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The Sky is Not Falling: The Real Facts about Green Jobs and the Clean Economy

J. Mijin Cha

Today is the opening day of Climate Week NYC, a week long event that brings together high-level government officials, advocates and businesses to promote a “clean industrial revolution.” While only in its third year, Climate Week has successfully brought diverse interests together to plan for a massive scaling up of clean-energy technologies to create jobs and economic growth while making the natural and built environment more sustainable.

Climate Week comes at a time when green jobs and the clean economy have come under attack. With the bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer, Solyndra, the conservative cacophony has gone into overdrive denouncing clean energy and green jobs efforts. Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute writes “‘Green jobs’ are the last refuge of the subsidy seekers. Industries that can't survive in the free market like to claim they are creating ‘green jobs’ because that helps them justify their subsidy-dependent businesses.” This, one would imagine, is in contrast to the oil industry, which only receives an average of $4 billion a year in subsidies. Fossil fuel industries overall receive roughly twelve times the subsidies that clean energy industries receive.

The oil and gas industry also promotes job creation in a very narrow range of activities, most of which are environmentally damaging, like increased drilling in environmentally sensitive places like Alaska’s Artic Wildlife Refuge, or through unsafe practices like hydro-fracking. In contrast, green jobs are created in a broad spectrum of industries, ranging from clean energy manufacturing and production to mass transit and public services to infrastructure upgrade and repair.  A recent Brookings Institution report shows that close to 3 million people are employed by the clean economy. Another report shows that green stimulus spending created or saved nearly one million direct and indirect jobs. 

The U.S., and the world, will need to transition to new energy sources, new means of energy production, and different consumption patterns to meet the very real challenges of climate change. Without real support and investment, we are at risk of being left out of the clean energy future. The U.S. is already badly behind China in producing and exporting solar energy. China’s three largest solar power companies announced large second-quarter sales increases and China exports 95 percent of the solar panels it manufactures. Many of the subsidies given by the U.S. and European Union go towards purchasing solar panels from China.

Solyndra failed for many reasons, including being hurt by global competition and the global credit crunch. The lesson to be learned is not that green jobs are a poor investment but that emerging industries should receive the same level of support that polluting industries receive. China’s solar industry is successful not due to lower labor costs but because of strong government support. If the billions of tax dollars that goes towards the oil and gas industries were redirected towards the clean economy, the result would be more job creation, a stronger economy and a healthier environment.

So, what are we waiting for?