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The Forest and the Trees on Green Jobs

Josh Stephens on
Jul 11, 2016

Even as forests thin out and die on a warming planet, a collection of trade unions are missing them for the trees. 

As reported in the New York Times a few weeks ago, a coalition of trade unions has raised a stink about a partnership between the AFL-CIO and an anti-Donald Trump “super PAC" funded in part by billionaire tech investor Tom Steyer. Steyer is not just a Silicon Valley superstar. He is also — and here’s where it gets frustrating — an environmentalist. 

The unions opposed to the super PAC don’t seem to have an opinion about climate change one way or another. But they do feel strongly about one teeny-tiny symbol of the fight against climate change: the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. Because Steyer is against climate change and against Keystone, he must, ipso facto, also be against unions. At least that’s how the unions’ logic goes. 

In a letter addressed to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of of Laborers International Union of North America, calls Steyer a “billionaire job-killer and environmental extremist….his vision of leaving oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in the ground kills jobs…and threatens to strangle our economy.”

All of this to oppose a protest against Donald Trump, whose potential influence on job growth — union or otherwise — is anybody’s guess (i.e. probably catastrophic). 

Of course, unions don’t have a vested interest in the substance of Keystone — except that Keystone represents potential union jobs. The same way that a prison might. Or a rail line. Or a solar power plant. Or a low-income apartment complex.

Oblique as this connection is, I suppose I can’t begrudge unions for supporting a union project. Except the number of union jobs that Keystone would generate pales in comparison to the number of union jobs — not to mention nonunion — that a full-blown national and global campaign against climate change would generate. 

A more measured anti-Steyer message from a separate coalition of trade unions (including plumbers, welders, masons, and roofers) says they "ensure that the employment prospects of our members are not negatively impacted in any economic and energy transition.” Forget about negative impact. What about positive impact? 

Last year Mother Jones reported that the world spent $391 billion on technologies and infrastructure designed to combat climate change in 2014. It reported that the ideal amount is more like $7 trillion. Per year. 

Of course, this is just a wild estimate. The real number could be a lot higher, but whatever. Just imagine how many jobs — in every industry imaginable — that $7 trillion would represent. That's about one-third the annual GDP of the United States, which has about 120 million workers, and represents about 10 percent of global GDP. If, therefore, US GDP rose 10 percent due to climate change mitigation (surely a low figure, since the US’s share of global GDP is disproportionately high, as is its share of greenhouse gases and the technologies to reduce them), it would add 12 million jobs. 

Guess how many union workers there are — in every union — in the United States today? 14.5 million. 

So let’s make the debate clear: A $7 billion pipeline that would create a grand total of 1,950 jobs per year for two years, according to Newsweek, is more important than a moral imperative that could create nearly as many jobs as there are union workers in the United States?

In California, these jobs are palpable. Regulations like Senate Bill 375 and Senate Bill 743 promoting infill development, and the state and cities are investing billions in transit projects (not to mention highways too). Much of those monies are going straight into union workers’ bank accounts.

I don’t exactly favor catastrophe-oriented economic development plans. But, really, every constituency to the left of the Ku Klux Klan should pay attention to the economic benefits of what jurisdictions like California are doing. If we end up with better cities and more efficient transportation, those benefits will persist for generations to come. 

Steyer’s opponents can put that in their pipe(line) and smoke it.