Given the current economic landscape, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is likely getting a different reception than it would have three years ago. With unemployment still at a twenty-year high, preserving economic stability and preventing job losses is one of the more popular methods of targeting the bill for flaws. While opponents to the bill have claimed that the resulting rising costs of the legislation could add financial burden to families and sacrifice American jobs, the truth is that sustainability is the best source of economic rejuvenation that the country has and according to recent polling, the number of naysayers are dwindling.
According to a poll released by Zogby International, when likely voters were asked how climate efforts will affect American jobs, 51% believe that new job creation will result while an addition 17% believe it will have no positive or negative affect. More impressively, those who believe that American jobs would be sacrificed were in the minority in all age and income groups, speaking to a sentiment brewing uniformly throughout the population. Numbers like these make me wonder if the range of benefits that sustainability can bring is becoming clearer to more people in the U.S.. Wishful thinking perhaps, but it is a good place to start.
My own goals for helping to spread that kind of knowledge were bolstered in 2007, when I sat in a conference hall with 8,000 others listening to Bill Clinton give the keynote speech at the Greenbuild Expo in Chicago, hosted by the USGBC. The former President spoke at length about the progress made by the Clinton Climate Initiative and their future goals, but in speaking about sustainability’s affect on the economy, Mr. Clinton had a quote that has stayed with me:
“For all the skeptics, I think this is the greatest opportunity our country has had to generate broad-based prosperity since we mobilized for World War II.”
It struck me because it was the first time I had heard a politician asserting the latent job value in sustainability and what it could produce for our country. The result could be a reversal of the exodus of industrial jobs that has plagued America for decades and its opportunities for implementation are widespread leaving few pockets of the economy without a chance for benefit. New job prospects can emerge from three lines of national intervention: restoration, innovation and conversion—all equally necessary and co-supportive.
Restortation – As a society, we we have only recently begun to fully realize how interconnected the workings of the planet truly are, and as a result, the full effect that our actions impose on our surroundings. Naturally, such a realization brings some grim findings. 11 million people live within a mile of over 1,300 Superfund Sites in the U.S., catagorized by the Environmental Protection Agency as some of the worst toxic hazards sites in the country. A proactive, rather than cursory, approach to remedying our own mistakes could sprout a formative industry of trained, specialized workers. Everyday brings new environmental violations released by the EPA, so having supply problems for work in this arena is likely a ways off. The rewards for such efforts are far reaching. Beyond a more healthy natural landscape, the reduction in pollution-damaged land would parallel a reduction in health problems rising from contamination, especially our drinking water–effectively curbing our medical spending while increasingly our livelihood.
Innovation – Our country still operates as a world-renowned center for technological excellence, though perhaps not as uncontested as we once were. Meeting the future’s needs for renewable energy, water purification, recycling, building technology, waste treatment and transportation will take nothing less than technological excellence. In the end, it will get done—the only question is whether we will do it, or pay someone else to do it. Amidst its seemingly endless string of needless opposition, the Cape Wind Project and its resulting turbine factory was slated to create between 600 and 1000 pre-operational jobs and 150 permanent jobs during operation for 420 megawatts of wind energy. We need closer to 200 gigawatts and just as much solar. Creating a new source of American jobs while weening ourselves off of oil and coal offers fewer violated ecosystems, cleaner air, cleaner water and increased national security.
Conversion – Numerous parts of our infrastructure are reaching the crest of their lifecycle curve, marking the transition from an asset to a liability for the economy. Power generation, roads and railways, power conveyance and water systems all comprise lingering costs that will eventually become outmoded. Creating a new life for these pieces of infrastructure can allow us to draw out new kinds of latent value from systems that we have already paid for. This is perhaps one of the largest sources of environmental resistance. What are we going to do with all the oil and coal jobs in the country? We will turn them into something else that will evolve into a new staple of the American economy. One 54-year-old plant on the Ohio River is being converted to burn grass and wood cubes to produce 312 megawatts of power, leaving it as one of the largest biomass plants in the country. The retooling of the plant will purportedly turn 105 local (coal) jobs, into green jobs.
Serious Materials became the most recent epitome of scanning the landscape for conversion opportunities before wasting time, money and energy building new facilities. The California-based company produces high efficiency building products like high performance windows and doors as well as insulating drywall. They represent the transition into the next generation of the building industry which new standards will be crafted around. Their search found a recently closed window factories in Chicago, Illinois and Vandergrift, Pennsylvania and purchased their facilities, hiring back workers that would have otherwise remained laid off. Retooled and retrofitted, the plants continue to function producing better products and sustaining employment.
To date, the climate bill is the fastest way to begin the transition to an economy supported by an Environmental Industry base. Environmental commentator Joe Romm recently said that although he gives the bill a “B-“ as an emissions bill, he gives it an “solid A” as a renewable energy bill. The Zogby poll claimed that 71% supported ACES Act passed by the House of Representatives. 22% believed that Congress is doing an adequate amount to address climate change, with 45% saying they are doing too little. Less than a third of respondants (28%) believe that Congress is doing too much. We will see if growing public sentiment seeps its way into the Senate.