By Anders Lorenzen
“When I hear the word climate crisis I think jobs, jobs, jobs and opportunities”.
This has been the trademark response and approach from President Biden when he talks about how to respond to the climate crisis. The president sees this as the best strategy to galvanise the divided country around climate action and persuade people to get behind his ambitious climate plan by promising a huge windfall of jobs.
This seems especially directed towards conservative voting blue-collar workers who for decades have relied on jobs in the fossil fuel industry, car industry and other heavy industry and high-carbon sectors. Many of those workers see action on climate change as a threat to their livelihoods.
There is no doubt that President Biden has a hard job persuading people in a country where at least half of its population is not overly concerned about taking action on climate change. Many even dispute the robust scientific evidence that humans by burning fossil fuels are altering the Earth’s climate. President Biden’s hope is that if many of those blue-collar workers were to get jobs in the clean energy sector, they might change their view on climate change.
Is more growth a climate solution?
However, there is a danger in promoting this view that the way to tackle the climate crisis is more growth, especially as many climate activists argue that the root cause of climate change is capitalism.
Biden’s strategy lines up closely alongside that of social democratic policy-making, that the way out of any crisis is good-paying union jobs.
There is also the danger that the American people do not understand the true severity of the climate crisis and its probable devastating impacts when it is being promoted as an opportunity for economic growth.
Yes, no doubt we need to transition the heavy carbon industries to a fully green economy.
But this is not enough. We can’t innovate our way out of the climate crisis and we can’t just spur job creation as a way out of the crisis. There needs to be a limit to growth, and there should be a focused effort to consume less, and nowhere is that more important than in the US. The country has the largest carbon footprint per capita of any countries in the world, and let’s not forget is historically also the largest emitter in the world.
Yes, Biden must supercharge the green economy but at the same time should promote anti-growth strategies in other parts of the economy. A carbon fee on any products we buy should be considered, and taxation should discourage consumption by making carbon-intensive products, including buying high-carbon food, gadgets and travelling, more expensive.
This might hurt job creation in some parts of the economy which, as it recovers from COVID-19, will need those tough decisions that a president who has put climate change at the top of his agenda will have to make. If he is serious about tackling the climate crisis we can’t just continue to endlessly grow for the sake of growth and by creating pointless jobs.
Bouncing back from climate impacts
In bouncing back from extreme weather events storms, flooding, heatwaves and so on, there is a case for growth strategies creating jobs that will insulate our homes and protect and future-proof our buildings and communities to better withstand such events, as well as grow the clean energy economy to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
But the best way to reduce the severity of extreme weather events is to stop consuming products that have a high carbon footprint and to scale back on high-carbon travelling such as flying and driving.
When it comes to the climate crisis, job creation cannot be the sole solution. In fact, job creation will need to be scaled back in many industries to ratchet down emissions.
No more roads
For instance, much more land will need to be given back to nature and, in the US which is the country in the world most reliant on car culture, it will mean more people giving up their cars and driving less. In addition, the government must put a stop to building more roads, and should in fact decommission roads, industrial land and farmland to create more nature.
Let’s be clear that road-building can in no way align with a green recovery strategy and it is not as simple as to just replace petrol and diesel cars with electric vehicles. Americans need to drive far less and policies are needed to promote this idea and make driving far more expensive. Then there is of course also the issue of the size of the cars, because many American’s use the biggest and most polluting cars in the world, SUV’s, which use more road space with enormous carbon footprints.
Neither is it enough to hang on to a pipedream of sustainable jet fuel. Flying to a certain degree will need to be radically scaled back, made more expensive and deprioritised. These are just some examples of jobs Biden would describe as ‘good-paying union jobs’ but which ultimately need to go. While many new jobs will be created as the green economy continues to grow, it is worth recognising that many jobs belonging to the dirty old economy will need to go too if we are to face up to the climate crisis.
And fundamentally, with the cascading climate impacts such as deforestation, glacier retreats, melting of the poles, eroding of biodiversity, species extinction, extreme weather events there is not some jobs bonanza around the corner that will stop it. There is a need for further regulations and more taxation; this to keep emissions not only in check but to drastically reduce them in line with what the science demands.
And many people and communities in the US and around the world who have lost or had their livelihoods compromised, or for that matter anyone worried about the unfolding impacts of the climate crisis might not be best pleased that Biden frames the climate crisis as a jobs opportunity.