Green Jobs or Industrial Calamity? Dueling Economic Models in Carbon Politics

by Richard T. Stuebi

In early June, the U.S. Senate considered the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act (S. 2191), which proposed the establishment of a cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions, analogous to the cap-and-trade program in place in the U.S. for acid rain pollutants since the mid-1990’s.

Predictably, the bill was defeated, before even going to a formal vote. In a press release, Senator Lieberman bravely painted the defeat with a positive spin: “We have convinced a majority of the Senate to support mandatory, comprehensive, market-based legislation to curb global warming and enhance U.S. energy security.” No-one expected the bill to make it out alive from the Senate, and even if it somehow had, the House would never have passed a similar bill, and surely President Bush would never have signed any such bill into law.

As might be expected, the Senate debate on the Lieberman-Warner bill largely came down to economic considerations. Those who favored the bill foretold of the massive “green economy” that would be spurred by its passage: the creation of wealth and jobs that would occur by pursuing technology innovations and growing businesses in renewable energy and energy efficiency necessary to combat climate change. On the flip side, those who voted against the bill saw the threat – increases in energy prices, loss of industrial competitiveness, declining economic activity – much more acutely than the opportunity.

In my view, both sides of this debate are guilty of hyberbole and exaggeration. Let’s take each in turn.

Regarding the green economy, perhaps no phrase is more in vogue these days than “green-collar jobs” — a concept most compellingly articulated by Van Jones, the Founder and President of Green For All. A dynamic speaker, Mr. Jones was among the first to recognize that the adoption of green energy (renewables and energy efficiency) leads to local economic activity consisting of jobs that look very much like what used to be called “blue-collar” jobs – which offers the opportunity to rescue a segment of the U.S. population that has been increasingly disenfranchised in the past few decades.

I think this line of argument is conceptually solid. Certainly, energy efficiency retrofits and solar panel installations cannot be sent offshore: they must be done locally. And, in many instances, the best opportunities are available in downtrodden urban areas that badly need building rehabilitation, economic revitalization and new job possibilities.

My primary beef with the green economy crowd is not with Van Jones, but to his often overly-ardent disciples that assign way too much credibility to estimates – in my view, guesses – of how many green jobs exist or will be created. Every politician and reporter wants to know the number of new jobs that will result from a move to an advanced energy economy. My pat answer to that question is “It’s likely to be a very big number, but no-one can possibly quantify it with any degree of rigor.” Yet, these “job studies” invariably produce numbers that are told and retold until they become accepted as fact — when actually, they are pretty darn dubious.

This is most pointedly illustrated by the 2007 study commissioned by the American Solar Energy Society, developed by Roger Bezdek of Management Information Services, which claims a current “direct” green energy job count in the U.S. of 3.7 million. The incredulity of the study’s results becomes clear when reviewing a case study for the state of Ohio, in which about 500,000 jobs are credited to 2006 energy efficiency activities in Ohio. Note that Ohio’s current employment level is about 5.3-5.4 million. Does anyone who knows anything about Ohio really think that nearly 10% of today’s Ohio workforce is employed in energy efficiency products and services? I sure don’t.

The other side of the climate change policy debates, those clinging to the status quo and skeptical of the advanced energy economy, is also guilty of overstatement to defend their position.

Earlier this year, the American Council on Capital Formation (ACCF) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) commissioned a study by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) of the economic implications of Lieberman-Warner. The ACCF/NAM/SAIC study projected strong adverse impacts on manufacturing and industry, especially for many key states.

However, as well summarized in reports by both the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the ACCF/NAM/SAIC study is just one of several studies on this issue, with results that are far more economically scary than others performed by unbiased organizations such as U.S. EPA, U.S. DOE’s Energy Information Agency, and MIT. The ACCF/NAM/SAIC results are outliers – yet, they are used again and again by those interests who wanted to see Lieberman-Warner killed.

In short, both sides of the carbon debate – green jobs vs. economic destruction – use economic models inappropriately to justify their stances. This tendency reflects badly on both sides. But, of course, it is the side with the deeper pockets – the established industrial sector – that wins. And, good policy loses.

As an economist, I wish that people would use economic models for insights, not numbers – a point very well summarized in an excellent white paper by Janet Peace and John Weyant issued by the Pew Center. If political leaders were to strip away the overly bold rhetoric and review the facts and analyses with the proper context and perspective, I think we would make a necessary first large stride towards forging an agreement on good carbon policy. In the meantime, the world is hostage to dueling models wielded by careless advocates making overly bold statements.

Because insight is desperately needed to cut through the fog of biased chatter, to provide some closing perspective on the tradeoffs between the costs and benefits of climate change policy, I’ll leave the last word to remarks made last year by an eminent economist, the former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, who gives a succinct personal view on the thorny economic questions associated with climate change:

“First of all, I don’t think [taking action on climate change] is going to have that much of an impact on the economy overall. Second of all, if you don’t do it, you can be sure that the economy will go down the drain in the next 30 years. What may happen to the dollar, and what may happen to growth in China or whatever, pale into insignificance compared with the question of what happens to this planet over the next 30 or 40 years if no action is taken.”

What more need be said?

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

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