
Of course, green jobs are not the boondoggle portrayed by right-wingers. Solar panel companies and green building firms are hiring people, just not fast enough to dent the unemployment figures. In 2012 and 2013, several hundred projects related to renewables and green infrastructure were announced, potentially generating more than 180,000 green job openings, according to the green-tech advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs. But new investments have waned recently, in part due to lags in government supports. For example, many freshly announced new wind projects were halted abruptly in late 2012 when Congress delayed the renewal of a critical wind-production tax credit (goaded by aggressive lobbying from the dirty fuels industry). And the investment climate remains unstable, as another batch of credits remains in limbo for 2014.