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And Green Jobs Justice for All

The past few weeks, Congress has been working on an economic stimulus bill intended to jolt the U.S. economy back to life.  Earlier in the week, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi projected that the bill will combine roughly $400 billion in infrastructure spending with roughly $200 billion of targeted tax cuts.


According to its proponents, one of the big goals of the stimulus plan is to create 2.5 million jobs over the next few years.  A growing chorus of observers is calling on Congress to ensure that as many of those job as possible are “green jobs,” and the Democratic leadership in Congress seems happy to oblige.  In a recent interview, Speaker Pelosi explained that the stimulus plan sought to create a large number of jobs by directing a significant portion of the infrastructure spending toward the construction of a “smart, modern grid that is able to transmit the new, renewable energy—wind, solar, biofuels and the rest.”  (For more about the different types of green jobs that renewable energy development might create, see here.)  Other green jobs might be aimed at expanding mass transit systems or retrofitting housing and businesses to make them more energy efficient.


In a recent post on Gristmill, Joseph Romm notes that the push for green jobs should “encompass a wide breadth of skill sets” to ensure that these positions are “accessible to all Americans.”  Because many green jobs are likely to be “middle-skill” positions though, he advocates that American workers be provided with “access to effective training and appropriate supports.”


Here Romm touches on an issue too easily lost in all of the fanfare surrounding the current green jobs movement:  the challenge of ensuring that the benefits of green jobs are equitably distributed among all Americans.  As was noted in CPR’s recent report, Protecting Public Health and the Environment by the Stroke of a Presidential Pen:


The emergence of the new “green” economy holds the promise that environmental protection will spawn a new set of economic opportunities—new jobs, new investments in infrastructure, and new technologies.  As these new environmental benefits begin to take shape, the U.S. government must ensure that they are distributed in a way that is inclusive and fair, so that all communities share in the dividends of the new green economy.


To be sure, some voices are emphasizing the need for inclusiveness in the distribution of green jobs.  One of the most important belongs to Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy and founder of Green for All, “a national organization dedicated to building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.”  Unfortunately, these voices tend to be the exception rather than the rule.


In effect, equitable distribution of green jobs is an environmental justice issue.  Properly understood, environmental justice is concerned with the equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens and with ensuring that all members of society have an equal opportunity to participate in decisions concerning environmental benefits and burdens. 


So far, the environmental justice movement has largely been identified with addressing the disproportionate distribution of environmental burdens to the poor and communities of color.  (For more background on the environmental justice movement, see here.)  That focus is well justified – both because burdens are disproportionately distributed and because government has not done a lot about it.  A Clinton Administration Executive Order on the subject was watered down by the Bush Administration to the point of meaninglessness.


With the advent of the new green economy, however, it is time to replace the narrow vision of environmental justice with one that recognizes and realizes the full scope of guarantees constituting the notion of environmental justice.  Among other things, this means developing an affirmative environmental justice agenda.


While the pursuit of an affirmative environmental justice agenda will require the participation of all members of government at every level, the incoming Obama administration can take an important first step toward the achievement of this agenda by amending or replacing the current Executive Order on Environmental Justice.  In its recent report on recommended Executive Orders for the new Obama administration, CPR proposed an Executive Order on the subject for President-elect Obama’s consideration.  The Order would direct relevant federal agencies to develop plans to promote “‘green-collar’ jobs, job training, and new green businesses in traditionally disadvantaged environmental justice communities.”


By implementing such changes to the existing Executive Order on Environmental Justice, the United States can begin moving down the path of achieving the affirmative goals of environmental justice, helping to ensure the promise of economic wellbeing and environmental quality for all Americans.

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