by Justine Burt and Mary Chambers
When COVID hit, our hotel occupancy fell from 80% to 10% in one week,” explained Alexandra Tague, a Senior Sales Manager in Omaha. “Ownership first cut the housekeepers. Then restaurant staff went from 15 down to one cook and one manager. Our contract with an airline was the only reason they didn’t lay off more people. My job was leisure sales at three hotels — think weddings, sports, reunions, church groups. The whole week before I was laid off was a constant stream of phone calls and emails from people panicking about their events and deposits.”
The hospitality industry suffered deep cuts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as did the travel, transportation, and retail industries. Their ranks make up many of the 40.8 million who filed for unemployment between mid-March and late May.
Forty-two percent of those 40.8 million jobs are not coming back, according to a University of Chicago report. The three economists who co-authored the report assert that these permanent job losses stem from two things related to the pandemic: shifts in demand and intra-industry reallocation of labor. Uber drivers are moving over to food-delivery service Doordash, and people sheltering in place are shopping online at Amazon and Walmart.com instead of patronizing small, local, brick-and-mortar businesses.
As our citizens wonder what the future holds, some are pushing for a return to the old economy. We believe they are setting their sights too low. The old economy wasn’t working for most people, or for nature. Once workers globally started sheltering in place, they realized how much better things could be. For example, air quality improved, gridlocked traffic practically disappeared overnight, and many people who had wanted to work from home showed they could do so effectively.
Instead of pining for the old economy based on extraction, consumption, and pollution, our society should aim higher. By creating millions of new green jobs that cannot be outsourced or automated — jobs retrofitting, reclaiming, restoring, upgrading, and upcycling — we will build a resilient future that can bounce back more easily from future shocks.
Meanwhile, Congress deploys wave after wave of stimulus spending to prop up the economy. Considering that the trillions of stimulus spending is debt our children and grandchildren will be paying off for decades, we believe they should get something valuable in exchange. That something could be a just, equitable, and green future.
How many deep green jobs could we create?
The “deep green” jobs we propose involve work that directly reduces human impact on the environment and restores nature. An electrician who replaces a natural gas furnace with an electric heat exchanger that results in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is one example. A wildlife biologist who rehabilitates and reintroduces endangered black-footed ferrets into the wild, thus restoring wildlife populations, is another example.
Drawing on analyses conducted by several groups, the following graph provides a breakdown of the 14.3 million green jobs that collaborative efforts between the public, private and non-profit sectors could create to help the US economy recover.
100% renewable energy — Mark Jacobson’s Solutions Project at Stanford University calculates a potential for 5,258,782 new clean energy jobs. His team conducted a detailed inventory that includes jobs:
The Solutions Project categorizes jobs as either construction (2,238,188) or operations (3,020,594).
New Civilian Conservation Corps — Collin O’Mara, the president of the National Wildlife Federation, proposes reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps. If our government expanded it to the size of President Roosevelt’s original Civilian Conservation Corps, our country would create 3.4 million jobs in reforestation, natural forest management, seagrass restoration, wetland restoration, dam removal, and endangered species recovery, among others.
High-speed rail — Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton proposes a national high-speed rail network that would create 2.6 million jobs over 5 years.
Organic agriculture — Jon Rynn’s Green New Deal Plan from his book Manufacturing Green Prosperity estimates that the increased labor and new equipment required to farm all of our food organically would create an additional 1.12 million jobs. Technical support and business services for both farmers in transition and novice farmers would help speed the transition to 100% organic.
75% recycling and composting — the Natural Resources Defense Council calculates that by expanding recycling and composting to handle 75% of our solid waste, we would create 1.1 million jobs.
Building energy efficiency retrofits — the UCLA Luskin School reported that upgrading California’s 14 million homes and 8 billion square feet of commercial space to zero net energy would create 80,600 building retrofit jobs. The US as a whole has 143 million homes and 87 billion square feet of commercial space, or ten times the number of homes and commercial square footage. If we took the number of building retrofit jobs for California and multiplied by ten, it would mean the US would need 806,000 workers retrofitting buildings for zero net energy.
In total these deep green jobs could put 14.3 million people back to work. But just creating green jobs is not quite enough. In order to ensure the economic recovery lifts everyone up, we need one more component.
Why it’s so important that the green recovery is also just and equitable
In his job at the Texas state environmental agency in the late 1990s, an enforcement agent frequently fielded nuisance behavior calls from people living in areas near oil and chemical refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. The enforcement agent suspected that resident complaints were overblown — until he slept over in the area. In the middle of the night, a pungent smell jolted him from a deep sleep, and he was overcome with a powerful urge to vomit. He believed his physical response resulted from the chemical fumes in the air.
A person in such a situation cannot deny that residents in low-income communities such as these suffer the effects of pollution the oil and chemical refineries release. Indeed, low-income communities have disproportionately endured the burden of pollution for too long. Houses are less expensive near industrial areas, confined animal feeding operations, landfills, highway interchanges, airports, and shipping ports. Too many people with low incomes are forced to tolerate poor air quality, poor water quality, and soil contamination because they cannot afford housing in other areas.
By investing in clean energy and clean transportation systems, some of the concerns raised by environmental justice advocates will be addressed. Switching out traditional equipment and vehicles that burn fossil fuels for electric will improve the health and quality of life for people who live in these areas. Projects to reduce lead flowing through taps in urban households and improving water quality in rural areas with groundwater tainted by fracking are two more examples of the types of green jobs that will create a just and equitable recovery.
To ensure communities of color reap the benefits of a green recovery, elevating more people of color to leadership positions is vitally important. A green recovery will require businesses, non-profits, and public agencies to collaboratively design, fund, and implement programs that catalyze green job creation. Having a diverse slate of leaders will ensure the benefits of a green recovery reach all corners of the economy.
Furthermore, the core workers reporting to those people in leadership positions deserve to make enough to support themselves and have access to healthcare. Entry-level green jobs must pay a minimum of $15 per hour and offer pay ladders that provide better compensation as workers develop more specialized skills. These are the types of high-road jobs that will rebuild a thriving middle class.
Helping people make the transition
The chasm between the retail, hospitality, travel, and transportation jobs the economy just shed and the jobs we need in construction, regenerative agriculture, and a circular economy is wide. Switching from working the front desk at a hotel to installing heat exchangers will require extensive training.
Helping people upgrade their skills for new jobs is one of the ways government funding can help speed the recovery — if the training is relevant. This is something the coal industry in Appalachia is currently struggling with. Out-of-work coal miners are being urged to undergo training in software programming, but the training sessions are poorly attended. Coal miners cite four reasons for this: mining pays well, and they’re waiting to be called back; they are unfamiliar with other industries; there’s no income during training; and there’s no guarantee of a job afterward.
The pandemic may be resetting expectations as the reach, severity, and duration of the virus’s impacts on society continue to surprise us. People may be more motivated nowadays to seek out training and to prepare themselves for career transitions.
As we plan for new jobs that will yield a just, equitable, and green economic recovery, a huge potential labor pool is available. In May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 14.7 million people aged 25–64 were unemployed. On top of this, 39 million people aged 25–64 were categorized as Not in the Labor Force. These are separate categories, which means that 53.9 million out of a total of 168 million Americans of prime working age are potentially available for full-time work.
Meanwhile, Congress is planning the next round of stimulus funding to help households stay afloat. At some point, stimulus funding must move from providing a safety net to supporting job creation. Congress is attempting to do just that with H.R. 2, the Moving America Forward Act. A mixed bag, this legislation both doubles down on the old economy run on fossil fuels and invests in clean energy and clean transportation jobs.
For the most part, the money for economic stimulus funding is conjured up when the federal government adds debt to its balance sheet. As Congress gets ready to inject the next round of funding to stave off economic collapse, let’s encourage our legislators to invest it in projects that will benefit those paying off that debt. What better gifts could we give our children and grandchildren than a stable climate, healthy ecosystems, and abundant wildlife populations?
Justine Burt is the author of The Great Pivot: Creating Meaningful Work to Build a Sustainable Future, available from Chelsea Green Publishing. She is a consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in sustainability behavior change.
Mary Chambers earned her MS in Earth Systems: Sustainable Agriculture from Stanford University in 2016 and has done sustainable international development work in Bangladesh and Ethiopia.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg’s brutal honesty delivers the message the world needs right now. With increasingly severe natural disasters and those in power unable or unwilling to implement reforms that will decarbonize our energy and transportation sectors, we need someone to call out those standing in the way.
A teenage girl with Asperger’s unleashing righteous anger in the global halls of power is the perfect messenger. Her Asperger’s, a mild form of autism characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, serves as a shield for her truth-telling. People who try to attack her for not being neurotypical look like bullies. In Greta’s case, her Asperger’s is actually her superpower. It allows her to say things the rest of us feel we cannot.
Asperger’s is usually seen as a liability but in Greta’s situation it allows her to say things the rest of us feel we cannot. Seen another way, her difficulty reading social cues and responding in socially acceptable ways means she is more likely to say what she is thinking even if it’s not tactful.
As a result of these special qualifies and her dedication to Friday School Strikes, gatekeepers to the halls of power have given her access to address top level decision makers. On September 18, 2019, Greta challenged those in the U.S. Congress who are standing in the way of progress on climate change.
"I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind the science and I want you to take real action."
On September 23, 2019, she spoke at the United Nations Climate Action Summit and let loose on global leaders.
"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.”
Then on October 25, 2019 at a climate strike in Vancouver, Greta reminded the world about another teenager who urged world leaders to address climate change many years ago. Severn Cullis-Suzuki, environmental activist David Suzuki’s daughter, was 12 years old in 1992 when she spoke at the Earth Summit in Rio. Unconcerned with sounding disappointed with people in power, Greta said:
"Severn told the world everything the world needed to know 27 years ago and the science told us, told our world leaders everything they needed to know 27 years ago. If people would have listened back then, the world would be a completely different place than it is today. But the world ignored her, and world leaders continued to choose to look away from this crisis, even today."
Joining Greta on stage in Vancouver, Severn’s presence at the Vancouver rally made abundantly clear that the world cannot let atmospheric levels of CO2 rise for another 27 years.
Greta is the perfect messenger for righteous anger about the world’s failure to act on climate change. She doesn’t talk about solutions, though. Her role is to urge us to act. Now it’s up to the adults in the room to commit to action, find the resources, and implement solutions that match the severity of the problem.
The Great Pivot: Creating Meaningful Work to Build a Sustainable Future
By Justine Burt
The number of people who want green jobs dwarfs the number of green jobs available. In the summer of 2019, a position to expand recycling programs at Alameda County government facilities in California drew over 200 applicants. At the same time, the City of San Leandro nearby posted a sustainability manager vacancy that also generated abundant interest. When I talked to the Human Resources manager overseeing the hiring process for San Leandro about how many people applied, she said “well, there weren’t hundreds, but I was happy to see such a large number of highly qualified candidates for this one job.” While having many applicants is good for the hiring manager, the situation poses brutal odds for people searching for work in the environmental sustainability field.
To increase the chances of landing their dream green job, some working adults take continuing education classes. Many of the students in the University of California Berkeley Extension class I teach called “Managing Sustainable Change in an Organization” are doing exactly this. My class explains how to identify technical, financial, and psychological barriers to sustainable change and apply proven tools to overcome these barriers. The adult learners in my class are highly engaged and motivated since they hope to land jobs doing this kind of work. Then at the end of each course, a number of students ask me for suggestions about how to move into sustainability work. Each time I told them about the openings of which I knew, but was secretly frustrated that there were not more jobs to do this kind of work.
Then two years ago, I suddenly had an inspiration. It felt like a little bird of an idea flew in, sat on my shoulder, and suggested I write a book about creating millions of new green jobs in the U.S. What kinds of jobs should we be creating to tackle the large challenges we faced in climate change and mass species extinction? There was so much work that needed to be done and so many talented people excited to do it. We should be able to connect the dots and create more green jobs in the U.S. But how?
At first the little bird of an idea sat quietly and patiently. Over time, as I read about increasingly severe hurricanes, larger wildfires, and a growing number of mass wildlife die-offs, the little bird became more insistent. I felt urged to sit down and start organizing the jumble of thoughts about why, what, and how we should be creating millions of new green jobs. As I began to outline and then write the book, the words seemed to flow through me and onto the page.
Apparently, this was an idea whose time had come. In February 2019, one month before I was set to publish The Great Pivot, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Senator Ed Markey announced the Green New Deal (GND). I read the fourteen-page resolution and saw that it contained a framework but not many details. I reached out to one of AOC’s legislative aides, Randy Abreu, and asked him why the resolution only gave the broad brush strokes for a GND. He explained that they wanted to build a broad coalition of support and if they made it too detailed too soon, they wouldn’t be able to do that.
Now we have this opportunity, as we look forward to the 2020 presidential election, to have a discussion about what the GND should include. The Great Pivot describes ways we can support aspiring entrepreneurs who will create the next great small businesses and non-profits. It also provides a blueprint for raising funds and investing in green job creation so that anyone who wants to do meaningful work building a sustainable future will find their dream job and get to work.