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Just What Is a Green Job Anyway?

President Obama's call for "green jobs" has created both general confusion and competing interpretations of the term.
 
 
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Barack Obama has been busy talking about one of his primary pre-election goals, energy independence, in mid-recession terms, with the creation of millions of proposed "green jobs." The phrase suggests two elements long considered at odds with each other -- the economy and the environment -- may in fact have a common and even co-dependent set of solutions.

Exactly what a "green job" is, though, most people aren't quite sure yet. Does it refer to Ph.D.s in white lab coats or blue-collar workers gone green? If the windmill engineer has a green job, what about the janitor who also works in his plant? A trucker hauling soda cans clearly isn't green, but what if he trades his cargo for solar panels?

"Green job" -- like "e-commerce" and "social networking" before it -- is so new a term that it is open to both general confusion and competing interpretation.

"There's no such thing; that's my definition," said Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "I'm greatly in favor of investing in things that will promote a clean environment, fight global warming, and those investments will all create jobs, and I don't really care what color they are."

He recalls a New York Times poll from April 2007 that found 52 percent of respondents would support protecting the environment over stimulating the economy. The premise of the question, which even Al Gore adopted in urging us to make the right choice in An Inconvenient Truth, was that the two are mutually exclusive.

"That showed the nature of mainstream thinking at that moment in history, less than two years ago," Pollin said.

Today, he traces the evolving notion that saving the environment will require not just cutting carbon emissions but employing everyone from climatologists to caulking-gun operators. Pollin helped author a report, in conjunction with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, that calculated the U.S. could generate 2 million such new jobs over the next two years with a $100 billion investment in a "green recovery."

But even he is wary of the term "green jobs" for its limiting connotation with elite researchers extracting biofuels from algae.

Most of the jobs he's talking about are ones that commonly exist and that people have already been doing, if not to environmentally friendly ends, like roofers and construction workers -- and that janitor who sweeps the floor of the windmill factory. Pollin uses the most expansive view possible of job creation tied to the environment (the 2 million figure in the "Green Recovery" report

consists of 935,200 direct jobs, 586,000 indirect jobs and 496,000 induced jobs, all of which someone more cozy with the "green job" term might label as such).

Obama's campaign pledge called for creating 5 million "green jobs" over the next 10 years with a $150 billion investment, figures Pollin says the Obama camp got from the Clinton camp, which in turn got its numbers from advocacy groups, which were not using much actual research. Those groups were offering "aspirational" figures, a fine exercise for advocacy groups, according to Pollin, but not for economists and politicians.

An economist can calculate how many jobs will be created by a million-dollar building retrofit program -- a calculation Pollin says he's been inundated with requests to make these days. "How many 'green jobs' you get," Pollin said, "is a distraction to me."

David Kreutzer, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation -- who, Pollin jokes, has made a "green job" for himself out of criticizing Pollin's "Green Recovery" report -- is suspicious of the fundamental argument that saving the environment will also now save the economy (he's also suspicious of where all this money will come from).

 
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