In September, hundreds of thousands of climate activists marched on Manhattan to bring attention to – and demand action from leaders on – environmental degradation and climate change. By now, just about everyone recognizes these as civilization-threatening problems requiring our attention. Even the Republican position on the issue is slowly evolving. As the overwhelming evidence implicating human activity mounts and the disastrous consequences of climate change are being experienced firsthand around the world, the question is finally turning from, “Is it happening?” to, “What are we going to do about it?”
Yet there are still plenty of holdouts in the political and business sectors who are stalling environmental progress. One of their favorite canards, and probably the single-silliest argument that can be made against environmental action, is that it will cost America jobs.
Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, when pressed to give a definitive answer on whether or not he “believed” in climate change, recently said in a radio interview, “There are differences of opinion among scientists. My job is to try to protect jobs in Kentucky now, not speculate about science in the future.” Of course, no one is asking McConnell to “speculate about science in the future” – I wouldn’t trust him with a restaurant recommendation, much less that – but as an elected public leader, it is his job to act according to the wishes and best interests of the public. Even in Kentucky, a state dominated by the coal industry, a plurality of McConnell’s constituents favor taking action on environmental reform.
Politicians don’t often use words the same way ordinary people do. For instance, conventional wisdom that America is experiencing a “recovery” is primarily based on rising stock prices. You might hear someone say, “The economy is moving again” – but what that means for America’s millions of underemployed and unemployed isn’t much. Similarly, “jobs” has effectively become a political buzzword that has more to do with corporate America’s obscene profits than actually making use of the American workforce. McConnell’s real worry when he talks about Kentucky’s “jobs” is the financial burden to his generous oil and coal contributors of instituting green energy as a national agenda.
Republicans frequently go uncontested when they make the claim that a national response to climate change, such as revamping our transportation, energy and manufacturing systems, would cause the nation crippling economic damage. What could possibly create more job opportunities than overhauling the entire nation’s infrastructure from the ground-up? We’d need researchers and engineers, laborers to manufacture and install windmills and solar panels, people to remove antiquated fossil fuel pumps and replace them with electrical charging or hydrogen fuel stations, field workers for effective sustainable farming, cleanup crews to address our polluted rivers, a strong EPA to ensure lofty environmental standards are upheld, skilled tradesmen to crank out green vehicles and machinery, and so much more. There’s no end to the jobs that could be created if we made the environment our number one priority.
And to be blunt, any job lost in the process of taking responsible environmental action is a job that shouldn’t exist. A society devoted to taking care of its resources and pursuing sustainability has little need for a coal miner, but that doesn’t mean the coal miner can’t drive a solar-powered delivery truck or help on an organic farm – either of which would surely be as dignified as what he’s currently doing.
Part of the problem is figuring out who will pay for all of it. Profit is the idol of the corporate religion, and in the absence of immediate returns, big business is not going to produce abundant clean energy. Exxon is concerned primarily with cost and efficiency and wants the market to provide a solution. Of course, cost and efficiency aren’t nearly as pressing of concerns when you’re talking about free and renewable energy like solar and wind. But Exxon couldn’t stop drilling and switch to building solar panels overnight without enormous cost, the brunt of which would be borne by the consumer – so if it’s up to the market, oil will continue winning out because it will remain the cheapest and most accessible option. Vested interests in fossil energy are too short-sighted to do anything about the environment and have too little to gain, but the world can’t risk being bogged down by their concerns any longer.
What America needs is another New Deal that emphasizes the environment – a Green New Deal, as it’s known in one version of the idea. In the 1930s, the federal government spent $3.3 billion on a public works program and put millions of unemployed Americans to work building roads, bridges, government buildings, hospitals and much more. Adjusted for inflation, the New Deal’s $3.3 billion is about $56 billion – or about 1/16th of the government’s gift to Wall Street in the 2008 bailout.
In Detroit, about 1 in 5 people are without work. Meanwhile, nearly a dozen factories lie abandoned, rusting in the city. These two problems solve each other. With a little gumption and political moxie, those unemployed Detroiters could move into the abandoned factories and use them to pump out solar panels and high-speed mass-transit systems. It’d put thousands of people to work and stimulate the market with green, desirable technology. Forget the squirmy details of factory conversion and financing – these can be overcome and it’s something that needs to be done. A New Deal-type program could help get it off the ground.
Taking action on the environment makes sense on every meaningful level – moral, scientific, social, political and economic. In a way, the threat of climate change is a godsend: what better thing to unite all of mankind in a singular pursuit? We can allow the fossil energy profiteers to continue having their way on the dubious presumption that we need them to provide us jobs, or we can fight back today – march on Wall Street, demand action, pool community resources to begin independent production of green technology, and refuse to vote for anyone who doesn’t pledge themselves to the cause of environmental responsibility. Only we can remake our society to reflect values of sustainability and concern for the welfare of living things; it isn’t going to be realigned that way by the present political and business class.
It’s hard to imagine anything that could be better for the country than swift environmental action. The project would be of a sufficient magnitude to provide jobs for every able-bodied person and then some, saving our economy from the ruinous path it’s been set on for 30-odd years. Even better, we would preserve the planet and its resources for as many generations as the sun will allow. By that time, who knows what remarkable advancements we’ll have come up with – perhaps they’ll allow us to outlive our star. On our current course, it’s hard to even imagine we will ever find out.