Grading the Clean Economy Before Our Homework is Done

Editor’s Note: Headline changed to reflect what was in original cross post.

By Michael Williams, BlueGreen Alliance

Has our Green Jobs Agenda Failed?

Last week’s New York Times article “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Expectations” took a critical look at the efforts to spur America’s move to clean energy. Sadly, it was a terrifically shortsighted view of the promise, potential, andcurrent standing of America’s green economy. No surprise that this faulty meme has been picked up by The Daily Caller, with a post by climate change denier, Ernest Istook.

Perhaps it is a failure on all of us who, in seeing the promise and potential of the green economy, allowed some to think that the results would be immediate and massive. As with any systemic change, let alone one coming on the heels of the worst economic turmoil since the Great Depression, the effort to build America’s green economy — creating millions of jobs in the process — will be long and successful, providing we don’t give in to the fairy tales of instant gratification. More on that later…

image via Shutterstock

For now, consider a student learning about the founding of America. That student, currently in the middle of the semester, has taken a number of classes and consistently done her homework. She shows a decent knowledge of this time period. But if we were to end all of the lessons and administer the final exam, she’d most likely fail because we didn’t fully prepare her for the test.

We are at this point in America’s transition to the green economy. We have provided the initial influx of investments (Recovery Act) and a few useful, but — save for California — short-term policies. The folks at the NYT are grading America on our green economy test well before we’ve finished preparing. We haven’t given consistent, long-term investment support (as our global competitors have). We haven’t created the necessary market signals to ignite clean energy demand (as our global competitors have). And we have failed for decades to establish a clear manufacturing policy (as our global competitors have).

And yet, the NYT seems to be deeming the whole effort a failure. Only two years and a few months after the Recovery Act — the first real, direct federal support of the green economy—was enacted. We analyzed the job creation and retention of the green investments from the Recovery Act and found that nearly 1 million jobs were saved or created. A formidable pay off from that initial investment, but we need continued efforts to sustain the transition through the long-term.

Maybe if our student had received a full year of lessons, she could tell us how the American Revolution might have ended had we pulled support after a shaky first few years of the war following our declaration of independence in 1776. (Hint: The Battle of Yorktown sealed the British’s fate not until 1781.) If we succumb to the message in this article, then the transition to the green economy will almost certainly fail.

I have seen the enemy, and thy name is Instant Gratification

We should expect results (read: jobs) when we devote scarce resources (read: taxpayer’s money). But growing an industry or a sector doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen in a month, and it doesn’t even happen in two years. It will require a significant and continued effort to build the industries that drive the domestic economy of the 21st century.

But the thirst for instant gratification seems to have eclipsed any chance at perspective and has ignored the significant success of down payments on building this 21st century economy.. Our efforts to claw out of the Great Recession produced three major federal policy efforts: TARP, assistance to the auto industry, and the Recovery Act. All three of these efforts — like them or not — were implemented well over two years ago. Yet after their implementation, most especially the Recovery Act, the conventional wisdom focused on immediate returns rather than the larger picture of what was really digging us out of the recessionary hole.

Helping the auto industry was an incredible success. (By the way, all those jobs building advanced vehicles and batteries for our revamped and prosperous domestic auto industry are green jobs.) The Recovery Act created or savedmillions of jobs, preventing us from sliding into a worse recession or perhaps a depression and at least shifting the unemployment curve back in the right direction. Yet because we did not have our instant gratification of plummeting unemployment rates, the discourse shifted — perilously to immediate deficit reduction — and the efforts were labeled asfailures.

But what we fail to see is that these efforts were initial parts of what needs to be a larger, longer-term recovery. We need to follow the Recovery Act up with complementary job creation efforts, like a long-term transportation infrastructure reauthorization and a comprehensive, forward-thinking energy policy, like the American Clean Energy and Security Act. We should have already moved these policies, but it is by no means too late. The recovery effort hasn’t failed yet, in spite of what the instant-gratification-needing conventional wisdom says.

image via Shutterstock

The same is true for efforts to fight climate change and move America to a cleaner, healthier, more productive economy. After failure to pass comprehensive climate change and energy legislation in the Senate, it was roundly accepted that the overall effort was massively hindered. All the buildup was centered on this piece of legislation, and it didn’t pan out. The truth is that, while it was a significant piece, it was only part of the ongoing effort. In just the last few weeks, the President announced groundbreaking fuel economy standards for cars and trucks with the near unanimous support of labor unions, environmental organizations and industry. It is one of the best recent examples of job creation and environmental protection.

We have also seen significant growth and expansion in the renewable energy and energy efficiency markets, creating American jobs and producing clean power.  A lot of these successes have the Recovery Act to thank. We expect there will continue to be more like these, but not if we accept what we’ve been told and stop fighting for them.

This is why we formulated the Jobs21! plan and are activating a large grassroots campaign behind it. We need to show that the effort to move America to the green economy requires good policy and long-term dedication. In the end the failure of the climate bill must only become part of the longer process, and prove those who only crave instant gratification wrong.

We cannot yet fully assess our success or failure. We have to keep fighting, pushing for more, clamoring for better. That’s the thrust behind the Jobs21! plan. We need people continually and forcefully advocating for an ambitious, concrete plan to solve our two most pressing crises: unemployment and climate change. Because we won’t get there with one step even if it’s a big one. We will only get there after continued dedication, throughout setbacks and successes alike.

Join us in the Jobs21! campaign, and help fight like hell for a better, healthier, and more just America.

Editor’s Note: This column comes to us as a cross post from BlueGreen Alliance. Author credit goes to Michael Williams, BlueGreen’s Senior Policy and Legislative Advocate.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.


  • Reply August 27, 2011


    The new green energy future is in trouble and i’ll give two examples: first Cape Wind,the thought of the fine citizens of Massachusetts giving up some of their sailing areas to help produce a much needed(first in the country) off shore wind farm seems unlikely. The other side of the country brings us the Mojave desert tortoise that has stopped plans for a solar power plant in the California desert. Two examples of NIMBISM at it’s worst. u00a0 u00a0

  • Reply August 27, 2011


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