The Truth About All Those Green Jobs

Millions of new energy jobs? Perhaps, but the estimates may be a bit too rosy.

A rainbow is visible looking West from Palm Springs, Calif. on Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 next to an array of wind turbines.

A rainbow next to an array of wind turbines in Palm Springs, Calif.

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Not everyone is persuaded by Obama's estimate of 5 million green jobs in 10 years. That is, in a word, "absurd," says Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. "We can't devote that many people to that activity in this economy without incurring very substantial costs, unbearable costs."

Quantity debate. David Kreutzer of the conservative Heritage Foundation sees flaws in rosy estimates of green jobs. The taxation or borrowing necessary to raise the billions for green investment, he says, will squeeze out or destroy other jobs.

Conservative economists seem most concerned about some of the mechanisms that might be used to force existing industries to go green, such as tighter emissions limits. A Heritage study on a bill in the Senate last year that would have limited carbon emissions concluded there would be significant net job losses. The more energy-intensive sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, would get hit the most. "In our modern economy, we're using fossil fuel to replace human sweat and to run the electricity that undergirds virtually everything," Kreutzer says. "The part of the economy that's going to be hit the hardest will be the electricity generation, because that's done with coal. If you look at fossil fuels, coal has the most carbon dioxide per Btu [British thermal unit]. So, if you put a tax on carbon dioxide, it's going to be felt the most by the electricity industry. Some of those costs get passed on; there's no other way." Higher costs for electricity consumption mean cuts elsewhere—like payrolls.

The debate over green jobs comes down to, in part, a philosophical one over whether the government should lead the march toward renewables or let the free market lead itself as green energy becomes an economically viable alternative to traditional sources. For environmental advocates, however, the real case for a green economy is found in the forbidding forms of global warming, damaged ecosystems, air pollution, and finite resources.

As he nears graduation, Andrew Pike envisions a different world in a decade or so. "It's the long-term view that's going to take time," he says. "I think it will keep growing as people realize that resources, fossil fuels, aren't going to last forever—once people realize what we're doing can't be undone."