Defining Green Jobs

A couple weeks ago, Observatory freelancer Russ Juskalian wrote an excellent column about the proliferation of the term “green-collar jobs” on the presidential campaign trail and in the media. This weekend, he appeared on National Public Radio’s On the Media to elaborate on some of his points.

Russ points out that the candidates, going back to the early stages of the primaries, have touted their plans to create tens of thousands of new green jobs in a more environmentally friendly economy. It’s a wonderful notion and hopefully one that will bear fruit, but Russ argues that government, industry and the press all need to do a better job defining positions that qualify. As he asked on NPR, for example, does somebody who pours concrete for a living have a green job if one day he’s laying the foundation for a windmill and the next day an automobile dealership? What about the person who works as an accountant in a so-called “clean” coal power plant? It’s hard to characterize the true color of such positions.

The second part of Russ’s argument is that once some kind of national standard is established for green employment, there needs to be better accounting of its impact on the economy. Are the promises of would-be presidents materializing; as cleaner energy technologies and business practices come to market, are green-collar jobs replacing those that will inevitably be lost in the transition? Like the jobs themselves, these things are hard to track, but a few organizations are looking for answers.

The second guest on On the Media was Phil Angelides, a former California state treasurer and the 2006 Democratic nominee for governor. He is currently the chairman of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of business, labor, environmental, and community leaders whose stated mission is to, “promote policies and initiatives to speed investment in clean energy technology and energy efficiency, put millions of Americans to work in a new generation of well-paid, green collar jobs, and make America a global leader in clean energy products and services.”

To that end, members of the Apollo Alliance have consulted for both Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. If those stump-speech promises are to mean anything, however, journalists need to press politicians, industry and advocates for strict definitions and accounting whenever they trumpet occupations geared toward a more environmentally sustainable economy.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.