Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."


Green Jobs and A Living Planet: Make It Happen

Patricia M. DeMarco

May 20, 2019

The fragrant, lush explosion of growth in the deciduous Pittsburgh landscape reminds me that Nature is resilient and has evolved through millions of years to thrive and flourish. Though the reality that human actions have precipitated existential crises from global warming and global pollution is undeniable, the burgeoning life of Spring brings hope. What humans have caused, humans can change. The laws of Nature are not negotiable, but the laws and policies of nations can be changed to preserve natural systems. The time is ripe and the tools for a sustainable transformation of our economy and our culture are at hand.

The Situation

The natural systems of the earth have evolved to provide everything we need to survive and thrive – the essential conditions for life as we know it: solar energy (both incident and stored), oxygen-rich air, fresh water, fertile ground, and the vast biodiversity of species that constitute the living earth. This essential life support system is under stress from human driven actions: fossil fuel combustion, resource extraction, uncontrolled population expansion, and hyper-consumption, especially in America. Americans comprise about 5% of the world’s population but use 25% of the worlds energy resources.[1]It would take five and a half planets to provide our lifestyle for everyone on earth, but we have only one Earth. The Mauna Loa Observatory has measured carbon dioxide levels at 415 parts per million, an atmospheric concentration not seen on planet Earth for over three million years. [2],[3]We are entering planetary conditions never experienced by current living systems, including human civilizations.

The situation is more urgent than ever. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) issued itsreport on Global Biodiversity compiled by 145 expert scientists from 50 countries. Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the IPBES said: “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. … it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” he said. “Through ‘transformative change’, nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably – this is also key to meeting most other global goals. By transformative change, we mean a fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”[4]

How can we accomplish this critical task? The Green New Deal framework presents a catalyst to stimulate creative discourse on bringing a positive transformation to our system.[5]Town Hall meetings on the Green New Deal are taking place across the country as people begin to work out the specifics of a green economy. These conversations offer an opportunity to bring many more people to awareness of the severity of the situation we are facing, and to move to action in every aspect of our lives. This problem is too important to leave to “other people” or “whoever is in charge.” Everyone has a stake in preserving a habitable planet for now, and especially for the future. Sustainability must become the new normal.

The Concept of Sustainability

We are not facing a technology problem- we are facing an ethics and a moral problem. There is ample evidence in recent history of America leading transformative changes in a short time when united in purpose and guided by a specific objective, as illustrated by the rapid industrialization of our economy in World War II to defeat Hitler. [6]Sustainability requires that we place a higher priority on taking responsibility to preserve a living earth for future generations. The Brundtland Commission definition of sustainability states simply: “Meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.[7]If we care at all about our children and grandchildren, it is critical to recognize that this an existential challenge for all of life on Earth, and an intergenerational imperative. We already experience the effects of a one degree increase in the average temperature of the earth.[8]To achieve sustainability within the next twenty years, we must pursue system solutions to systemic problems.  

Plan for a Sustainable Economy

A true transformation of our economy and lifestyle requires moving in a new direction on multiple levels. The energy system must shift from a fossil fuel basis, – oil, natural gas and coal – to energy use and production around modular, renewable resources. The food production system must shift from a chemical-dependent process to regenerative agriculture processes that restore the fertility of the land, sequester carbon, and provide food more locally.  The processes that create materials and goods must shift to using resources that do not create toxic products and by-products, such as plastics from fossil feed-stocks, but rather use components that can be broken down in natural systems. Moving these major systems to a different platform does not require new technology, but a commitment to shifting to a life-sustaining system instead.[9]The transformation is in process all over the world and in many places in America as well. When people visualize the changes in a positive light, they will no longer fear moving to the unknown. Workers in the oil, gas and coal industries, in the traditional petrochemical production industries, and commercial scale agriculture industry feel fear and uncertainty about changes proposed to achieve sustainability. The immediate threat of job loss and meeting needs of family overwhelm philosophical attention to the fate of future generations, even the rapidly approaching fate of today’s children. We must replace that fear with concrete plans for a sustainable economy. 

A just transition must include a plan for taking care of the workers in industries that need to change. That means protecting workers and their unions, including their wages, pensions and health benefits, providing meaningful training and re-training, and making investments in communities for new infrastructure, new systems and effective social infrastructure of laws and regulations. Simply mandating fuel substitutions is inadequate to this task. We need to re-frame the problem and reach to the root causes of social justice and environmental justice issues to make a meaningful and effective transition.

Re-Framing the Problem

We measure the well-being of our country on the basis of how well the economy is doing. Consumer confidence, the Gross Domestic Product, the performance of Wall Street, the size of the trade deficit all mark the measure of success. The most widely quoted indicator, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the sum of Consumption (Consumer spending) plus Investment by private companies plus Government Spending plus the net of Exports minus Imports. Our economy basically depends on turning raw material to trash as rapidly as possible with consumer spending at the heart of the system. This approach does not account for the priceless contributions of the living ecosystems that provide fresh water, clean air, fertile ground and support of the entire biodiversity of species. These essential functions are not explicitly reflected in what is measured, and in fact, the destruction of such essential services often counts as a positive value in the GDP, such as filling wetlands for building sites.[10]The priceless services the living Earth provides, like pollination, oxygen creation, water purification and so many others, do not count in the GDP. In a sustainable system, the economic value would be balanced with social and cultural values, and environmental values for a holistic approach to measuring the well-being of society.[11]By placing overwhelming emphasis on the economic value as indicated by the GDP, the balance of society is skewed. 

This one-dimensional way of measuringvalue obscures the full environmental and social consequences of consumer’s decisions. Prices of goods and services to not reflect the cost in environmental damage to land and ecosystems, the cost of air pollution on health, the contamination of water supplies, or the loss of farmland to prolonged drought. In fact, many policies actually supportenvironmental destruction. 

In the energy system, for example, moving toward sustainability requires that fossil fuel combustion must be quickly curtailed. Yet, government policies, some dating back to the early nineteenth century, heavily subsidize fossil fuel extraction.[12]In the U. S. direct production subsidies for oil, gas and coal extraction amount to $20.5 billion per year hard-wired into the tax and budget process.[13]PermanentInvestment Tax Credits for oil, gas, coal development amount to an additional $7.4 Billion/year.[14]This is compared to $1.3 billion/year for all renewables tax credits, which decline on a sliding scale and end in five years unless Congress explicitly extends them. There are additional federal tax credits and loopholes for oil, gas and coal amounting to $10 billion/year:

  • Intangible drilling oil & gas deduction ($2.3 billion)
  • Excess of percentage over cost depletion ($1.5 billion)
  • Master Limited Partnerships tax exemption ($1.6 billion)
  • Last-in, first-out (LIFO) accounting ($1.7 billion)
  • Lost royalties from onshore and offshore drilling ($1.2 billion)
  • Low-cost leasing of coal-production in the Powder River Basin ($963 million)[15][16]

Changing this wide array of subsidies would require explicit changes in the law by an act of Congress. 

Why do all of these subsidies matter? First, 98% of all operating coal plants are unprofitable if environmental controls are updated and enforced, and 50% of yet-to-be-drilled oil and gas wells are not profitable (at $50/barrel oil price) if they do not have tax preferences. [17]The fossil industries spend an enormous amount of money to keep these preferential treatments in place.[18]For example, in the 2015-2016 election cycle, oil, gas, and coal companies spent $354 million on campaigns and lobbying, and received $29.4 billion in subsidies.[19]The laws will not be changed as long as the people in Congress are beholden to the fossil interests. The status quo will not achieve sustainability within a reasonable window of time. It is too late for small incremental changes. Major changes through a comprehensive and bold initiative are necessary. The Green New Deal approaches a solution in a multidimensional way.

The Cost of NOT Acting on Climate

As initiatives ranging from the “cap and Trade” proposals of 2009 to the Green New Deal of 2018 come forward, the prevailing reaction has been that green options are too expensive and therefore impractical. However, failingto address climate change is already very expensive. The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandated a climate assessment be filed to Congress every four years. The Fourth Climate Assessment was filedin November 2018, by 17 current federal agencies appointed under President Trump. The findings of this report are unequivocal:

  • $160 billion in lost wages a year from heat-induced productivity reduction;
  • $87 billion a year by 2100 in higher energy costs due to mounting demand on a power system made less reliable by extreme weather.
  • $507 billion worth of infrastructure damage from real estate at risk of being inundated by rising sea levels by 2100; and
  • $1.2 to $1.4 Billion/year from Inland flooding destruction of thousands of bridges by 2050
  • $230 million/ year—loss on shellfish harvests. 
  • $140 Billion/year recreation industry losses from disappearing coral reefs alone 
  • cold-water fishing and skiing would also be affected. [20]

These costs are considered to be minimum estimates of the potential damages and resulting costs as the result of climate change. The economic damages on industries, communities, individuals and institutions are already accumulating across the country, and around the world.[21]

Better Choices: The Green Jobs Economy

What is a “Green Job”? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Green Jobs are “Jobs in businesses that produce goods and services that benefit the environment and conserve natural resources.” These are in diverse fields and enterprises ranging from biological materials processing to regenerative agriculture.  For simplicity, I will focus here on the energy sector. 

Green jobs in the energy sector are expanding rapidly as technology costs in renewables are dropping sharply. In 2013, based on unsubsidized life cycle cost analysis by Lazard investment bank, both wind and solar utility scale systems fell below the cost of coal, and the costs have continued to decline against coal, oil and gas.[22]Demand is also increasing for energy efficiency and clean energy solutions as businesses seek to save operating costs. Businesses especially recognize that energy efficiency has rapid returns and is an under-used tool for productivity improvement. Investment in energy management software alone is expected to increase by 10% in the next four years. [23]In many states, more supportive policies encouraging renewable energy use and removing barriers such as restrictive zoning are advancing renewable energy systems.[24]

The green energy field has a diversity of job opportunities in sectors ranging from clean energy production to environmental management. All have shown robust job growth over the last decade, with trends increasingly positive.[25]Renewable energy systemsinclude hydroelectric, wind and solar energy, both passive solar incorporated into building design and active photovoltaic power generation. Solar energy alone employs more people than oil, gas and coal combined with 777,000 jobs posted in 2016. Solar jobs are growing at 25% per year and wind at 16% per year, though the trend has slowed a bit due to federal policy uncertainty and the tariffs imposed on imports of solar panels and components from China.[26]The renewable energy production field employs skilled workers such as Electricians, Electrician helpers, Solar Installers, repairers, and Electric power plant operators. When these renewable energy systems are built in America, they also employ machinists, construction workers, and building trades workers.

Energy Storage and Advanced Electric Gridopportunities showed a 235% surge in growth in 2016-2017with 98,800 jobs in storage and 55,000 jobs in advanced electric grid operations. These fields are critical for building the infrastructure to integrate renewable resources into a smoothly functioning electric system. Adding storage both as utility scale functions and as modular additions to individual buildings creates flexibility, reliability and resilience in the operations of electric service. Using artificial intelligence for grid management and load adjustments also expands the capability of the system. This is an exciting and rapidly growing field.

The Energy Efficiency fieldincludes diagnostics, engineering modifications, retrofitting, adapting and installing energy efficiency improvements to commercial and residential buildings. This sector employs 2.2 million workers, mostly in construction trades such as Roofers, Roofer- Helpers, Pipe-layers, Plumbers, Pipefitters, Steamfitters, HVAC Mechanics, and HVAC Installers. The opportunities in energy efficiency grow as communities and businesses invest in infrastructure improvements and modernization. Because these jobs are tied to local initiatives, they are an excellent bridge to a more resilient economy.

The transportation sector is undergoing a massive transformation in Advanced Vehicles and Transportation. Developing and manufacturing electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles provided 174,000 jobs in 2016-2017. It is a growing field, for example, Ford announced $11 Billion in investment for 40 EV and Hybrid vehicles targeted to be on the market by 2022.[27]In addition to traditional automotive workers, this sector adds skills in artificial intelligence, engineering and electronics. 

Environmental Managementin the green economy has a role of increasing importance.  This field defines the intersection of change where traditional systems are adapting to incorporate renewable energy, efficiency and operations. [28]Because of the strong financial benefit of sustainability, 43% of corporate executives have placed sustainability on the agenda for their operations. Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track “sustainability” jobs at this time, there are strong indicators of rapid growth in this field.[29]Jobs in the energy management field include Hazardous waste management, Refuse Recycling management, Septic system engineers, Plant and system operators, Conservation scientists.[30]This field is evolving and is shaping the direction for future enterprises both from within corporations and as new business areas of opportunity.

Wages and Skills in the Green Economy

An often – repeated allegation about the green economy holds that green jobs don’t pay well.  This is not true. Wages in the clean energy economy are above the national average of $23.86 per hour. For Clean Energy Production (renewables) wages average $28.41 per hour; for Energy efficiency, $25.90 per hour; and for Environmental Management, wages average $27.45 per hour. [31]

The scope and range of job opportunities offer a wide array of skill requirements and opportunities.  This is an area of high diversity and high prospects for growth. Jobs that improve the environment and conserve resources offer a foundation for moving to a sustainable future. The barriers and impediments to this path can be overcome. The problem is much like that of the Suffragettes who had to overcome the objections of the men in power to obtain rights for women to vote. The fossil industry interests hold the power in Congress, and they must be overcome to accelerate the transformation necessary to address climate change and global pollution. Workers in current fossil industries such as coal mining look at green job opportunities through the lens of wages won by long and hard union negotiations, years of organizing for rights and benefits, and a generation of struggle. The jobs of the Industrial Revolution are not the jobs of the future. But the wages, benefits and conditions of work are negotiable, and can be improved. These new jobs have the benefit of being inherently healthier both for the workers and for the environment of the communities. Organizing, negotiating and demanding more equitable wages, fair distribution of resources between workers and corporate owners, and a basic respect for the dignity of work lie at the heart of this initiative for green jobs. The days of man-killing work are over, and we should rejoice that the future holds better choices.

A call to action

There is no reason to delay the rapid transformation to a sustainable green economy. We need only to listen to our children.  From young Greta Thornburg pleading for her future to the United Nations to our own children in lawsuits against inaction by the U.S. Government, children around the world are begging for their future. Our Constitution offers Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness as an inalienable right. If we leave our children a planet so compromised that the life support functions we take for granted do not operate, haven’t we failed in our Constitutional obligation to them? As stated in the International AFL-CIO Confederation climate statement in Copenhagen this year, “Economic transformation cannot be left to the “invisible hand” of the market.”[32]This is a time for workers to unite and organize for the sake of our children and grandchildren, to learn the lessons of the union labor movement and demand a more equitable solution.

The laws of Nature are NOT negotiable. Climate change will continue its inevitable course with ever increasing disastrous consequences for all of life on Earth. OUR Laws must change to enable and promote “Green Jobs” instead of protecting fossil industries. The majority of Americans want action on climate change.  We must find the determination and organize broadly to change the direction of our government policies. The current policies of the United States are moving backward – rejecting the Paris Accord on Climate Action, refusing to sign the Plastics Reduction amendment to the Basel Accord on international trade in hazardous materials, and rescinding 87 environmental and health protections by Executive Order, for example. None of these actions serve the public interest, rather they seek to re-establish a world that no longer exists.

Momentum is building for action on climate change: 22 states, 550 cities, and 900 companies with operations in the US have made climate commitments.[33]All 50 states have some type of policy that could bring about emissions reductions. When people demand action, we can make change happen. The key elements for action on climate change include:[34]

1. Government-driven investments in the Green Economy

2. Innovation and skills development 

3. Social protection- especially pensions and benefits 

4. Consultation with social partners (unions and employers) 

5. Healthy environment for healthy people and planet

6. Equitable redistribution of resources and power.

These are essential to the necessary transformation to a better, sustainable future.

We can DECIDE to leave a Living Earth as a legacy for our children! 

Citations and Resources:


[1]http://www.worldwatch.org/node/810

[2]Scripps Institution of Oceanography. CO2 Reading for May 11,2019. Mauna Loa Data Center. https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/

[3] https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/carbon-dioxide-hits-level-not-seen-3-million-years-here-ncna1005231 

[4]https://www.ipbes.net/document-library-catalogue/summary-policymakers-global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem)

[5]H. Res. 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. 116thCongress, 1stSession. February 7, 2019. https://www.congress.gov/116/bills/hres109/BILLS-116hres109ih.pdf

[6]https://prospect.org/article/way-we-won-americas-economic-breakthrough-during-world-war-ii Accessed May 15, 2019

[7]  World Commission on Environment and Development Report “Our Common Future.” 1987. https://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/AdvocacyToolkit/index.php/earth-summit-history/historical-documents/92-our-common-future

[8]See discussion of effects of elevated carbon dioxide levelshttps://www.cnn.com/2019/05/13/health/carbon-dioxide-world-intl/index.html)

[9]For more examples see P. DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. 2017 University of Pittsburgh Press.

[10]R. Costanza, R. deGroot, P.Sutton, S.vander Ploeg, S. Anderson, I. Kubeszewski, S. Farber, R.K.Turner. “Changes in the global value of ecosystem services.” Global Environmental Change. 2014. 26:152-158.   https://community-wealth.org/sites/clone.community-wealth.org/files/downloads/article-costanza-et-al.pdfAccessed May 17, 2019.

[11]Pennsylvania Land Trust Association. “Economic and Environmental Benefits of Biodiversity”   https://conservationtools.org/guides/95-economic-benefits-of-biodiversity Accessed May 19, 2019.

[12]The National Energy Act of 2005 explicitly granted exemptions from seven federal environmental and worker safety protections to allow natural gas extraction from deep shale formations by hydraulic fracturing. 

[13]http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/

[14]https://www.treasury.gov/open/Documents/USA%20FFSR%20progress%20report%20to%20G20%202014%20Final.pdf

[15]https://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/  also   https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-017-0009-8

[16] http://priceofoil.org/2017/10/03/dirty-energy-dominance-us-subsidies/

[17]http://priceofoil.org/2018/02/07/new-study-shows-axing-fossil-fuel-subsidies-could-deliver-major-climate-benefits-but-press-release-says-the-opposite/

[18]https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/mar/03/oil-and-gas-industry-has-pumped-millions-into-republican-campaigns

[19]https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?Ind=E01

[20]https://nca2018.globalchange.gov

[21]https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment

[22]Lazard. Levelized Cost of Energy Report. 2018. https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2018/

[23]https://www.energymanagertoday.com/11-experts-predict-the-future-of-energy-management-in-2019-0180643/

[24] Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy  http://www.dsireusa.org

[25]https://www.labor4sustainability.org/post/green-jobs-in-a-global-green-new-deal/

[26]https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/01/25/u-s-solar-energy-employs-more-people-than-oil-coal-and-gas-combined-infographic/#7cc2b7228000  

[27]Ford announces $11 Billion investment in 40  hybrid and electric vehicles by 2022. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autoshow-detroit-ford-motor/ford-plans-11-billion-investment-40-electrified-vehicles-by-2022-idUSKBN1F30YZ

[28]https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/sustainabilitys-strategic-worth-mckinsey-global-survey-results

[29]https://www.bls.gov/green/sustainability/sustainability.htm

[30]https://www.bls.gov/green/

[31]https://www.brookings.edu/research/advancing-inclusion-through-clean-energy-jobs/

[32]AFL-CIO Climate statement at Copenhagen  https://www.scribd.com/document/96838350/Final-Report-from-the-AFL-CIO-and-International-Trade-Union-Confederation-on-the-Copenhagen-Accord-on-Climate-Change

[33]Bloomberg Philanthropies. Fulfilling America’s Pledge: How States, Cities, and Businesses are Leading the United States to a Low-carbon Future. 2018. https://www.bbhub.io/dotorg/sites/28/2018/09/Fulfilling-Americas-Pledge-2018.pdf  Accessed May 22, 2019.

[34](for more ideas on a just transition see https://climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition/