Originally published by Dissent.
The moral reason for serious green investment proposals is the urgency of climate change mitigation. But since climate scientists’ warnings have proven insufficient grounds for action, political strategists espouse green industrial policy only insofar as it’s a boon for economic growth and recovery. Consequently, climate finance has repeatedly faced fierce opposition not only because of allegedly bad climate science, but because of doubts about the accuracy of green job creation projections.
Appealing to job creation as a justification for climate action, even with good intentions, has been a counterproductive red herring. This fact should be apparent to anyone monitoring the tedious debates surrounding nearly every clean energy sector subsidy and regional high-speed rail project from California to Birmingham, England. Nevertheless, the distraction persists, and it is worth understanding why.
The ILO 2012 annual report warns that the world faces the “urgent challenge” of creating 600 million new jobs over the next decade in order to curtail cross-national economic contraction and social strife. With only six of thirty-six economically advanced countries (Austria, Germany, Israel, Luxembourg, Malta, and Poland) having increased employment rates since 2007, the ILO is pessimistic about the prospects of meeting that challenge without a radical reversal of fiscal austerity schemes and a massive escalation of social spending. The last few months of dismal U.S. jobs reports, persisting even though Washington could be borrowing at only 1.45 percent interest, seem to accord with that pessimism. The private sector has exacerbated the crisis. Corporate managers are hoarding excess revenues and refusing to adequately reinvest in workers despite record profits, which now account for more than 10 percent of GDP for the first time in history.
Large-scale climate finance could put a considerable dent in worldwide unemployment, argues a UN Green Jobs Initiative report released May 31. The study states that CO2-reducing government policies and investments could yield as many as 60 million new jobs over the next two decades, with projected growth most pronounced in developing countries hardest hit by climate change. The report highlights encouraging precedents for the 60 million jobs projection. The renewable energy sector, for instance, doubled employment levels between 2006 and 2010. In the United States alone, the environmental goods and services industry employs 3 million workers. In the EU, 14.6 million workers are employed to protect biodiversity and rehabilitate natural resources and forests. Germany stands out as a quintessential case of climate-jobs synthesis: the country has invested €100 billion in green products and services, energy bills and emissions have abated, and an average 300,000 directs jobs have been added each year that it has carried out green initiatives. Meanwhile, the dozen industries accounting for three-fourths of global CO2 emissions employ only about 10 percent of the workforce in industrialized countries. The UN projects that only a fraction of these workers will lose their jobs in the transition to sustainability.
Does this render null and void the ubiquitous proclamations that green investments have been a net job killer? Perhaps it would if opponents of climate finance trusted the employment projections of a group unapologetically called the Green Jobs Initiative. But the UN, as the institutional garrison of the global climate change regime, has scant reputational capital in fossil fuel circles. Of course, not even the OECD’s June 4 studyaffirming the jobs potential of transitioning to a low-carbon economy will carry much persuasive force in that crowd. Politically connected fossil fuel firms detest climate finance not because they’re science-illiterate or skeptical about jobs numbers, but because they like the current situation just fine. Their efforts to affect policy outcomes and forestall competition in energy markets through persistent lobbying have been strikingly effective and lucrative.
Consider the flurry of recent revelations about the role of money in climate politics: 1) an EU program (with an €80 billion budget largely designated for green R&D) officially enlisted gas as an acceptable form of “clean energy,” after an aggressive eighteen-month lobbying effort by the European gas industry; 2) President Obama’s “climate change” aide, Heather Zichal, is officially tasked with forging an alliance with the oil and gas industry amid concerns that their lobbying and advertising are powerful enough to threaten his re-election chances this year; and 3) many of the same corporations publicly expressing concern about climate change are actively funding think tanks and studies that misrepresent climate science. The third revelation is particularly instructive. Just as many corporations claiming to be concerned about the future quality of life on the planet are in fact climate obstructionists, many expressing concern about the jobs crisis couldn’t care less about the poor and unemployed, present and future.
It’s time to abandon the tactic of touting job numbers to satisfy insincere skeptics. Every positive green jobs report has been castigated by political adversaries employing identical argumentative techniques, like TransCanada and the natural gas industry. Acknowledging this political reality is not admitting defeat, but opening up an opportunity to rethink strategy.
During times of overwhelming economic challenges, we hardly consider what market stability would really mean for the planet. Consider what happened after only a very modest recovery in Europe during 2010: greenhouse gas emissions in the EU increasedby 2.4 percent, despite countries like Germany, Sweden, France, and Switzerland having some of the most aggressive climate change mitigation policies in the world. Emissions outpaced mitigation efforts largely due to a spike in energy demand on the heels of revitalized household incomes and population growth.
If emissions are to peak before 2020 and then rapidly diminish, as scientists argue they must in order to avert dangerous, irreversible, and abrupt climate change, mitigation policies must be supplemented by international efforts to substantially decrease current consumption levels. A coalition of 105 climate science institutions released a joint report shortly before the recent Rio+20 event advocating the reduction of “unsustainable lifestyles” in rich countries, better provision of contraception to those who would like it in the developing world, and greener urban design. World leaders paid short shrift to the advice at the Rio+20 gathering, however, and the event itself left much to be desired.
Under present circumstances, it’s hard to envision how the world could rapidly diminish emissions. The global population has nearly doubled since 1970 and is expanding by 1.5 million humans per week; the annual rate of increase in world population is roughly six times greater than it was in 1953. At the same time, religious and nationalist forces champion the virtues of fecundity and make contraception even harder to obtain. Most policy-makers and journalists will not touch the question of population growth with a ten-foot pole for fear of sparking outraged cries about the slippery slope to China’s one-child policy. But whether or not the situation is completely intractable, we fail to communicate the enormity of the problem when we present climate finance as just one of many remedies to a jobs problem. There is something self-destructive about “green” proposals that, without qualification, tout the promise of yet more growth.