Treading carefully on the green economy

By Michelle Chen Mar 10, 2009

The movement for green jobs is exploding around the country, and for the marginalized communities who potentially have much to gain, the enthusiasm seems well warranted. Yet with so much at stake in the ongoing economic crisis, we need a measured understanding of how science, politics and economics mix in the emerging green economy. Some cast a more skeptical eye on green jobs as part of the economic recovery package. Michael A. Levi at Slate recently argued that while green jobs seems to provide a multi-tasking solution to the country’s economic and environmental crises, the empirical data on the long-range benefits of such initiatives do not add up. Robert Stavins, a Harvard business and government professor (famously quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker piece), cautions in the Huffington Post today that a big green jobs push may be stymied by myriad political roadblocks, like NIMBY opposition to certain clean-energy projects, or bureaucratic and infrastructural challenges to revamping the country’s transmission grid. Sometimes, Stavins argues, environmental and economic issues may best be dealt with on different, but complementary paths:

As the government uses economic stimulus to expand economic activity, it can and should tilt the expansion in a green direction. But rather than a "broad-brush green painting of the stimulus," this may call for some careful, selective, and well thought-through "green tinting." Addressing the worst economic recession in generations calls for the most effective economic stimulus package that can be devised, not a stimulus package that is diminished in effectiveness through excessive bells and whistles meant to address a myriad of other (legitimate) social concerns. And, likewise, getting serious about global climate change will require the enactment and implementation of meaningful, dedicated climate policies, most likely a comprehensive national CO2 cap-and-trade system. These are two serious but different policy problems, and they call for two serious, carefully-crafted policy responses.

As President Obama’s new green jobs advisor, Van Jones will doubtless be wrestling with these issues as he seeks to give voice to seldom-heard communities in the national discussion on green economics. It’s also important to understand how and why green jobs might not always be the ideal answer—and when activists encounter those challenges, to target their hard-won political energy toward designing the right solution for their communities and the planet. Image: Natural News Network