Efforts to slow carbon pollution and limit global warming have the potential to drive job creation in renewable energy, green building, electric vehicle manufacturing, and more. But in communities that have long depended on jobs in the fossil fuel industry, many fear that the transition will lead to job losses and declining local revenue.

Jason Walsh is executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a nonprofit that unites labor unions and environmental organizations. The organization advocates for environmental solutions that create and maintain quality jobs. Yale Climate Connections spoke with Walsh about the challenges and opportunities for job creation in a clean-energy economy and strategies for ensuring that the transition delivers high-quality jobs to the people who need them most.

YCC: Can protecting the environment and creating jobs go hand in hand? How important is it to address these things simultaneously?

Jason Walsh: They can go hand in hand, and we think they really have to go hand in hand, because we are dealing with more than one crisis at the same time. We certainly have a climate crisis – a climate emergency that we have to grapple with – but we also have a crisis of income inequality in this country that is grounded in economic and racial injustice. And so we’re going to need to pursue solutions that are just as interconnected and mutually reinforcing as the causes of those crises.

YCC: What kinds of jobs are created by the transition to clean energy?

Jason Walsh: There are a broad range, and they cross economic sectors: Installing new clean-energy generation – solar, wind, geothermal – will require an enormous amount of work. It already employs a broad range of building tradescrafts. And then you’ve got to operate and maintain all of that infrastructure, which involves a whole other set of workers. We have, on the manufacturing side, workers who build both the components and the finished products of clean technology in everything from automotive to steel to high-efficiency washing machines. And we’ll have a range of work repairing what we sometimes call our natural infrastructure – shoring up wetlands and coastlines and installing green infrastructure in urban spaces.

So I think it’s important to recognize that when we talk about green economy jobs, we’re not just talking about solar and wind, although those have been the predominant ones over the last decade. We’re talking about a broad range of economic sectors.

YCC: What about the scale of those jobs? How many jobs are being created?

Jason Walsh: Before COVID the best estimates were that over 3 million American workers were engaged at some level in the clean economy and employment in that economy. The challenge is going to be making sure that, as we make this transition, those jobs are created in all parts of the country, including in parts of the country that are losing fossil fuel jobs. And at present, there is just this disjuncture between where clean economy jobs are being created and where fossil energy jobs are being lost.

YCC: How can we help make sure that we’re creating jobs in places where there are a lot of people who need those jobs?

Jason Walsh: We need to target public investment, and incent private sector investment with public funds. So an example is the revamped Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit program – a proposal offered in the Senate by Senator Manchin and Senator Stabenow – that explicitly includes a priority for [tax credits] going to manufacturers of advanced technologies, clean technologies, that locate in communities that have lost either coal mining jobs or jobs in coal fired power plants. That’s one example. There are others.

We also need to think carefully about and legislate toward investing in the kinds of programs and the kinds of sectors that we know are just going to locate where some fossil energy jobs are being lost. An example is cleaning up abandoned coal mines. We have, unfortunately, a lot of abandoned mine lands that have not been reclaimed after many years. [Estimates of the cost of cleaning up those abandoned mine sites are as high as $24.4 billion.] There is capping and reclaiming of oil and gas sites as well. By definition these are projects that are happening in areas that have relied on a fossil-energy economy, and so we need to be driving targeted investment into those kinds of projects.

And then there’s a whole set of infrastructure outside the energy sector that is as badly needed in coal communities as it’s needed in urban communities. Water infrastructure is an example of that. The crisis of lead in water service lines or other toxins in water is a problem that is shared by folks living in rural eastern Kentucky and by folks living in Flint, Michigan. So there is an opportunity to drive investment where it’s needed, which happens to be in a whole bunch of different kinds of communities across the country.

YCC: Would these remediation-focused jobs provide long-term work or help people transition into long-term employment in related fields?

Jason Walsh: There’s a lot of work to be done there. But we’re also going to have to invest pretty significantly in helping communities that have relied often on a single fuel source – coal is an example of this – to diversify their economies. What we have seen, for example, in parts of Appalachia that have been reliant on the coal industry, is a very narrow economic base. And until we broaden that economic base it’s going to be very hard to create jobs and new sources of wealth for the long term. So there is a long-term project here of investing in economic development that is sustainable and resilient, and economic diversification that is sustainable and something that can last.

And it’s going to necessarily be more than just the energy sector. It’s got to include agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, and recreation. And it’s got to be premised on the notion that each of these places is different. They have different assets, different strengths, and different visions for how they want to develop their economy. And particularly at the federal level, we need to be working with those local leaders and local stakeholders to support the kind of vision they’re putting forward, so that it’s not simply top-down economic development. It’s bottom-up, and we’re meeting in the middle and bringing the best of what the federal government can do, which is to provide a whole set of resources and tools to a vision that is articulated by local leaders and local stakeholders.

I think it’s important to also just emphasize that we also need to do a much better job of locating supply chains for these technologies in this country. Right now we are far behind our global competitors on making everything from solar [photovoltaics] to electric vehicle battery cells to low-carbon steel. And until we have a very intentional industrial policy that tries to build out those supply chains in this country, we’re not going to get the full benefits of this transition. We’ve got to make stuff here as well. And so that will require a whole different set of tools and targeted investments that’s just as important as some of the other stuff we’ve been talking about.

YCC: What else needs to be done to ensure that new jobs adequately provide for workers and communities?

Jason Walsh: We’re also going to need to address job quality. Clean-energy jobs on average pay less than fossil energy jobs on average. There are a number of reasons for this wage gap, but probably the main reason is lower union density in the solar and wind sectors, where the new jobs have predominated, as compared to fossil energy sectors. And until we close this union density and job quality gap, we’re going to have a significant equity problem and a significant political problem.

The good thing is that we’ve got a range of tested policies to choose from to make the clean-energy economy deliver more fully for workers and communities. We can apply standards to our public investments, including requirements like prevailing wage and project labor agreements and community benefit agreements by American policy – all of which maximize the benefits of using taxpayer dollars for workers and communities as we build this clean-energy future. And I think it’s notable that President Biden has explicitly included those kinds of standards in his American Jobs Plan.

We are going to need to rebalance power between workers and employers in this country. And until we do that, we’re not going to see a clean-energy economy that fully delivers for workers.

But we also need to be clear-eyed that standards alone won’t be enough, and that we need a broader restructuring of the power imbalance between workers and employers in this country, which is why it’s so important that the American Jobs Plan also includes the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, because workers need to be able to organize for union representation in their workplaces without intimidation, harassment, or being fired. [A version of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act] has passed the House. It’s awaiting action in the Senate. But my main point is that we are going to need to rebalance power between workers and employers in this country. And until we do that, we’re not going to see a clean-energy economy that fully delivers for workers.

YCC: How can we make sure that all these policies and jobs help address racial inequality?

Jason Walsh: Again, by being intentional. One of the standards I mentioned was community benefit agreements, which are often structured into project labor agreements and include local hiring requirements: the notion that you’re going to hire people from the community to build projects in those communities, and then recognizing that you’re going to need to do some work to create a pipeline into those jobs. People can’t just show up and expect to automatically work. They have to have the skills to do it.

So one of the best pathways out there is pre-apprenticeship programs, often located at community-based organizations, feeding into registered apprenticeship programs of the building trades, so that workers from that local community can actually qualify for apprenticeship slots, because they earn while they learn. All of the training there is structured around on-the-job training. That’s one example of how to address racial equity issues.

YCC: Considering all these factors, do you think it’s likely that clean-energy jobs can deliver for workers?

I am hopeful. I think we have a president and a Congress that recognizes how intersecting our challenges are, and that we have to be pursuing mutually reinforcing solutions to those challenges. And we have a president who explicitly centers workers and jobs at the heart of his climate and clean-energy policies. So I am very hopeful that we can actually move forward and create a clean-energy economy that is equitable and that we can be proud of.

ChavoBart Digital Media contributed reporting.

Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy is an editor and content producer with ChavoBart Digital Media (CBDM), a production firm with a focus on scientific and environmental media. Her work on Climate Connections includes developing...