Critique of White House “Green Jobs Report”

This entry was posted Wednesday, 18 March, 2009 at 1:44 pm

The following is a critique of “The White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families: Green Jobs Report,” convened by Vice President Joe Biden. It is an excellent document and in it are the words and conceptual models needed for the The Green Jobs Movement’s success. It also is missing some things.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and the Obama Admin. budget policies make a number of basic, false assumptions, which are reflected in the “Green Jobs Report”: One, that the economy will tank so badly that people will forget the need to transition to a “green economy,” shifting into a survival mode mentality (this is reflected in how low “environment” ranks in polls of Americans and the back lots full of unsold Priuses). Two, that big “T”echnology of renewables will dominate, when in fact, smaller technology reflected in simple weatherization projects, and small scale, sustainable ag. and distributed energy systems provide large “bangs for the buck.” And three, that the whole plan reeks of the failure to recognize the “elephant in the room,” over our hyper consumption under rising populations and rapidly destabilizing natural systems. Simply switching our consumption to green products fails to address the throughput issue. Lifestyle must be addressed, and indeed may be central, which begs the question of inherent traditional American “freedoms” as well as inequities.

Axiomatic of the problem of the Green Jobs Report is the definition of “green jobs.” UNEP’s definition is revealing: jobs that “contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality,” that “help to protect and restore,” “reduce” and” minimize” or “avoid” “consumption” of energy or “generation of pollution,” and that create positions that are just and fair. But notice these verbs, “restore” and “preserve” are not “conserve” or “sustain,” which implies setting aside and putting back into the system, regenerating that which has been deteriorated. Add in “fairness,” “diversity” and “equity” and that’s a tall order, given the massive market externalities, misperceptions of ecological systems and level of human induced degradation! There is absolutely nothing fair about free market, neo-liberal capitalism, which begs the question, “what kind of socio-economic system are we talking about?”

“Incubating quality green jobs” requires a strong public mandate, leadership, coordination and setting up the right incentives, identifying existing barriers, actors, “financing interventions” and the involvement of community groups and unions. This is a tall order requiring vision, leadership and unity of purpose of our elected officials. Establishing within each community Sustainability Advisory Boards and a Council or cabinet level Director of Sustainability “ensures that mandates become an organizing principle.” According to The Report, Green jobs policy should be “to leverage the unique capabilities and resources of the private sector to maximize the creation of green jobs,” removing impediments to private investment. Erratic treatment of the production tax credits has been identified as causing problems with “flagging investment.” Tax credits may provide better incentives if more of the credit can be converted to an upfront grant.

“Green jobs generate 2.7 times as many jobs as fossil fuel spending.” An illusion reflected in the document quote “by making wind power competitive with fossil fuel,” shows such a misalignment of priorities. We don’t want wind power or alternative energy to become “cheap as fossil fuel,” but want fossil fuel to reflect its true market, social and environmental costs. Cheap energy should not be the goal of our nation’s energy policy, as the results are inefficiency, suburban sprawl, increased pollution, etc. Yes, improved technology and competition will drive alternative energy costs down, but will take time. Replication, scalability and financing are needed. Some national “green market priority board” may help in ramping up technologies (i.e. thin film PV). Because of monopolies, corruption and market failures, waiting for not so “free” markets may keep good technology from achieving rapid implementation. Higher prices for these technologies will drive investment and innovation.

In ARRA, there is $500 million for research and job training projects that prepare workers for careers in “energy efficiency” and “renewable energy.” What is blatantly missing is the need for the promotion of sustainable agriculture and local produce development. This has such massive multipliers and economic and security value, I am surprised it was left out. Energy efficiency will likely absorb a fair number of entry-level trade and blue collar workers, but this presumes that folks can afford the upgrades to their homes and businesses. Renewables are closely tied to fossil fuel prices and right now there is little incentive to invest and zero capital for required financing.

The Green Jobs Report also presumes an easy transition to high tech, well paying jobs. But initially, most jobs will be entry or low level jobs. For instance, recycling that does not “value-add” is a commodity business. We send our waste to China to be remanufactured into higher value goods, which we then buy back. The carbon footprint is large due to under priced energy and suppression of the Yuan, thus making labor and material costs cheap. That we can create a larger middle class from green jobs is hugely optimistic. Our economy is teetering on another depression. Expectations are for “a sizeable wage premium (10-20 percent),” optimistic as contractors for energy efficiency, one of the pillars of the stimulus, are not high tech. positions. According to The Report, “Green jobs typically earn better wages,” but analyses from the workforce shows a lack of diversity, and “that they are more likely to be held by whites…men, and located in suburban and rural areas,” leaving out minorities and inner city residents.

My concern is that our expectations are being set too high based on the paradigm we are trying to supplant. Without the shift in perception and focus on transformative community structures, through incentives and disincentives, we will not achieve the equity and fairness most of us are expecting from the new, green economy.

I like the term “green jobs movement” as it is not just about creating fair and well paying jobs in the Green Economy. That, in fact, it is about building green communities, using the money earned to support other green businesses, and promoting healthful living and broader community development linkages. Some attention must be placed on building “green communities,” not just green jobs, to reinforce systems for these structural adjustments to really take hold and improve our behavior.

The hiring of Van Jones, President of Green for All who promotes “respect” of the environment and a Clean Energy Corps, is a big plus as he is smart and has spent time in the trenches and on the front lines. We need to rotate folks from the field to the classroom and to leadership and back again, building an apprenticeship, “teach the teacher” systems to implement transformational change rapidly and with efficacy. More case studies and their promulgation are needed. The document provides examples from LA where the Apollo Alliance has helped in workforce redevelopment using apprenticeship models. Training costs (free to participants) are paid for by less than 10% of public funds and by unions and contractors, through labor/management partnership agreements. Focus is on young entry-level workers, and on older, more experienced workers needing skill upgrades. Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) is a 10 week training program, with a certificate and helps place graduates in local green businesses and provides follow up support for three years. Solar Richmond, introduces basic construction training with an extra 2 week solar skills module. Mile High Youth Corps focuses on young adults 16-24 to teach job and life skills, creating crews of 8-10 and is supported by YouthBuild. Work is paid and provides on the jobs training, and is accompanied by Corps-to Career classes for job search and preparedness.

“Investments in efficiency are much less centralized than those in renewable energy.” The Report promotes investments in Green Retrofits, energy efficiency and upgrading home equipment with better than “energy star” (since the downgrading of EPA’s classification by the Bushies) compliance equipment. Paying for it is the challenge. The Weatherization Assistance Program will allow an average investment of up to $6,500 per home in energy efficiency upgrades and will be available for families making up to 200% of the federal poverty level – or about $44,000 a year for a family of four. What is needed are loan circles, using energy savings from these upgrade to help offset costs. The Report suggests using energy bills for repayments, tying the investments to the property (not the property owner), and allowing transfer to new tenants. Milwaukee Energy Efficiency (Me2) solves the financing problem with an innovative program: coordinating funds with banks and contractors (their transaction costs are paid for by?). Fundamentally, changes are needed in building codes nationally, if energy efficiency is to take hold.

It is expected that the $6 billion in loan guarantees will leverage over $75 billion in investment, and will build on guarantees managed by already existing DOE and DOA programs. Establishing a Clean Energy Finance Authority (CEFA) is also an excellent idea. (However, loan guarantees require $25K expenditure upfront, without being guaranteed the loan, not much of a guarantee?) According to The Report, an important thing is “to reduce the complexity and increase the flexibility of CEFA applications.” Focus must be on small businesses, which are responsible for the majority of employment growth. Another local funding mechanism is Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds, or zero interest bonds that provide tax credit to holders.

The case study from Washington State shows an important protocol needing replication: first, they identify high demand green industries; second, their potential for creating high quality jobs; third, a Green Industry Skill Panel (GISP) is convened; and finally, a Green Collar Job Training Fund is created and money administered according to the findings of one, two and three. “The fund would distribute competitive grants to organizations. with proven success in implementing workforce training,… targeting adults and youth in families below twice the poverty line, dislocated workers and entry level workers.”