Robert Pollin’s idea—investing $200 billion, about a fifth of what was spent on bank bailouts in 2008, each year in order to save the planet—makes a lot of sense. The key question for me is how to spend this money in a way that reduces carbon emissions without creating unnecessary suffering and political polarization.
In order to succeed in this bold venture, federal, state, and local governments will need to put in place hundreds of policies and practices to safeguard against the false tradeoff between jobs and the environment that Pollin identifies. Implementing any of these policies would take an enormous amount of money and effort. Broadly, there are three major challenges.
First, bringing production to the United States. Pollin argues that his plan would create a significant number of jobs. But to prevent those jobs from going abroad, and to counteract the impact of massive job losses in the fossil fuel industry, we will need to design and manufacture—at home—the new equipment and infrastructure required to replace fossil fuels.
New jobs in efficiency and renewables have proven to be low-wage.
The greatest obstacle will be manufacturing renewable-energy equipment in the United States. The vast majority of solar panels, for example, are made abroad. Wind turbines have found some footing in the Midwest, but much of this technology is still imported. Policymakers will need to work around several international agreements that currently prohibit many kinds of domestic sourcing. Companies that own the technology will also need to agree to build factories in the United States in exchange for public purchase of equipment.
Second, ensuring that the jobs created by the green economy are good ones. There is no guarantee that Pollin’s new jobs will pay decent wages, provide sufficient benefits, or offer the opportunity to unionize. In fact over the past five years, most new jobs in energy efficiency and many in renewable energy have proven to be low-wage, temporary, and nonunion. If we don’t make certain that new jobs are of high quality, we may find ourselves in the intolerable situation of eliminating tens of thousands of high-wage jobs in the fossil fuel industry in favor of tens of thousands of low-wage, dead-end alternatives.
The United States has faced this kind of challenge before and responded badly. Despite all the federal investment in energy efficiency generated by the American Investment and Recovery Act of 2009, few new jobs were unionized or paid more than $15 per hour. That is why many of the fossil fuel industry workers—including machinists, electricians, painters, and welders—currently earning a union wage are likely to view Pollin’s proposal with skepticism.
Third, building a new training and apprenticeship infrastructure. Pollin’s proposal for a transitional “superfund” for workers will not be enough to provide an equitable transition away from fossil fuels, since it would focus on the individual worker. Instead there will need to be a large-scale retraining effort, involving the creation of expensive and extensive national training and apprenticeship programs, which presently exist only in the construction trades in a few blue states. These programs would have to include a massive effort to recruit and train women and people of color lest green jobs become the exclusive province of older white men laid off from the defunct fossil fuel industry. These apprenticeship programs would ideally be located near those major universities that can help build on the innovation and design possibilities in domestic manufacturing.
Even though there may be more work and investment ahead of us than Pollin acknowledges, I do not mean to sound pessimistic. I think a plan such as Pollin’s is necessary for the future of the American economy as well as for the future of the planet’s ecosystems. But it will not happen spontaneously, simply by allocating the funding. Years of careful planning will have to go into building the policy and programmatic infrastructure to make the clean energy revolution work.