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Gutting Climate Rules Will Slow Job Growth

Lew Daly

Today, the Trump administration released its executive order to effectively gut the Clean Power Plan, a key piece of U.S. climate policy aimed at reducing carbon pollution. This is in spite of the fact that the majority of Americans -- including most Republicans -- want the E.P.A.’s power to be maintained or strengthened. Slashing the Clean Power Plan is part of Trump’s ‘contract’ with voters to lift restrictions on America’s energy reserves in an effort to create jobs. Trump is supposed to be the jobs president after all. The problem? We know how to create jobs, and relying on fossil fuels is not the way.

Trump talks a lot about bringing jobs back to coal country, and, it’s true, coal country has been struggling. He carried these regions handily with his promises to reinvigorate towns across Appalachia by resurrecting the coal jobs. But this is a fairytale. Trump would have you believe that these jobs disappeared due to federal policy, and thus slashing programs like the Clean Power Plan would reinvigorate the region. But, in truth, coal jobs declined because of competition in the marketplace. But, to the workers, it doesn’t matter why their jobs disappeared--those well-paying jobs are gone and far too many workers were left high and dry.

These workers deserve a fair deal, but repealing the Clean Power Plan won’t help. Given current prices for other fuels, coal just doesn’t make much economic sense. Others get that economic reality. It’s time to come to terms with that reality and start promoting energy policies for a 21st-century economy.

Smart climate rules put in place to help facilitate the transition away from fossil fuels can have substantial job-boosting potential. The Clean Power Plan aimed to cut carbon emissions from power plants by 32% against 2005 levels over the next fifteen years. To reach these targets, states could 1) improve the efficiency of their existing power plants, 2) transition dirty coal plants to natural gas, and 3) supplement their existing grid with additional renewable energy. These goals would help lock in the accelerating job growth in the renewable energy sector, which is already happening in many states thanks to rising investments in wind, solar, and energy efficiency.

Let’s be clear, there are lots of jobs to be had in the clean energy transition that is already underway. According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, the solar energy industry now employs more workers in the electricity sector than oil, coal, and natural gas combined. Solar alone employs about 374,000 people, more than seven times as many jobs as coal.

Renewable energy job creation is accelerating, with 73,615 new solar and 24,650 wind jobs created last year alone. The reason is simple: driving down emissions and facilitating a transition to clean energy requires a lot of new investment and labor, which means substantial net job creation for our economy. A report from the Center for American Progress found that a sizable investment to the tune of $200 billion per year, over twenty years, would speed the transition to a clean economy and simultaneously add upwards of 2.7 million net jobs—not to mention reducing CO2 pollution by an estimated 40 percent. In other words, we can combat climate change while still creating lots of good-paying jobs.                                                      

Trump’s self-proclaimed business acumen has also failed him in this impending repeal since he is rejecting efficiency, a key business principle. In particular, the Clean Power Plan has strong incentives for boosting energy efficiency--getting more power with fewer resources. In rejecting this and other beneficial aspects of the plan, Trump seems committed to basically derailing a win-win-win scenario for the planet, consumers, and businesses alike.

Trump also appears to be completely oblivious to many other significant benefits from transitioning to a clean energy economy, including the health benefits. The immediate net benefits of reducing emissions for people living in polluted communities must be taken into consideration. Today, low-income communities and especially communities of color are disproportionately exposed to fossil fuel pollution and other forms of industrial pollution, often in deliberate ways. The Clean Power Plan would also reduce deaths due to pollution, saving approximately 120,000 lives annually by 2050s while improving the quality of life for many Americans living near emitting facilities.

Trump can’t stop the clean energy revolution. It’s coming, it’s a huge opportunity for investment that promotes economic development, and it’s already creating tens of thousands of new jobs every year. Yet, just as President Obama had the power to accelerate emissions reduction, Trump has the power to slow these reductions we desperately need, courting disaster for our country, our children, and our planet. And just as recklessly, his crusade against climate rules also undercuts his professed concern for our “inner cities,” because urban communities and especially communities of color have been harmed the most by fossil fuel pollution while gaining the least from the fossil fuel economy. The last thing struggling communities need is for the president to throw a wrench into a clean energy revolution that, with the right kinds of targeted investments, can generate millions of new jobs where jobs are needed most. 

But there is some good news: the economic damage of Trump’s job-killing rejection of climate and clean energy policies could be substantially offset by aggressive action in states and cities. We see this underway in some places like California and New York, where elected leaders and advocates are fighting back against climate change despite Trump’s actions. We need states and particularly large ones like these to lead the way. There is no alternative. Between the costs of inaction, and the loss of such a huge opportunity for creating millions of clean energy jobs, the consequences will be devastating if we don't get the leadership we need from states and cities to counter Trump's dangerous crusade against climate regulations.       


Mark Paul is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Lew Daly is Director of Policy and Research at Demos.