As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Thorny Green Jobs Issue

I truly recommend this David Leonhardt interview with President Obama. Regardless of where you stand on his policies, you can agree that he understands the issues and can articulate a sharp vision. Here he talks about the need for a more balanced economy.

That’s why I don’t just want to see more college graduates; I also want to specifically see more math and science graduates, I specifically want to see more folks in engineering. I think part of the postbubble economy that I’m describing is one in which we are restoring a balance between making things and providing services, whether it’s marketing or catering to people or servicing folks in some way. Those are all good jobs, and we’re not going to return to an economy in which manufacturing is as large a percentage as it was back in the 1940s just because of automation and technological advance [...]

But the broader point is that if you look at who our long-term competition will be in the global economy — China, India, the E.U., Brazil, Korea — the countries that are producing the best-educated work force, whose education system emphasizes the sciences and mathematics, who can translate those technology backgrounds or those science backgrounds into technological applications, they are going to have a significant advantage in the economy. And I think that we’ve got to have enough of that in order to maintain our economic strength.

I think a healthy economy is going to have a broad mix of jobs, and there has to be a place for somebody with terrific mechanical aptitude who can perform highly skilled tasks with his hands, whether it’s in construction or manufacturing. And I don’t think that those jobs should vanish. I do think that they will constitute a smaller percentage of the overall economy. And so what we’re going to have to do is, with a younger generation, find new places for that kind of work.

The possibilities are there, though. I spoke during the campaign of this company that I visited, McKinstry, in Seattle, where you’ve got a bunch of welders and tradesmen who are now retrofitting buildings. They’re not performing the same kind of manufacturing that their fathers might have, but with similar skill sets they are now making hospitals and schools and office buildings much more energy efficient, and then that’s providing enormous value to the economy as a whole.

Interestingly enough, the current issue we're having with green jobs is that we're retaining the construction and labor sector but losing the knowledge sector, precisely the opposite of the President's proposed vision.

As the Obama government gets ready to raise a protectionist wall against offshoring, the US firms seem to be shipping more jobs to India.

The US firms have offshored 22,000 green technology jobs to India since January 1, 2009, Doug Brown, co-author of the influential 2009 Green Outsourcing Report, informed TNIE [...]

Noting an interesting irony the authors of the report say, “In the US, green stimulus plan is creating low-wage installation and construction jobs.” But, in India, which is usually associated with cheap and low-skill work, “…New green jobs include higher dollar engineers, strategic business management and support technicians charged with designing innovative environmental friendly solutions,” they add.

A country that can employ all these laborers to retrofit homes and build out the smart grid has some chance of stability, but only at the low-wage end. But the design and engineering sector has floated away to India.

And while providing green jobs in low-income communities may breathe economic life into those areas, the people living there may not be able to, well, breathe.

A read of the "Justice in the Air" report would maybe change that perspective. Using data from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory and Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators reports, researchers were able to locate where toxic air pollution from industrial facilities is strongest. They also determined the percentage of racial minorities and low-income families who live in those heavily impacted areas. To no surprise, they found that African-, Latino- and Asian-Americans suffer the worst health risks. For example, 69 percent of those whose health is impacted by ExxonMobil's pollution are minorities [...]

So, how exactly can a green-jobs movement alleviate poverty without equal concern for pollution exposure and health consequences? What good is giving a person a job if their frail health from toxic pollution will affect their productivity? Most of the jobs that have been tagged for the poor -- you know, the ones that "can't be exported" and "don't require a diploma" -- are outdoor jobs. So if you're installing a solar panel on a roof, weatherizing a building, cleaning up waste, or doing urban garden work, chances are in America (if you're poor and/or black/Latino) you'll be doing this in an area prone to air pollution.

We need to address these issues of environmental justice. At-risk communities bear the brunt of toxic pollution. Heck, even James Inhofe sponsored a black carbon bill, so it's not like we need to drop these concerns for political expediency.

The green jobs movement makes some intuitive sense, but there are larger questions that need to be addressed, through regulating the air we breathe, through improving our educational competitiveness so all of the green economy can stay in America.

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