In Paris, let’s focus on averting climate risk, not on counting green jobs

By Kate Gordon

Kate Gordon 2015headshot Web This week is, of course, the first week of the UN climate summit in Paris. I’m not actually in Paris (I just couldn’t subject my family to another long absence), but that doesn’t mean I’m not following the talks with avid interest. Given my long history of working at the intersection of economic development and clean energy, it won’t surprise readers that I’m particularly interested in the question of how the negotiators, NGOs, and media are talking about the potential for a global climate accord to stimulate economic growth, and particularly to create new jobs.

Pretty much to a person, global leaders attending the summit in Paris are talking about how addressing climate change will create “green jobs” or “low-carbon jobs” or “clean energy jobs.” (Take a minute to Google “climate Paris green jobs” and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s inspiring for sure—who wouldn’t want to create a bunch of new jobs in clean energy fields?—but it’s also missing the point.

Let’s be clear: the main reason we want and need a global commitment to address climate change is that it’s imperative to avert the economically and socially disastrous impacts that will result from not dramatically reducing our carbon emissions. Economic benefits including new industries, new innovations, and new jobs are important side benefits that will certainly result from a decision to pursue low-carbon economic growth. But they aren’t the primary reason to take that path.

Unfortunately, political timelines and a general tendency toward short-termism means that many advocates still point to job benefits as the main reason to pursue a more sustainable economic future. And don’t get me wrong; I wholeheartedly believe these benefits are real. A recent report from ICF Consulting, commissioned by NextGen Climate America, does a particularly good job of calculating potential jobs from climate mitigation, looking at very specific “decarbonization strategies” and finding that with these strategies in place, the U.S. economy could add up to one million new jobs by 2030, and up to 2 million by 2050. The report is far better than most in that it calculates net jobs (taking into account job losses in the fossil fuel sector), and doesn’t try to define “green jobs” but rather talks about general sectors, e.g. construction and manufacturing, that will see gains from low-carbon investments.

But even with its very credible methodology, the ICF report will surely give rise to the usual response to such studies, which is to point to all the other studies and statements that include slightly different job projections—and then to use these discrepancies to attack the entire argument that a low-carbon economic transition might actually be good for workers and businesses.

We just saw such a green jobs fight here in California. In 2012 voters passed Proposition 39, closing a corporate tax loophole and directing half the revenues to clean energy projects. The legislature later directed these funds toward the state’s public school system. (Full disclosure: I am the chair of the Prop 39 Citizen Oversight Board.) Recently, the AP released a story attacking the program for not creating the number of jobs predicted during the campaign. As I wrote in my last Cliffnotes, the attack was unfair for myriad reasons, not least because it evaluated the program early into its tenure. But it was also completely predictable in that it involved a fight over the number of jobs that might or might not be created by Proposition 39 funding, rather than focusing on the real goal of the program: to lower carbon emissions and energy costs for California schools.

I won’t go into the whole story on the differences between the predicted and actual numbers for Prop 39. But I will say this: In every case, whether talking about “green jobs” or job creation in any other sector of the economy, the number of jobs predicted to come from any single investment of dollars will change based on the way in which the jobs are calculated. Are these “direct” jobs—that is, the specific jobs that will flow directly from the investment, e.g. construction jobs on a green school construction project? Or are they both direct and “indirect,” including the jobs in, say, manufacturing the materials being brought in and out of the construction site? Or are they all-inclusive, including also the “induced” jobs created when those construction and manufacturing workers go to nearby stores to buy goods, potentially inspiring the local 7-11 to hire another checker to meet the new demand? Further, are they calculated in actual workers or in “job-years,” the equivalent of one job for one year? Or are they measured by full-time equivalents (FTEs), in which several part time workers could potentially make up one job?

As my friend Carol Zabin from the UC Berkeley Labor Center pointed out in an email to me during the Prop 39 discussion, consideration of the indirect and induced jobs created by clean energy investments is standard and legitimate practice, used in employment impact studies in many industries, including the fossil fuel industry. This is precisely why the Transcanada folks predicted so many more jobs on the Keystone XL project than did many environmental organizations, for instance. The company included all the indirect and induced jobs (and also counted job-years rather than people); their detractors only counted direct permanent workers. On the other side of the ledger, climate advocates usually count all the indirect and induced jobs created by investments in clean energy—likely around 2-3 additional jobs created for each direct job in these industries—instead of focusing only on direct jobs.

In fact, most job counts for big infrastructure projects do include direct, indirect, and induced jobs. Many of these are in the construction industry, therefore technically “temporary” jobs. Even the Hoover Dam only supports about 250 permanent jobs, after all. But we didn’t build the Hoover Dam simply as a job creation program, and that (finally!) brings me back to my real point.

The reason we need to shift to a low-carbon economic growth model, increase our resilience to climate risk, and put ourselves on a pathway to a more sustainable future isn’t because doing so will create a bunch of jobs (though it will). The reason is that right now we’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to economic instability and staggering costs in the future, and we need to alter that path. New jobs are a wonderful co-benefit, as is the fact that many existing jobs will likely be healthier and safer if we shift some parts of the economy away from fossil fuels. But our ability to pursue good climate policies shouldn’t be crushed under a debate over dueling job estimates.

So let’s not let Paris become primarily a discussion about jobs. That’s not to say that it isn’t a good opportunity to think about how to make the new clean energy economy as productive and prosperous as possible for the world’s workers and communities. But let’s do so with an eye toward the ultimate goal: forging a lower-carbon, more sustainable economic future.