Green-Collar Jobs or Rust-Belt Future?

This week the US Senate will begin debate on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2007 and a new bill called Investing in Climate Action and Protection Act (iCAP). I gather Representative Ed Markey, Chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, who is introducing the latter bill, will no doubt receive opposition. The bill goes much further than Lieberman-Warner in addressing the rising climate, low- and middle-income communities, and green-collar jobs. It borrows language and ideas from the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which is part of the current Energy Bill . All this being said, I think it is high time we had a bill that addresses our true needs. I encourage everyone who feels inspired to get on the horn to their Senators and tell them you support it.

While the Lieberman-Warner Bill is far from perfect and an important attempt to build consensus and address global warming—the Department of Energy estimates the Lieberman-Warner Act will save $180 billion on foreign oil expenditures by 2030—it needs to be strengthened and the billions of dollars of subsidies for nuclear energy be removed (uranium is not a clean renewable energy—just talk to the indigenous peoples whose land it is mined). Both these bills, however, actually hold part of the key to much-needed job growth in ailing job markets throughout America.

Today, much of our country is suffering from stagnant wages, increasing income gaps, a shortage of new industries and potential drivers of job growth. Plus, with the never-ending rise of gas and food prices, real wages have eroded by 1.2 percent according to the USDA's chief economist. Worse yet, food prices are forecast to rise another 3 to 4 percent this year.

So how would a bill like iCAP create jobs?

Simple, it would create the jobs of the future, new local jobs, jobs that cannot be outsourced—in other words, Green Jobs. And these jobs span the gamut, yet with one important thing in common. From installing solar panels and constructing transit lines to retrofitting buildings for energy-efficiency, reclaiming mine sites, and refining vegetable waste oil into biodiesel, all these jobs benefit the economy and improve our environment.

Moreover, the rise of "green-collar" jobs is a growing national movement. Witness this past March's National Green Jobs Conference held in Pittsburgh and April's Dream Reborn Green Jobs Conference in Memphis—an important recognition that Green Jobs are a real opportunity for cities and states struggling to find new paths to job growth.

As a child, I learned first-hand what struggling families go through, growing up in a single-parent household in Northeastern Pennsylvania. For the latter part of my childhood, I was raised by my mom, who armed with no more than a high school degree had to take two jobs and maintain a 14-16 hour workday. We lived paycheck to paycheck and without a refrigerator, phone, or television for quite some time—not by choice, but by necessity. Finally, before I even turned 15, to find a better job that could sustain us and my dream of a college education, she had to make a choice—leave Pennsylvania for greener pastures.

It shouldn't have to be that way. Pennsylvania and other struggling areas should be a land of opportunity. Much of the U.S. workforce is ideally suited to green-collar work—many are middle-skill jobs that are well within reach for low income workers if they have access to effective training programs and support. Whether it's learning the new skills needed to become a renewable energy technician or retraining workers for a clean energy economy, i.e., fixing an electric engine, our universities, technical schools, businesses and governments need to lead the way.

But they won't do so unless we lead first. That's why it's essential for us as citizens of the United States to make our voice heard in the green debate taking place nationwide. If a bill like the Green Jobs Act passes, it will provide 125 million dollars every year for green jobs training—that is 30,000-35,000 people being trained for good, sustainable jobs that cannot be outsourced. Additionally 20 percent of those dollars will be set aside for the most marginalized to help build green pathways out of poverty.

iCAP is slated to go even further. It will return over half of pollution allowance auction proceeds to low- and middle-income households to help compensate for any increase in energy costs as a result of climate legislation. It also proposes to invest the remaining auction proceeds to further reduce the costs of climate policy, through green job growth and training, clean energy technologies, and incentives for foresters and farmers to reduce their carbon footprint. It basically says that even though we are going to cut emissions drastically, those in low- and middle-income communities—those of us that have the most to lose—will not be left behind.

To repeat, green jobs are starting to pop up nationwide. And there is no excuse why cities and states across America cannot be a leader in this area. We have everything to gain and so much to lose. But it can only happen if we take this opportunity to speak up at town hall meetings, write letters and set up meetings with your Senators, Representatives, and Governors, and even start green job coalitions in your area. I suggest visiting greenforall.org and NWF's fun site "It's So Easy a Raccoon can do it!" to get started.

Now is the time to move beyond the challenges of our rust belt past and invest in the potential of a "green collar" future—a path to a cleaner, healthier environment and a more prosperous America.

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