If the recent election taught us anything, it’s that we need to reframe the politics of clean energy.
Sure, advocates celebrated a victory last November by keeping President Obama and many others who understand the importance of the clean-energy economy in office. After more than a year of spurious political attacks against Solyndra, green jobs, and the clean-energy stimulus, that was a considerable achievement.
But those victories have come at a considerable cost.
In Washington, some of the political hostility has died down after the election. However, as negotiations around raising the debt ceiling unfold, there are already renewed calls to cut federal funding for key programs supporting renewable energy, efficiency, and other cleantech industries. That’s because many Republicans see cleantech as just another special interest feeding off government—not as a core driver of environmentally minded business in the 21st century.
A lot has changed since since the mid-2000s, when the sector had overwhelming bipartisan support in national politics. Two things happened: The cleantech sector got a considerable boost through the stimulus, making it a punching bag for conservatives targeting government spending; and the commercialization of fracking technologies caused a resurgence in the U.S. oil & gas sector, directly challenging clean energy.
As the editors of MIT’s Technology Review pointed out recently, making cleantech a part of the stimulus package was necessary and important for helping lay the foundation for a clean-energy transition. But simply selling it as a short-term jobs creator did some damage to the political credibility of the sector.
“We cautioned against conflating economic stimulus with a sustainable and effective energy policy. Leading economists noted that job creation needed to happen quickly, while transforming our energy infrastructure would take decades,” wrote the editors.
Of course, there were a lot of real and undeniable successes spurred by the stimulus package that deserve to be mentioned. (Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald does a great job reporting on the many success stories in clean energy and other sectors in his recent book on the stimulus).
Consider this: In 2006, wind turbine manufacturers were only able to source 35 percent of components from American companies. Today, in large part due to the stimulus, there are now 500 manufacturing facilities in operation around the U.S. that supply nearly 70 percent of components for American wind farms. That’s a doubling of domestic sourcing in five years.
Since 2008 America’s production of renewable electricity has nearly doubled; we have increased home weatherization by 1,000 percent; the industry was saved from a complete financial collapse by a Treasury grant program that supported 75,000 jobs; the solar and wind industries now support nearly 200,000 American jobs combined; and economy-wide, there are roughly 2.7 million green jobs spread across a range of sectors.
We should embrace these successes. But when taking them in a broader economic context, we must also state the obvious: The green jobs revolution that was touted before the stimulus package passed did not fully emerge.
That’s because the economic revolution spurred by clean energy isn’t really a revolution—it’s a multi-decade evolution. While this sector will certainly continue to create good American jobs, they don’t just appear in a four-year political time frame. Combine these less-than-expected green jobs numbers with a few high-profile bankruptcies of flashy government-backed cleantech companies, and you get a toxic political result.
“The outcome, which we foresaw in our 2009 article, was an entirely unnecessary black eye for the clean-energy effort,” wrote the MIT Technology Review editors in their assessment of the stimulus.
(Important note: many of the predictions for green jobs figures were based on a comprehensive suite of policies that would nurture the industry—including a carbon price and a national target for efficiency and renewable energy—not just the one-time stimulus. That’s a necessary distinction that often gets lost in critiques).
At the same time, the boom in unconventional oil and gas has challenged traditional economic and energy security arguments traditionally pushed by clean-energy advocates. Five years ago, very few people foresaw the dramatic expansion of domestic oil and gas that was on the horizon. The common wisdom was that oil was scarce, natural gas prices would stay extremely volatile, and the U.S. would continue to import more of its energy. Now, with America on track to become the world’s largest producer of liquid fuels, the political urgency behind renewable energy has died down (or vanished) among political leaders who are simply concerned about energy independence and energy security.
“Sure, the cost of low-carbon energy technologies—wind, solar, biofuels and others—is coming down. But improvements in technologies for extracting fossil fuels are making it harder for renewables to reach cost parity,” wrote economist Severin Borenstein, last February in a Bloomberg News op-ed. “The only compelling argument for policies to boost renewables and reduce fossil fuels is the environment.”
I strongly disagree with Borenstein that the environment is the only argument for policies to boost renewables. But he does correctly highlight the need for a better strategy framing the importance of government support for clean energy and green jobs.
We must use the environmental imperative—primarily climate change—to drive the political narrative.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean abandoning positive economic messaging around green jobs. We can’t walk away from the years of hard work that finally made green jobs and clean energy mainstream terms. But in political circles, green jobs have been sold as a short-term economic solution first and environmental solution last. That needs to be flipped on its head.
Green jobs are a favorable economic consequence of a sound energy and environmental policy based on reducing carbon emissions. They are a natural product of the “climate-informed economy,” as Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, so succinctly described it to me recently. Creating green jobs shouldn’t be an end political goal. Rather, the rallying message should be for a de-carbonization strategy to deal with climate change.
This isn’t inconsistent with how people talked about green jobs in the first place. The political problems arose when advocates put far too much emphasis on the short-term jobs boost we’d get from the stimulus (my parent organization, the Center for American Progress, included). Green jobs became the goal, not a desirable consequence of the end goal, which is to create a more sustainable society. So when all the jobs didn’t materialize as claimed, advocates got stuck playing defense.
Reframing the environmental imperative will get advocates away from defensively bean counting jobs. It also helps us think about the consequences of the domestic oil and gas boom. If we want to go “green” just to create jobs, why wouldn’t we simply focus on drilling every square inch of America to create jobs? Because doing so would keep us on a path toward climate disaster.
When we actually embrace the economy-wide transition scientists say we need in order to deal with climate change, jobs in nearly every sector will be begin to look “green” in some way.
Our economic, energy, and environmental policies should not be focused on creating green jobs. Instead, they should all be focused on helping de-carbonize America. When that happens, the jobs will follow.
This piece was originally published on Climate Progress.