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Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Author: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Maurice R. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies
March 4, 2009
Slate

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"Climate change. What's the solution? A green jobs revolution." So chanted thousands of protesters who braved the frigid cold Monday in Washington to demand aggressive government action on alternative energy. They have reason to be optimistic. The recently passed economic stimulus bill promises to create thousands of green jobs. Vice President Biden's new Middle Class Task Force devoted its first meeting, last Friday in Philadelphia, to praising their virtues. President Obama contends that his policies will deliver 5 million green jobs in the next two decades.

Indeed, for a nation facing dire economic and energy challenges, green jobs seem to be an ideal solution. But just because "green" and "jobs" are both in demand doesn't mean that policies focused on creating "green jobs" make sense. In fact, a close look at the economics of "green jobs" suggests that if we try to find a lasting solution to these challenges with a single set of policies, we might fail to deliver on both fronts.

The fundamental problem is that there's no solid evidence that green policies--even those aimed explicitly at creating jobs--will actually lower the long-term unemployment rate. Most of the research on how these sorts of programs might build up the work force simply tallies the payrolls, current or projected, of companies in renewable energy and other sectors. (Analyses typically include not only jobs installing solar panels or engineering algae for biofuels but also secondary activities like making widgets for use in windmills.)

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