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“Green” Policy and Regional Development

October 28, 2009 by Joshua Wright

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed piece by Rob Sentz, EMSI’s marketing director and author of a series of five green jobs papers.

Click here for a PDF version of this piece.

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Illustration by Mark Beauchamp

Introduction

Over the past year, EMSI has been fielding questions from local planners (workforce boards, community colleges, and economic developers) on how to look at green jobs, particularly at the regional level. To respond, we’ve been doing our best to link labor market information (LMI) to potential green sectors (e.g., renewable energy, energy efficiency, green construction, etc.) so people can gain an understanding of trends, earnings, education levels, and even things like skills associated with “green occupation clusters” in their own economies. In doing so, we have made three general observations:

  1. Many of these jobs are going to fall within the construction and manufacturing sectors (e.g., welders, roofers, HVAC installers, etc.),
  2. Based on a lack of understanding, concrete information, and large scale demand, “green jobs” can be a very difficult development mission for local planners, and
  3. It is vital to speak “from the data” as much as possible for the basic reason that if plans are being made on tenuous assumptions that cannot be supported, real people’s lives, careers, and families could be harmed.

Our purpose in this piece is to examine these observations at a little more length—especially with regard to regional economic and workforce development. So let’s start with a little frame of reference. In an earlier piece we mentioned that much of the thought behind green jobs has sprung from groups like the Center for American Progress, which have been integral in getting these policies pushed to the forefront. To illustrate, last year the Center’s CEO, John Podesta, wrote (in reference to the recession),

At the same time, we face a growing climate crisis that will require us to rapidly invest in new energy infrastructure, cleaner sources of power, and more efficient use of electricity and fuels in order to cut global warming pollution. There is much work to be done in building smart solutions at a scale and speed that is bold    enough to meet this gathering challenge.

It is time for a new vision for the economic revitalization of the nation and a restoration of American leadership in the world. We must seize this precious opportunity to mobilize the country and the international community toward a brighter, more prosperous future. At the heart of this opportunity is clean energy, remaking the vast energy systems that power the nation and the world. We must fundamentally change the way we produce and consume energy and dramatically reduce our dependence on oil. The economic opportunities provided by such a transformation are vast, not to mention the national security benefits of reducing oil dependence and the pressing need to fight global warming. The time for action is now.

This “requirement to invest” in cleaner energy to “cut global warming pollution” rests on an assumption that global warming represents an imminent threat—meaning that nothing should preempt a rapid, decisive response. The actual “investment” in clean energy and things like training are going to be made largely by the federal government via tax dollars collected from American businesses/taxpayers.

Now given the recession, job loss, and our nation’s otherwise dismal financial condition, many are questioning the continued emphasis on things like green jobs, climate change, and cap-and-trade legislation. In recent months we have seen a sizable push back against some of this policy. For instance, certain industry sectors (e.g., agriculture) have voiced economic concerns about “going green.” According to Green Inc., a New York Times blog on energy and environmental issues, the American Farm Bureau issued a memo that says:

Climate change bills in both the Senate and the House will impact our farmers and ranchers, hit America’s consumers and impair the economy of our nation. For farmers and ranchers, it will mean higher fuel and fertilizer costs, which puts us at a competitive disadvantage in international markets with other countries that do not have similar carbon emission restrictions. For the future prosperity of the U.S. economy and American agriculture, climate change legislation must be defeated by Congress.

At its core, the memo indicates a growing concern that new cap-and-trade legislation would have significant adverse impacts on the agricultural economy and, as a direct result, on many rural communities, heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihood.

In addition, some local workforce/education professionals in charge of industry-oriented training programs that support areas like manufacturing have their own set of concerns about green initiatives. Our example, which comes from Inside Higher Ed, makes the following statement:

As the Obama administration talks up its “green jobs” initiatives, some leaders in workforce development are concerned that more traditional skill trades within the manufacturing and construction fields are being deemphasized by community colleges looking for federal dollars to support newfangled programs.

Among those worried are advocacy groups like the American Welding Society.

“The American Welding Society gets concerned when we see Congress act, as it did this year, to discontinue funding for proven programs like the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technical Training programs in favor of brand new ‘green jobs’ education,” said Ross Hancock, the group’s spokesman, noting that the vote to discontinue has only passed the House so far. “That’s because, right now, there is a shortage of skilled welders in this country, with welders retiring twice as fast as new ones enter the workforce. This trend is having a critical effect on our ability to compete in both ‘green’ and traditional industries.”

Our general observation here is that there is a certain level of tension between “national policies” and what can be thought of as “regional interests.” This tension seems to arise from how a national policy initiative would or could impinge on the economic interests of a region. This sort of thing doesn’t seem all that uncommon—regional development interests often find themselves at odds with national policy initiatives based on issues like economics, job creation, and local beliefs and values.

A third and final example that typifies the tension between green development and economic concerns comes from a Gallup poll, which indicates that the recession has dried up some of the support for increased environmental regulation. According to Gallup’s Editor and Chief, Frank Newport,

Right now, Americans are more concerned about the economy than the environment…The politician who says, ‘I’m going to cripple jobs and shut down factories’ would be in trouble in this economy.

The poll supports the notion that economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. In recent decades, the United States, which is home to the world’s foremost “capitalistic” thinkers, has certainly become a great champion of environmental issues. After all, the US is home to some of the most advanced environmental regulation (Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, RCRA, Endangered Species Act, etc.), as well as countless national and community-based organizations that emphasize protection, stewardship, and conservation of the environment. Furthermore, huge, multi-national corporations (like GE, Apple, and IBM) never fail to mention something about how their company cares about the environment and makes “Product X” using only the most environmentally responsible practices/materials.

However, since the recession started, there has been a tangible push back against increased environmental regulation. Above all, this seems to be indicating that our ability to be environmentally conscious stems from our overall economic stability. Economics and environmental regulation need to find a way to exist harmoniously. If one makes the other unstable, they both will eventually become unsustainable. Destroying the environment will ultimately kill economic development. Over-regulation also will ultimately kill economic growth and development. If you have no economy at all, you will have no money to support environmental interests.

So we find ourselves at a crossroads between two competing points of view—one that thinks that we need to restore economic stability before we deal with environmental issues, and one that believes that if we don’t address environmental concerns right now, we are forfeiting our future. With these things in mind, we want to delve into three areas which (at least in our minds) illustrate why local interests are sometimes at odds with green development.

Note: If you have found that “green” has really helped your local development efforts, please let us know how and why. It would be a great encouragement to others who are feeling their way through this new and expanding area.

*Click below for the remaining sections of the op-ed:

First Observation

Second Observation

Third Observation and Final Remark

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