I predicted the Green New Deal’s 4 Million Jobs 20 years ago

The Green New Deal could create 4 million jobs. Or at least that’s what I and others wrote in 1998 in The National Green Jobs Report.

The idea of creating lots of green jobs is not a new one; it goes back to at least the anti-nuclear power movement of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, which said that we should focus on energy conservation and renewables rather than build nuclear power plants.

Today it’s the focus of the Green New Deal resolution in Congress sponsored by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, and for which the Sunrise Movement protested in the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi in December, 2018.

In our report, we projected that by 2010 new green jobs could constitute 4 million jobs – an increase of 2 to 3 percent in the nation’s employment, and well more than the nation’s leading employer, Walmart, with 2.3 million.

Why more jobs?

Fracking for natural gas and oil has greatly expanded jobs in Texas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and other states, causing the U.S. to become the world leader in output of crude oil in 2018, exceeding Russia and Saudia Arabia, and continuing its dominance it natural gas held since 2009.

So why would creating green jobs, rather than putting money into nukes or fossil fuel development, increase overall employment?

There are two main reasons. First, producing fossil fuels is highly capital-intensive, using large amounts of drilling equipment, trucks, and other products that use small amounts of labor compared to the value of the equipment. All these purchases require large-scale borrowing of funds from banks and stockholders, who get high returns on their money.

In comparison, industries that involve “green jobs” tend to be more labor-intensive. This is particularly the case for energy-efficiency installers, less so for renewable energy such as solar, wind, and hydropower, which do require lots of spending on capital equipment.

The second reason is that historically the U.S. has imported much of our fossil fuels from the Middle East, Venezuela, and elsewhere. When you import fuels the money leaves your economy, producing jobs in other countries (or just making their ruling classes wealthier), while draining money from the U.S. economy. When you cut your use of fossil fuels, this gives both consumers and industry more money to spend on other things. Because the U.S. economy is largely built on services today, the spending goes mainly to health care, retail, trade, restaurants, and professional services, not solely to the green industries themselves.

The same goes for particular U.S. states, such as those in the Northeast that are not fossil fuel producers. In contrast, Texas, Alaska, and in recent years Pennsylvania (to a smaller degree) have economies that run in large part on their output of oil and natural gas. Due to fracking the U.S.’s output of oil and gas has increased greatly, making our imports from other countries smaller, so this factor is less important today.

In our 1998 study we estimated net green job gains from energy, transportation, exports (of green products such as solar and wind equipment), recycling, toxics use reduction, and water conservation. The big numbers were about 2.1 million jobs from savings on spending for fossil fuels in buildings and industry and 1.5 million jobs in transportation (mainly from reduced imports of oil). These are net job gains – meaning those gained minus those lost in fossil fuel and related industries.

In comparison, survey data showed that in 2018 the U.S. had about 2.3 million people employed in energy efficiency and 800,000 employed in renewable energy, while fossil fuel industries employed 1.6 million.

Lower wages?

There is one catch to these lovely job gains – average wages in those industries gaining jobs may be lower than in the industries losing jobs. In 1998 we estimated that the average earnings per new job would be about $23,000 (in 1998 dollars) versus $26,000 in those losing jobs.[1] Much of the reason was that occupationally, the jobs gained were predominantly in services, which tended to be lower-wage, with a smaller number gained in manufacturing. The smaller job losses were mainly in unionized, high-wage industries, including petroleum refining, utilities, crude oil and natural gas production, and construction.

More recent data for Massachusetts yielded similar results – that the switch from fossil-fuel related to green jobs would tend to result in fewer high-wage and more low-wage jobs. In part this is because the fossil-dependent jobs are largely in unionized industries, particularly trucking and construction. This is why Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO and former president of the United Mine Workers, said recently:

Climate change threatens our workers, our jobs and our economy. That’s why the labor movement supports bold, comprehensive action to fight climate change….

Climate strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now…plans that devastate communities today, while offering vague promises about the future…they are more than unjust…they fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis….

I understand that many are frustrated with the pace of action on climate change. But simply demanding that plants, industries and projects be stopped or shut down, with no plan for the people who are put out of work…no call for shared sacrifice…and no dialogue or solidarity with those whose lives and communities are dependent on carbon-based fuels…that poisons the well politically and slows meaningful action on climate policy.

What to do? The labor movement calls for green jobs to be unionized, to have “prevailing wages” for the jobs, for the jobs to be living-wage. For government grants to renewable energy companies to require standards for wages and benefits for their workers. For there to be retraining funds, and for replacement wages for those workers who cannot find work in the green economy. For communities that are dependent on fossil-fuel industries to get assistance.

None of this will come cheaply, but it’s the only way to provide justice to people and communities on the downside of the green revolution, and to obtain the support of organized labor for that revolution. We can provide more jobs and have them be good jobs also. It’s time to get moving on a green, just revolution.