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Clean energy creates some jobs and destroys others. Here’s what that tells us about politics.

Fired guy not excited about clean energy transition.
Fired guy not excited about clean energy transition.
(Shutterstock)

One worry that haunts the transition to clean energy — haunts any ambitious plan to use government policy to change the status quo — is how much it will cost, in public funds and in jobs. Thus, independent analysts have spent a great deal of time modeling the transition, showing how costs and employment net out over the long term.

Some wonks and advocates have a bad habit of stopping there. "The transition is affordable and creates more jobs than it destroys. Argument won!"

However, the net effects are of mainly academic interest, at best the germ, the seed, of a strategy. What's more relevant to the political prospects of a clean energy transition is not net costs and jobs, but who gains and who loses. Which industries lose, and what kind of power will they wield to prevent it? Which win, and how equipped are they to support it?

It's funny with modeling. In real life, the exercise of political and financial power will be one of the determinative factors in where and how fast the transition plays out. But that kind of thing is more or less impossible to model, as it depends on all sorts of unpredictable sociopolitical developments.

Nonetheless, modeling can give us some hints.

Another study shows that a clean energy transition is a job creator

The latest comes via Frank Ackerman, a former Tufts professor who's now the principal economist at Synapse Energy Economics. Work from Ackerman and the team at Synapse is the basis of a new report from the Labor Network for Sustainability and 350.org called "The Clean Energy Future."

They model two scenarios. The first is "a reference case, including only policies that were in place before the Clean Power Plan, and using many assumptions from the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook." The second is a Clean Energy Future scenario, which includes an ambitious set of policies meant to reduce US greenhouse gas levels 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, a target Obama has agreed to but not planned for.

Here's the policy suite:

ackerman's plan (Synapse)

If you don't want to squint at all that, suffice to say it's bold on energy efficiency and renewables, involves no new nuclear plants, cuts coal in half by 2030 and eliminates it by 2050, and, perhaps most interestingly, involves the electrification of the entire lightweight passenger vehicle fleet (cars and trucks, excluding heavy transport).

It seems a bit wild-eyed when viewed from the perspective of today's political gridlock, but, hell, weirder things have happened.

So Ackerman and company ran the policies out 35 years, to 2050. (Energy costs are estimated using NREL modeling and employment impacts using the IMPLAN model.)

Long story short, on costs: "The cost of electricity, heating, and transportation under this plan is $78 billion less than current projections from now through 2050."

As for jobs, there is "an average gain, above the reference case, of more than 550,000 jobs per year from 2016 to 2050." More than a half-million extra jobs a year is nothing to sneeze at, but as Ackerman notes, that represents 0.3 percent of the size of the expected US workforce through 2050. It's not a huge macroeconomic effect.

(This is true, and underappreciated, about almost all studies of the employment effects of energy and environmental regulations: Positive or negative, the effects tend to be small, swamped by larger macro forces like interest rates and demographics.)

Again, though, it's not net jobs that shapes politics, but who gains and loses. And here Ackerman provides an interesting chart of his results:

clean energy jobs (Synapse)

Here's his narrative for how the jobs picture evolves over the next 35 years:

Starting at once, hundreds of thousands of jobs are created by expanded energy efficiency programs. ...

A second wave of new employment arises in the 2020s, as renewable energy programs take off. ...

Next, after about 2030, employment expands in the auto industry, as production of electric vehicles becomes essential to the later stages of the scenario.

Finally, in the 2040s, jobs are created by net energy savings, which are spent on other purchases.

Couple things to note about this.

First, the employment effects get larger over time, in both directions. The net annual gain in jobs relative to baseline reaches 800,000 by 2050, but notice that the job gains shift around among industries over time, while the job losses remain concentrated.

Second, as you'd guess, the vast bulk of job losses come in fossil fuels. Some of the job gains are spread out, too, but well over half of them are concentrated in two broad sectors: manufacturing and construction. (Efficiency means construction work on buildings and manufacturing the materials for it. Renewables mean building power infrastructure and manufacturing the materials for it.)

Here's the total job gains and losses in three big industrial sectors:

job creation under clean energy, by sector (Synapse)

The point of the chart is to show that while the lost jobs tend to be good-paying and high-skill, the same is true of the jobs gained. Jobs in manufacturing and construction pay better and offer better benefits than the average American job; they also represent a large proportion of the high-paying jobs held by people of color.

So this isn't a trade of good jobs for crappy ones. It is, however, a trade of jobs highly concentrated in a few well-defined industries for jobs diffused through a more diverse, less well-defined set of sectors.

What job projections tell us about political economy

So this tells us a little bit about who wins and who loses. The next thing to do for an enterprising wonk would be to match these job trends with information about various sectors and companies available on Influence Map (an amazing new tool tracking the influence wielded by corporations on climate policy). That could help determine in some semi-quantified way just how strong the forces arrayed against the clean energy transition are relative to its supporters, and how that balance of power might change over time.

For the rest of us, we can make educated guesses about the political economy involved.

The first thing to note is that fossil fuel jobs tend to be concentrated in certain geographic areas — where the wells, mines, and refineries are — while jobs in efficiency and renewable energy tend to be more evenly spread out, as they are available just about everywhere.

As a corollary, fossil fuel jobs are much more politically concentrated. The industries are very well-organized, well-represented, and highly salient to a defined set of legislators.

New clean energy jobs tend to fall under the broad umbrella of the manufacturing and construction trades, but that doesn't mean they are politically concentrated or effectively organized. Efficiency jobs, in particular, tend to be scattered across several trades and in many cases represent only a portion of what those trades do. Renewable energy jobs are somewhat more concentrated around the building and maintenance of power infrastructure, but there, too, they are but a small sliver of the overall construction trade.

green job
That is one green-ass job.
(Shutterstock)

That brings us to another difference, somewhat obscured by the chart above. Net job gains in clean energy may outweigh fossil fuel job losses, but those losses come out of a much larger base. A larger base means more power, which means that negative reinforcement for lawmakers threatening those jobs will tend to be more intense than the positive reinforcement they can expect from creating new ones. After all, many of the industries that stand to benefit only barely exist at this point, whereas fossil fuel industries are deeply entrenched in politics.

In short, though a clean energy transition looks like an obvious win at the macro level, with more jobs created than lost, it is in fact an uphill slog, an asymmetrical fight, as the fight for change always is. Concentrated losses are more politically potent than diffuse gains, even if the latter are larger on an absolute basis.

That fact should inform political strategy. As things now stand, lawmakers pushing a suite of ambitious clean energy policies are going to run into many powerful enemies, with support from few powerful friends.

This suggests a few things about political strategy.

The first, noted repeatedly in the report, is the importance of supporting people who are losing their jobs:

Because some jobs will be lost in fossil-fuel related industries, we need a vigorous program to provide new, high-quality jobs and/or dignified retirement for workers in those industries. A Superfund to protect workers and communities from negative side effects of climate policies should be a central part of any climate program. Anything less will be unjust to workers and will undermine political support for climate protection programs.

You can see this at work, in a small way, in Obama's POWER+ proposal, which would offer assistance to hard-hit coal miners in Appalachia. It's being blocked, like all his legislative efforts, but at least some mining communities are beginning to notice and push back against their Republican representatives.

Second, the analysis suggests that taking on the whole fight at once is a bit quixotic, drawing the opposition of every established fossil fuel constituency before any of the clean energy constituencies are strong enough to counter them.

Rather than pushing a whole suite of policies, or shooting straight for the policy moon (an economy-wide carbon price), it might be wiser to approach things stepwise, using policy to create constituencies, which then lend their weight to further policy. I described such a strategy in this post.

Similarly, it might be best to begin in states and areas where there aren't as many fossil fuel jobs. Create concentrated centers of progressive climate policy and clean energy employment, with their own supportive legislators. These rival power centers can serve as a base of expansion. (California, which has led in both clean energy policy and jobs for years, shows how such influence can work.)

It's a ratcheting strategy, using policy to create jobs, jobs to create constituencies, constituencies to create more policy.

The clean energy transition, as has now been established by copious research, is almost certain to be a net gain for American consumers and workers. But getting there means navigating uneven and treacherous territory, opposed at every turn by longstanding constituencies that stand to lose their privileged position.

Reports like Ackerman's and political economy tools like Influence Map can help lawmakers develop a clear sense of that territory, in both its geographic and economic dimensions, and serve as a kind of compass to guide the long journey ahead.