One would think that the inauguration of a President who appeared serious about tackling climate change, a military presence in the Middle East, and a disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would get Congress to pass some sort of climate legislation passed. Well, now the blame game has begun, as senators and representatives scramble to save their jobs, Congress points at Obama, his Administration blames Congress, and everyone from the business lobby to environmental groups start pointing at others before they get pointed to.
Much of the argument in favor of a climate change bill was that it would spark the growth of “green jobs,” which many folks in polls seem to support. The problem is that no one is really year on what a “green job” is. Eighteen months ago, Obama pledged that his policies, if enacted, could create 5 million jobs over 20 years. Now many are upset with him for not articulating what that meant, punting to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Congressional leadership to figure out instead. But was a focus on green jobs flawed in the first place?
Part of the problem is that unemployment is stubbornly hovering around 10 percent. The evidence suggesting that an ambitious green job plan at any level would have an effect on an unemployment rate that only took a temporary dip because of US Census jobs, which have since dried up. Some would argue that green jobs would not make any difference as far as dealing with unemployment goes because by creating a job, say, in the clean energy sector, you are taking away a job in the traditional fuel sector. Others would retort that is nonsense because many clean energy technologies are labor intensive, while churning out fossil fuels like petroleum relies on batch processing that does not require as much labor.
One issue during the debate was that those who opposed the bill were able to harp on its costs and the uncertainty that would result over passing such legislation. The climate bill’s proponents were often caught flatfooted, too. For example, why is it that we did not hear about the argument that the petroleum industry probably received about $12 billion in subsidies at the last count, or about $72 billion in subsidies for much of the past decade? Or why did they not parade business leaders who would make a solid economic case for the legislation—after all, many firms and utilities have already built the cost of their carbon into their long range strategic planning?
Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the green jobs argument and the banter that accompanied with it just did not resonate with citizens. During an economic downturn, few want to hear about net job creation: people want new jobs if they are unemployed, but if they are employed, they just want to save the jobs they already hold. A net increase in jobs does not comfort workers if that means many will be lost and those workers have to start over. The debate over climate policy also morphed into jobs policy, so the traditional left-right jobs discussion skewed the debate even further.
Green jobs sound great. Green jobs are wanted. But the economic uncertainty and anger that comes with it just overwhelmed the climate bill—in the end, American voters say they want change, but they abhor uncertainty, and unfortunately, the climate bill’s supporters allowed the opposing point of view to frame the debate. Lobbing jobs into public policy, energy, the environment, taxation, and fiscal policy turned into too messy of a hornets’ nest, and elected officials in turn swarmed away from the bill, stung.