July 29, 2008
Go To Them: New Energy Jobs and the Populism We Need
By Keith Brower Brown, Breakthrough Generation
The effort to pass a sensible climate and energy policy is not working. I don't just mean we're not getting the right content in legislation--whether it's trading or taxing or new investment. I want to face facts: right now there isn't serious political support, or even interest, for an "energy bill" with climate change solutions at its heart. Not from most Democrats in Congress, and not from the vast majority of Americans, whose support is desperately needed by us climate and clean energy advocates.
This can be our crucial moment--a point of deep popular unrest over energy hikes and economic decline. In the self-righteous furor of "drill here, now" and in the sparring over loafers and houses, we see a political establishment desperate to connect with a distrustful electorate. At this sudden crossroads, both we and the defenders of the fossil economy have an incredible opportunity to define the way ahead. So now, we can't spend one more day still trying to convince 41% of America to come to our 10% side. We have to go to them, and meet them where they're at.
I think we have one shot; our legislative solution cannot be a "clean energy bill" or a "climate change bill" which require good economic times to stay afloat. It must be a "new jobs bill", which--to work at all--requires sweeping change of the energy foundations of our economy.
And what do most Americans say they want, now? Cheap energy and a healthy economy have been the top political demands of the year.
This is a godsend! Isn't it amazing good fortune that with a new energy jobs bill, we can give most people exactly the kind of answer they're asking for? Populism--a strategy that embraces the terms and opinions of the majority--can provide the solutions to this economic, energy, and climate dilemma.
Right now, no major politician has a plan to solve problems at the heart of the US economic crisis--the collapse and exile of manufacturing, the dissolution of its steady union careers, and our treacherous dependence on unstable supplies of foreign oil.
But we have that plan; a new energy economy. With 10 million new energy jobs.
This plan means real dignifying livelihoods, accessible to the most disadvantaged communities. It means a nation that knows what to expect from its future, free of the knee-weak uncertainty of foreign fossil dependence. It means streets from the small towns to the inner cities coming to life again, with the boisterous hum of new industry and a blooming middle class. It means a stronger America, once again rising in the world.
10 million new energy jobs. Savor that. It has to be our rallying flag, because it will be most vigorously waved by the people we have always had the worst time "convincing". These are the laid-off steelworkers and the three-job moms, the folks who never had direct reason to connect with the climate's plight. Though billions for research and deployment are surely the only way to deliver the new energy economy and the climate solutions we need, we must be careful to remember that government research investment is not a flag--only the ground on which a flag stands. New energy jobs is a flag, and if we want a good energy policy, this flag has to be ours.
A Deeper Commitment
This plan is more than just framing: it demands that we become jobs advocates first and climate activists second. Across the environmental movement, consensus is building behind the framing of a "new energy economy", with websites of the Sierra Club, NRDC and the DNC all extolling the jobs virtues of such a plan.
But these frames still lack potency--they feel like footnotes to campaigns trying to convince the electorate against drilling, or for cap-and-trade. In our campaigns, we must stop trying to convince others, and start telling them that they're already right, and that we're fighting together for the only plan that will work. We must lay claim to a simple, hard rhetoric that forces conservatives into a defensive role, as deniers of the potential of American hands and American wind. And we will have to painfully let go of any parts of our plan that don't resonate deeply, quickly, with the very people who need this plan most.
The elegance of this plan, though, is that we can't compromise in the wrong way; this plan binds pocketbook and climate as inseparable. Because the only thing that will make these jobs possible is a transformational energy policy. This means serious RDD&D, along with massive support for engineering education and job training programs. These latter programs are succeeding in the Bronx and Chicago and Oakland, and not just as skill factories--but as community-run schools that become the base for powerful local political organizing, environmental education, and social justice work.
Once this new energy bill is passed, the jobs will be here, and span an astounding number of sectors: careers in manufacturing the windmills and windows, in rebuilding and maintaining our energy infrastructure, in localizing food and goods production, in remaking our transportation and shipping networks, and in making our workplaces and cities and homes drastically more efficient. And these will be career-path jobs, true livelihoods which pay well and cannot be outsourced.
The Blue-Dog Open Door
This dream can happen right now, because it's most of the country's dream already. A plan for 10 million new energy jobs will become the call of the Walmart workers of Virginia and New Mexico, of the industrial ghost towns of Ohio and Michigan, of union truck drivers on strike. And these voices will carry in the crucial votes of their moderate "Blue Dog" Democrat representatives, and shape the policy of a certain half-Kenyan presidential candidate who needs these swing states to win.
These moderate Democrats are populists, and know they only succeed by meeting people where they're at. They will see that a new energy jobs plan is an incredible way to build and unify the party. There's no other way to achieve our goals than to have moderate Democrats--maybe half of the party--vote in "the new energy jobs plan" as the best way to serve their constituents' economic demands. So, here's looking at you, B.O., Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel--a new energy economy we need, want, and can do.
Best of all, there's nobody to convince. We're already on their side.
Keith Brower Brown is entering a third-year of undergraduate work, in Geography and Environmental Economics & Policy at UC Berkeley. He has worked as a research intern for Green For All and at UC's Transportation Sustainability Research Center. He organized for a campaign to stop the BP-Berkeley partnership, was an environmental educator in the Berkeley dorms, and received UC Berkeley's 2008 Lipson Essay Prize for Humanistic Values.