Talking About Green Jobs Might Impede Action on Climate Change

Advocates of true action on climate change do not have an easy job to do. Scientists keep producing evidence of dangerous man-made climate change, the IPCC keeps producing reports that summarize that evidence, activists keep doing their activism… Meanwhile, politicians, and decision-makers more generally, keep talking and the society at large sticks to business-as-usual. No wonder that the “alarmists”, as we are sometimes called, are steadily looking for new powerful arguments. In hope either that a specific single argument will suddenly make people wake up and act on climate change, or that the accumulated mass of arguments will do. One such argument is about so-called “green jobs”. Clean technology investments are presented as a great opportunity to create jobs, as a growth booster. However, in this specific case, the well-intentioned pro-climate-action argument might actually be a shot in the cause’s foot.

Many environmentalists are tired of waiting for their traditional arguments to be heard–arguments that stress the intrinsic value of Nature, our responsibility towards future generations, the need of overcome consumerism for our own good etc. Even if their voices are heard, this has no observable consequences. Put poignantly: people are becoming ever more environmentally aware, but their lives and actions aren’t. One solution is to stress the scientific aspects, to show that, according to hard science, we are running against a wall. Whether this works better, is debatable. Another solution is to invoke arguments from the domain that is often the source of arguments against environmentalism–economics. Behind this strategy lies the belief that people in Western countries care a lot about their jobs and money, and that they understand the language of dollars and euros well. One example of this strategy being applied is economic valuation of ecosystems. In the context of climate change, it is to argue that investments in clean, climate-friendly technologies might be a job/growth booster. However, the problem with this argument is that it cuts both ways.

Projections about green jobs and, more generally, about the economic consequences of a large-scale transition towards an economy based on clean technologies are highly uncertain and highly dependent on the assumptions made (regarding such things as the development curves of clean technologies, “brown” or “dirty” jobs destroyed, consequences of changes in relative prices and in patterns of production and trade…). Indeed, many environmentally minded economists doubt the potential of clean technologies to provide economic growth. At least under the current economic paradigm, jobs are dependent on growth. We might be able to change that paradigm, but no-one is able to say what consequences such a shift might have. It’s just about guessing at best. Therefore, arguments in favour of decided action on climate change that are based on the allegedly bright prospects for green jobs are very vulnerable to criticism. And they are often turned against those who use them in good faith. Which they can only blame themselves for, since these arguments are, I repeat, very weak. And then you hear the non sequitur–a very convincing one–that since clean technologies will cost us jobs (i.e., the positive net benefits of green jobs are a myth), we should hesitate to act on climate change. Maybe a climate policy ramp is more sensible. Or no action at all.

This is, of course, a non sequitur, because there are enough arguments for decided action on climate change that are not based on the premise that clean technologies create more green jobs than they destroy “brown” ones. These range from concerns for future generations and Nature to positive side-effects of clean technologies to more long-term economic considerations (countering the silly assumption common in economic models of climate change that the world economy will grow steadily under the business-as-usual scenario, despite increases in global mean temperature of 2, 3, 4 or more degrees centigrade). If these arguments do not work, the green jobs argument most likely won’t as well. Rather, it will provide ammunition for the likes of Bjørn Lomborg. And that is strategically not very clever.

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