The phony green jobs debate

As the battle over climate change legislation heats up, several Big Green groups–the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club–are rolling out TV and Internet ads designed to persuade voters that regulating greenhouse gas emissions will create green jobs. David Yarnold, the president of EDF’s Action Fund, sums up the message in an email: “Carbon Caps = Hard Hats.” Clever. Here’s an ad from EDF’s campaign, launched in partnership with the United Steelworkers union and the Blue Green alliance, a group of enviromental groups and unions.
Think of this ad, and the one below, as the “Harry and Louise” ads of the campaign to pass global warming legislation. You remember Harry and Louise, right? They were the couple who turned a devilishly complicated issue, health care reform, into a soundbite (“If we let the government choose, we lose”) and helped kill the 1994 Clinton health plan. These ads take what may be an even more devilishly complicated issue, climate change regulation, and use images of brawny construction workers to turn it into an even shorter soundbite: “Green jobs.” Take a look at this spot from The Blue Green Alliance:

Maybe I missed it, but did you hear an environmental message in either of those ads?

Of course, there’s research to support the claims about green jobs. In the interests of full disclosure, I need to say here that I’ve been doing some freelance work for EDF and NRDC—organizations I admire a great deal. But these claims about green jobs deserve greater scrutiny.

Last June, for example, the Blue Green Alliance, Sierra Club, NRDC and the steelworkers issued a green jobs report from the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It said:

…millions of U.S. workers—across a wide range of familiar occupations, states, and income and skill levels—will benefit from the project of defeating global warming and transforming the United States into a green economy.

A second report from PERI, issued last September under the auspices of the Center for American Progress, got more granular. In my home state of Maryland, for example, the authors project that a $100 billion green economic recovery program would create 36,739 jobs. They would be created in such industries as building retrofitting, mass transit and freight rail, smart grid, wind power, solar power and advanced biofuels.

It sounds great, doesn’t it?

Not according to the four lawyers and economists who produced “7 Myths About Green Jobs,” a 97-page report published by the University of Illinois College of Law.  They argue that “the green jobs literature is rife with internal contradictions, vague terminology, dubious science, and ignorance of basic economic principles.” Studies by conservative think tanks go further, claiming that climate legislation will destroy millions of jobs. A 2008 Heritage Foundation study claimed that passage of last year’s Lieberman-Warner bill would create “extraordinary perils for the American economy” and cause annual job losses of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 after a few years of job gains. (This report was pretty thoroughly discredited by NRDC.) The best thing I’ve read about this debate (and one of the most balanced) is this fine Slate article by Eric Pooley, my former editor at FORTUNE, who finds that there’s an emerging economic consensus that the costs of dealing with climate change are significant but manageable–and that given the risks, those costs are likely worth paying.

My point here is not that economists disagree. My point is that the climate change debate shouldn’t be about green jobs. It’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that we can forecast, with any degree of accuracy, the impact of a complicated government policy on a dynamic global economy decades into the future. Both sides know that their projections are based on a host of assumptions which may or may not come true. What if we decide as a nation to turn to nuclear energy as a source of low-carbon power? That probably won’t create many long-term jobs. What if there’s a breakthrough in the solar PV business in China? That may not bring green jobs here. Are farmers who grow corn for ethanol doing green jobs? That hasn’t turned out so well.

Let’s get real: We can’t predict oil prices 12 months out. Last spring, virtually no one anticipated the global financial crisis of last fall. And we are projecting the number of green jobs that will be created or lost on a state-by-state basis by a law that won’t take effect until 2012? Who are we kidding?

I called Russ Roberts, an economist at George Mason University who hosts the fine EconTalk podcast, for some guidance on how to think about green jobs and the economics of climate regulation.  “Creating green jobs is easy,” he told me. “We could employ millions of people picking up litter, and we could make them very good-paying jobs if we want. But of course that would make us poorer as a nation. There’s a cost to providing those jobs that would have to be borne by other people in the economy.”

It’s not just the cost of higher taxes that needs to be factored into the equation, he noted. To the degree that the government makes policy that favors, say, vast construction of wind turbines throughout the upper Midwest, the people doing those jobs will be drawn from somewhere else, maybe even from more productive work. If policy leads to the hiring of  thousands of contractors to do energy efficiency, the cost of building a new home or renovating your basement may go up because many of the good construction workers are busy.

“As voters and citizens and readers, what we want to think about is the big picture—are we moving in the right direction when it comes to environmental policy?” Roberts says. Put another way, are we spending enough money today to head off the threat of global warming in the future? Because if anyone tells you that we can deal with climate change at no cost, they probably shouldn’t be trusted.

Maybe that’s what bothers me about the green jobs ads. They’re like political campaign ads. They promise something for nothing. They treat the voters like children. They’re emotional and not educational. And they’re not helping to build a movement around climate change.

Other than that, they’re fine.

And I do hope they work.


  1. says

    Marc, thanks for your work cutting through the hype. I’m actually a green jobs believer… but only some of the time. As Russ Roberts’ litter example shows, not all green jobs are created equal. In order to be a net gain, green jobs have to not only emply people but deliver a net economic boost.
    Energy efficiency, with its quick paybacks, can deliver this boost, but other green jobs, such as picking up litter, photovoltaics, and
    “clean coal” most likely do not. Until one of the green jobs studies breaks down the jobs by green sector, we’re not going to be able to judge what is a good policy and what isn’t.

    Fortunately, the current administration seems to understand that energy efficiency is the economic green sweet spot… but it would help if there were studies to back this idea up. Until then, it’s just me saying it.

  2. says

    Yes, thank you for addressing this subject. My impression: the environmental community believes the public will only go along with carbon emission reduction if they feel it will fatten their pocketbooks. And they may be right.

    But I, too, have been bothered by the intellectual dishonesty. But perhaps for a different reason. We are being sold a pipe dream – that we can continue to insist on perpetual economic growth AND save the planet as long as there’s a green tint on it.

    I’m all for shifting as many dirty jobs to clean, but manufacturing PV and wind turbines is not carbon-neutral, nor are these technologies environmentally benign. And every new job added to our economy adds to humanity’s carbon and ecological footprints.

    Yes, we must replace fossil fuels as fast as we can, but unless accompanied by a major shift in our lifestyles, economic goals and population policy, it will prove to be woefully inadequate.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  3. Darren Toth says

    I’m not sure how to articulate this exactly, so I’ll just harp on one little point. (You know I love yer stuff, Marc, so take it in stride)
    You said, “They treat the voters like children. They’re emotional and not educational. And they’re not helping to build a movement around climate change.”
    These are YouTube spots. Commercials. The fact that these 30-sec spots spark conversations, wedge just the slightest modicum of awareness in the cultural mindset, means that they are not meaningless.
    I know people aren’t stupid, not all of them anyhow. However, if you come out with numbers, charts, graphs, expert jargon, you are going to have a large amount of folks tuning out before you even make your point. Voters may not be children, but children will someday become voters. I don’t think these spots are mean for guys like you, Marc. Guys who’s live revolves around the actual numbers and expert forecasts.
    To me, these spots are directed towards kids trying to form their own opinions about the world, and at grown-ups who equate the environmentalist movement with just filthy hippies dancing in the park. They are trying to make folks aware that there is a potential for a greener economy. Perhaps the sound byte tactics of the commercial don’t hold much water in the mart of competitive commerce, but they get people thinking, imagining, and inventing.
    No matter how wrong they may be on the facts, at least they get the conversation started.

  4. says

    Marc – This is a fine piece and under other circumstances, the “phony” green jobs debate might be more complicated. But in light of the current economy and severe loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States due to the restructuring of the auto industry among other things, green jobs can only be additive right now. And we need all we can get. At the same time, lowering energy costs for people is an improvement in quality of life whether climate change exists or not (it is real…but will leave that for another debate). When someone pays $400 a month in heating or cooling costs because 50% of their energy is escaping through their windows, their issue is microeconomics, not global warming.

    The unemployment rate in America is heading to 10%…maybe more. But nevertheless, we acquired the assets of Republic Windows in Chicago and are in the process of hiring back their laid off workers. Believe me, they were not doing anything more productive. They, for a time, were occupying the closed plant in the hope that they could at least get their severance form the former owners. And in the end, we gave much more, and have begun making our super-insulating windows at that plant.

    And the former Kensington Windows plant in Vandergrift, PA shut its doors in October 2008, putting 150 people out of work after its parent company filed for bankruptcy. Serious Materials looked at the plant and its people, and liked what it found. The average tenure of the work force was 18 years, with 9 percent having more than 30 years with the company. It was clear that we could revise the production to focus on highly insulating, high-tech full frame R5 to R11 windows and commercial glass, and quickly introduce our cost and performance enhancing technology. The location was also excellent, allowing us to conveniently deliver products and service to the east, mid-Atlantic and central regions. Serious Materials acquired their assets too at the end of January 2009 through the bankruptcy process. And we started ramping that workforce in early March and target getting back to a workforce of 150 by year’s end. And for everyone we hire back, there are another 2 workers required for install by our partners.

    So we are creating green jobs today by improving the technology and energy efficiency of the built environment (the largest CO2 contributor). Not by dragging people away from other jobs, but re-hiring those laid off by an old commodity industry…and retraining them to manufacture high R value windows and glass. And this surely helps with climate change, creates great jobs, saves energy, and directly impacts CO2…potentially more than anything else anyone can do quickly.

    We all need to help America recover. Right now. And if we can employ the unemployed…right now…to make products which are advanced and save quantifiable energy, lets do it. Call it green jobs…or anything else. It doesn’t matter to those lucky enough to land them.

    Kevin Surace
    Serious Materials, Inc.

  5. says

    Kevin, thanks for your comment. I love the story of Serious Materials your efforts in Chicago and Pennsylvania. I look forward to hearing you talk about “green jobs” at our Brainstorm Green conference next week. and I agree, there’s no question that in this economy, every newly-created job is needed. What’s more, as I understand it, the products that you make and sell will help your customers save energy and become more efficient–therefore more productive and competitive. All good.
    My broader point remains, though–that it’s not clear that climate change legislation will be a net creator of new jobs and that the environmental movement should not try to sell climate change regulation as a cost-free proposition. That’s pandering.

  6. lizziendfw says

    STAY AWAY FROM SERIOUS MATERIALS… I don’t care if they bought the bankrupt Kensignton windows…I have over $15K in these windows and the quality is ABSOLUTELY horrible!!! If you live in southern states STAY AWAY. This company is not honoring lifetime warranty from Kensignton customers. They are using the same materials and plant to build the horrible windows. I had to have Kensignton reinstall 2 times in 2002, and by one of their installers. I am recaulking every year in and out the house around windows, I have a fogged up window and no way of getting it replaced for free under my now (DEFUNCT) warranty. CONSUMERS LISTEN UP! THIS COMAPNY WILL DO THE SAME AS KENSINGTON WHEN THEY GO BELLY UP BECAUSE OF INFERIOR PRODUCT! GO WITH PELLA! I am going to have to invest another $15,000 to reinstall windows with a COMPANY THAT WILL STAY AROUND! I will continue to post complaints about Serious Windows all over the internet to avoid lose of home improvement $$investments$$ like what happened to me!

    WHAT IS SO GREEN ABOUT THIS SITUATION! My electric is still high and now its colder in the winter in my house and my gass bill is up $60.00 more a month.


  1. […] But environmental economics reporter Marc Gunther, formerly of FORTUNE magazine, thinks these claims may be downplaying the costs of transitioning to the green economy, especially the toll it may take on employment in conventional energy sectors. Gunther thinks the environmental movement needs to level with the public — and he’s gotten some flack from environmentalists for the recent Phony Green Jobs Debate article. […]

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