On Tuesday, climate blogger Joseph Romm blasted a New York Times article about green jobs for ignoring “explosive” growth in that sector. It was valid criticism even though Romm, in turn, had some distortions of his own.
The Times’s piece argues that President Obama’s pledge to create 5 million green jobs over ten years, and California Governor Jerry Brown’s promise to create five-hundred thousand clean-technology jobs in the state by the end of the decade, look like “a pipe dream.” Produced by the San Francisco-based Bay Citizen, which provides coverage of the Bay Area to the Times, the article is pegged, in part, to a July report by the Brookings Institute and Battelle’s Technology Partnership Practice, which assessed green jobs nationally and regionally.
“[The study] found clean-technology jobs accounted for just 2 percent of employment nationwide and only slightly more — 2.2 percent — in Silicon Valley,” according to the article, which was published on August 19. “Rather than adding jobs, the study found, the sector actually lost 492 positions from 2003 to 2010 in the South Bay, where the unemployment rate in June was 10.5 percent.”
It’s a selective quotation from the report that supports the thesis presented in the article’s headline: “Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Promises”—although it’s likely the Times wrote the headline to suit the Bay Citizen’s reporting. The Brookings report repeatedly acknowledges than such jobs are, for now, a “modest slice” of the US total, it is actually quite sanguine about progress in the “clean economy” and prospects for future growth.
“The clean economy increasingly looks like a promising location for the emergence of significant new technologies, processes, and industries that will shape the next economy and generate new jobs ” the report says, “Though modest in size, the clean economy employs more workers than the fossil fuel industry ”
Romm, who runs the blog Climate Progress for the liberal Center for American Progress, correctly charged that the article misled readers by ignoring many details of the report, as well as its overall message. Unfortunately, he too overplayed his hand. At one point, he quotes a contributor to his blog who had earlier reported that the Brookings report showed that, “From 2003 to 2010, the clean economy grew 8.3% — almost double what the overall economy grew during those years.”
In fact, between 2003 and 2010, the clean economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, compared to the national economy’s 4.2 percent. It was only during the middle of the recession, from 2008 to 2009, that the clean economy grew faster, at a rate of 8.3 percent, than the rest of the economy. And that was “likely due, in part, to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which channeled large sums of public spending towards clean energy projects,” the report noted.
Between 2003 and 2010, it was only the youngest and smallest sectors of the clean economy—thirteen of the thirty-nine sectors assessed in the report—that grew 8.3 percent annually. This was the “explosive” growth that Romm accused the Times and the Bay Citizen of ignoring. It pertains to the energy-related sectors (wind, solar, smart grid, etc.) that most reporters and the public associate with green jobs. Brookings chose the word “explosive” to describe the pace of job growth in those sectors. It also used the word “torrid.”
Are they the right terms? Sort of.
Between 2003 and 2010, the solar thermal industry grew at an annual rate of 18.4 percent, the wind power industry at 14.9 percent, and the solar photovoltaic industry at 10.7 percent, according to the report. That seems pretty explosive until you consider that those rates translated to the creation of only 40,000 jobs over seven years. “Over 90 percent of clean economy jobs lie in older segments that provide goods or services that solve long-appreciated environmental problems,” according to the report. “Many of these jobs reside in government but others populate commercial segments like lighting, water-efficient products, green building materials, recycling and reuse, and pollution reduction.”
To be fair, Brookings repeatedly acknowledged that the large growth in the younger, clean-tech sectors stems from “small bases.” In other words, the absolute number of jobs was relatively small, making the relative growth seem more significant. But the bottom line, according to Brookings, is that “today’s clean economy establishments added half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010.” That’s not torrid enough to meet Obama’s target.
Romm glossed over that, although he was correct to argue that, to some extent, the Bay Citizen’s article was “premature”—as he put it, like writing the story, “Space program fails to live up to its promises,” in 1963. We are only two years into Obama’s ten-year pledge, Romm pointed out. Brookings’s report took that into account, but the Bay Citizen did not.