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America Needs to Lead the Earth Race Again

Remember the promises of the green revolution? We would simultaneously create millions of jobs and save the environment. Some would say that was so 2008. 

One of the principal proponents of the green revolution was White House Special Advisor Van Jones. When Big Think interviewed Jones in 2008, he spoke big about "the end of an era of US capitalism -- Reaganomics -- that was "based on consumption, not production, debt and not smart savings, credit and not creativity, environmental destruction and not environmental restoration."

In its place, Jones said the federal government would re-power the economy by creating "a green collar economy" that wouldn't just benefit the "eco-elite," but would also create jobs for lower income Americans. 

Four years later, how have things turned out?

According to Jones, who has since left the White House and authored the recent book Rebuild the Dream, the green revolution has indeed delivered on many of its promises, but "most people don't know how much success we’ve already had."

What's the Big Idea?

Jones points to a study by The Brookings Institute that reports we already have 2.7 million green jobs in America right now, broadly defined. If you consider there are 80,000 coalminers in America right now, 2.7 million is comparatively big number. While coal continues to keep the lights on in America, Jones points out that there are 100,000 people working in the solar industry, and another 100,000 working in wind. In other words, there are more than twice as many people working in these two burgeoning industries as coal.

When you add other categories of green jobs to the mix, such as smart batteries, weatherization and energy efficiency, you start to get a sense of the progress that has been made.

That is not to say that green energy does not face significant challenges.

Consider, for instance, the comparative advantage that natural gas enjoys over wind energy. Due to fracking, the price of natural gas is falling, and "wind looks more expensive," says Jones. (More on this later.) Another challenge for green jobs in America is competition from China. According to Jones, "China has decided to flood the world with cheap solar and knock out American enterprises."

A well known example is Solyndra. According to Jones, right wing critics have taken cheap shots at Obama by arguing the collapse of Solyndra is "some skullduggery on Obama’s part." And yet, Jones says the reasons for Solyndra's demise are more complicated. "Maybe the $30 billion that the Chinese government put on the table to accelerate cheap solar is responsible for knocking out American companies," he said. 

Ultimately, the real culprit for holding up green innovation, according to Jones, is the Republican Party. Jones argues that while John McCain ran on climate solutions and clean energy jobs in 2008 - "the only thing that McCain and Obama never fought about" - Jones tells us, as soon as the election was over, the official GOP stance changed dramatically. According to Jones, the energy debate became for the Republicans "a cheap way to score points with their base to deny climate change, to block cap and trade and to pretend that a transition to a more, frankly, labor-intensive way of doing energy would somehow kill jobs rather than create jobs."  

What's the Significance?

In Jones's view, fracking, global competition from China, and partisan politics have represented three major challenges in America's transition to a green economy. According to Jones, that means that we are now on track "to go from importing dirty oil from the Middle East to importing clean energy technology from Asia and skipping all the jobs in the middle."

And yet, Jones sees a light at the end of the tunnel. While it is hard to predict the future in regard to technology, Jones points out that the price of solar is coming down. Still, it will require a patient mindset, Jones says, to get us to the place where the country can run on cleaner and more renewable forms of energy. Jones tells us:

You don't pull the plug on a technological transformation just because it’s Tuesday at noon and you’re frustrated. I mean, that's the kind of thinking that is governing D.C. right now. If you’d had that approach, you would have never had a person on the moon, you’d never had the Internet, you’d never have the railway. You’ve got to give these technologies a chance.  But the one thing that you could do to accelerate this is to put a price on carbon, to look at the dirty sources of energy and to try to make sure the price of those sources of energy reflect the cost of using those sources of energy...And that's what cap and trade was all about. And cap and trade now being off the table means that it’s that much harder for our investments to pay off.

Jones hopes that the U.S. gets back in the clean energy games in a significant way because these technologies came from the United States. "Jimmy Cater and Jerry Brown, as governor as California, put American taxpayer dollars to work during the oil shocks of the ‘70s," says Jones, "and they came up with these brilliant technologies that are now all over the world." Sadly, "we’re being beaten in a market we created, with technology that we paid for and are now losing out on the jobs," Jones says.  

"It was a space race that really accelerated science and technology for the last generation. Let’s be in a race now called the earth race to save the planet and to create jobs for everybody."

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