Van Jones, co-founder of Green For All and author of The Green Collar Economy, has been a firm advocate for a green energy economy that would tackle unemployment and climate change in one fell swoop. I got a chance to talk with him about how to lift people out of poverty, the obstacles to making this project a reality, and why it fulfills the promise to our children to protect our country. **Jones will discuss these issues and more at this weekend’s Hamptons Institute symposium, sponsored by Guild Hall in collaboration with the Roosevelt Institute (details below).
BC: How can addressing clean energy also tackle unemployment?
VJ: To shift America (and the world) to a cleaner energy economy, millions of people will have to go to work in new industries. This necessary shift opens up tremendous new opportunities for work and wealth creation.
People forget: solar panels don’t put themselves up. Wind turbines don’t manufacture themselves. Businesses don’t retrofit themselves to waste less energy and water, nor do homes weatherize themselves. We know that urban farms require less fuel for tractors and transport, but community gardens don’t plant themselves. Nor, in our industrial society, do trees. Hybrid buses don’t build or drive themselves. To green our country, regular people will have to put on hard hats and work boots, roll up their sleeves — and get to work.
In other words: we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time, with the same method. We can beat global warming and the global recession at the same time, with the same method. We can do this by putting people to work re-powering America with clean energy.
Too often we think about the green economy as an elite market niche, one in which affluent people spend more money to consume greener and cleaner products. We tend to overlook the fact that a mature clean energy economy in fact will give an opportunity to ordinary people to earn more money as clean energy workers/entrepreneurs — and save more money, through conservation and energy efficiency.
BC: What would a green jobs bill look like, in an ideal world?
VJ: A green jobs bill would include both job creation and job training.
Number one: there would be a cost for dumping carbon into our atmosphere and a cap on total emissions. The government must make a clear and firm decision — terminating the idea in our society it is free to pump infinite amounts of carbon into the air. Once that happens, private capital will flow even more aggressively into developing and deploying the alternative, less-polluting technologies.
Number two: we also need a national renewable energy goal. Such a goal, sometimes called a renewable energy standard (RES), would spell out what percentage of our power America plans to get from renewable sources. We need to aim high — in the area of 20-25 percent — to create the urgent demand for new technologies, manufacturing plants and green jobs. We are talking about capital-intensive enterprises, so market certainty is the key. Investors and entrepreneurs have to know that there will be a guaranteed U.S. renewable energy market in which they can compete. Otherwise, they will create the next generation of green companies and green jobs in Asia, not here.
Number three: we need to invest in job training programs, especially those that include child care, transit stipends and paid apprenticeships and internships. To make sure we aren’t training people for jobs that don’t exist, the government should provide companies with loans or loan guarantees. And the government should also directly employ people to do things like coastal restoration, land restoration, reforestation and similar programs that absorb carbon and protect America’s beauty.
BC: Some say it’s too costly to deal with climate change or switch to green energy. How do you respond to such an assertion?
VJ: Higher energy costs are unavoidable in all future scenarios. The question is: do we pay a little bit more now? Or do we pay a whole lot later? For the equivalent of a postage stamp a day for each American, we can put a price on carbon today that will send a signal to private capital to invest in the clean technologies of tomorrow. Taking a vast portfolio of new energy solutions to scale will ultimately drive down costs through competition. Dirty energy is a finite resource; the more of it we use, the scarcer it becomes. And the laws of supply and demand drive up the price, inevitably, over time. But solar and wind are abundant and renewable resources. The more we deploy the technologies to capture wind and solar power, the cheaper those technologies become.
If we do nothing, the ensuing climate catastrophe will wreck our economy — including wreaking havoc on our food production systems. All credible scientists agree on this point.
Also, Asia is rising economically — and is thirsty for oil. The price pressures on oil and oil price shocks, due to Asia’s economic rise, mean that all steps made now to reduce oil dependence will protect us from pain and volatility later.
Lastly, the disaster in the gulf shows: relying on dangerous, dirty fuels can at times impose incalculable costs. I have never heard of a wind farm collapsing and causing a massive wind-slick. I have never heard of a solar farm collapsing and leaving behind a catastrophic sun-spill.
BC: What will it take for the government to make this a reality? What will it take from businesses?
VJ: Government needs to do two things: put a price on carbon and invest heavily in new technologies.
America’s government has to get the public investments right. The President’s recovery package (so-called “stimulus” package) put $80 billion on the table for investment; that was a good start. Dramatically more is necessary. But the government also has to get the public rules right. That means putting a price on carbon, so the cleaner forms of energy become more competitive. As soon as that happens, a tidal wave of new capital, innovation and entrepreneurship will flood into the clean energy space — creating new jobs and opportunities for Americans of all walks of life. We did that for the internet, with public investments in the basic system through the Pentagon, followed by rules that encouraged innovation and competition. And that is why the internet took off in the United States first.
Businesses will have to lead the charge — demanding uniform, national, predictable rules to govern this transition, so that there is a level and rational playing field on which they can compete to make the next fortunes.
BC: You’ve said before that this should be a political safe haven, but it hasn’t happened yet. What are the obstacles?
VJ: The main obstacle is the entrenched power of the legacy polluters.
It is extremely disappointing to me to see that even now when leading Democrats and even military veterans try to make our energy future an area of common ground and not a battleground, they are still being rebuffed by dirty energy devotees in both parties and undermined overall by the polluter lobby.
The dirty energy crowd can be offset only by the power of the rising clean energy sector and the American people, aroused across party lines. Iraq veterans will have to play the leading role in speaking out. They are the ones who bled and saw their buddies die in an oil-rich country, fighting in a war which related to the petroleum reserves that Iraq controls.
As I have said, clean energy independence should be an area of common ground. People in red states and blue states can agree that clean air is better than dirty air; therefore we should use clean energy where we can. People in red states and blue states can agree that we are a nation blessed with extraordinary natural wealth and beauty, which we would be foolish to waste; therefore conservation and efficiency are values we all can share. People in red states and blue states can agree that if we can fight pollution and poverty at the same time, letting people work their way out of poverty without undermining community health, we have a moral obligation to do so.
Progressives always like clean energy ideas. But conservatives should like this agenda, too. After all, we are not promoting welfare. We are promoting work. We are not pushing for more entitlement programs. We are pushing for more enterprise. We are not trying re-distribute existing wealth. We are trying to reinvigorate our stagnant energy sector, to create avenues for new wealth. Clean energy innovation, job creation and energy independence should be common ground for all Americans.
I would argue that we have a patriotic duty to move toward energy independence and clean energy. It is a matter of national security — energy security, climate security, economic security, job security, everything.
Little kids sing a song called “America the Beautiful.” They sing a song called “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land.” To me, those songs are not just nice little ditties. They are marching orders. They are commandments that we must protect America’s beauty from the clear-cutters, the strip-miners, the oil spillers. They are pledges we have made. They are promises to keep.
Environmentalists and clean energy champions should stop telling people that we are working for “sustainability,” which nobody understands. Rather, we should tell people we are working to protect our country. We are working to make America stronger for the long run. We should stop calling ourselves environmentalists — and just call ourselves patriots.