New York to the Nation: Here's How to Create Green Jobs

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

A few years ago, Urban Agenda (now ALIGN) and the Center for American Progress released the New York City Green Collar Jobs Roadmap, the culmination of a 1.5 year long process called the New York City Green Collar Jobs Roundtable. The process analyzed several aspects of the green economy, bringing together unions, community-based organizations, workforce development providers, environmental justice organizations, progressive businesses, and others to develop a shared vision for how an inclusive and thriving green economy could be implemented in New York City. 

The Roadmap presents a comprehensive vision of how to grow demand for green jobs, ensure that standards are in place to create good jobs that pay family sustaining wages, and ensure that these jobs are available to all New Yorkers, particularly those historically excluded from economic activity. But beyond the perimeters of the five boroughs, what lessons for the nation can be gleaned from the Roadmap?

To back up a bit: The Roundtable process began in June 2008. It aimed to outline a positive vision for an equitable green economy in New York City which would create good jobs to pay family-sustaining wages, provides benefits and career ladders, and make our built and natural environment more sustainable. 

At the first convening, participants created six working groups: current landscape, target populations, employers, job standards, and training. Alongside these working groups, the political outreach and strategy group met to analyze the political landscape and ensure that people from different communities and different sectors were continually brought into the process. In total, over 170 organizations participated in the Roundtable.

The conclusions from the Roundtable and Roadmap point to several simple ideas. 

First, when we talk about green jobs, we are really talking about new work, rather than new jobs. Instead of requiring a whole new workforce with completely new skills, the current workforce can be trained up to meet the demands of a new, green economy.  Green jobs are not an exotic, intangible idea. The Roadmap breaks down the skills and job titles of “green” jobs; most are currently existing titles, such as weatherization technician, energy efficiency building maintenance and transit workers.  A few (like solar photovoltaic installers) are more specialized, but by and large most green jobs already exist. 

The transition to a green economy, however,  is going to require a lot more of them. As a general rule, clean energy investments create more than three times the jobs that fossil fuel investments create.

Second, in order to strengthen our economy, green jobs must be good jobs. A recent study by the Green Justice Coalition shows that underpaying weatherization workers results in an increased tax burden. Basic needs such as health care and housing cannot be met with poverty-level wages. In not providing family-sustaining wages, we create an underclass of workers and perpetuate our growing poverty rate.

Third, green jobs must be made available to all communities, particularly those that historically have been excluded from economic activity. For many years, communities of color and poor communities have been forced to bear a disproportionate burden of a pollution-based economy. An inclusive green economy that prioritizes these target populations will result in stronger communities and stronger economies.

As the Roadmap moved from vision to reality, though, several barriers prevented green jobs from reaching their full potential.

Retrofitting, for instance, is a sound investment which pays back its initial investment in as few as five years, and which continues to provide energy savings for many years after. However, the inability to provide the upfront capital presented a significant barrier to retrofitting, and the 2009 economic recession further constricted available capital.

In the late 2000s, renewable energy development entered into an era of hyper-partisanship. The Solyndra bankruptcy became a favorite GOP target despite no evidence of any wrongdoing. Relatively non-controversial programs, like the renewable energy production tax credits, struggled to get support.

Despite this historically uneven support, solar installation continues to hit record production levels today. Many critics also point to the failure of green jobs to materialize. In reality, there are over 3 million green jobs and that number is rising. More consistent support would only have increased this number.

The Roadmap process showed the importance of engaging diverse stakeholders from the beginning. To stave off the worst impacts of climate change, we must all work together to transition from a dirty economy to a clean energy future. It showed the importance of long-term vision. It takes time and sustained effort to make the type of changes we need to our political and economic systems to combat climate change.

We are already behind the progress we need to make to fight climate change. As the Roadmap indicated, we need to act now, and we need to act together.

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