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Unions see greenbacks in 'green' future

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 25, 2007

With alarm growing over global warming and the economic vulnerability created by American dependence on foreign oil, it's increasingly obvious to many that the only viable future is a green one.

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The pursuit of this future has made unlikely bedfellows of many groups historically at odds with each other. Evangelicals have joined forces with tree huggers. Creationists have aligned themselves with scientists. And now, organized labor is working with environmentalists.

Union leaders are betting that a green economy will not only address the issue of climate change, it will also provide a bonanza of well-paying manufacturing jobs – the kinds of jobs that have largely vanished from the United States in recent decades. A proliferation of wind turbines and solar panels means more factories, while ever more stringent efficiency standards imply the need for inspectors and experts in sealing and insulating.

"From labor unions' point of view, these are the kinds of jobs their unions are most prepared for," says Jeff Rickert, vice president of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of the major environmental and labor organizations.

Having worked in steel mills and paper plants, many in the workforce already possess the appropriate skill set, say labor leaders. All that's needed are incentives at the federal level, and America will be well on its way toward what some call a "third industrial revolution."

"This is like the transition from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy," says Robert Borosage, president of the Institute for America's Future, a progressive think tank. "It has the potential for massive growth."

According to studies by the Apollo Alliance, which has outlined a 10-point plan for energy independence and jumpstarting the renewables sector, dollars invested in clean energy create more jobs than those invested in traditional energy sources. Renewable energy is simply more labor intensive. An investment of $30 billion per year for 10 years would create 3.3 million jobs and boost the gross domestic product by $1.4 trillion, according to its analysis. The federal government would recoup the initial investment in increased tax revenues within the same 10-year period.

The most optimistic point out that, because decentralization is inherent to renewable energy, an equitable distribution of wealth is built into the new energy paradigm.

"The sun shines, the wind blows, there's biomass everywhere," says Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Hydrogen Economy." And making heavy machinery such as wind turbines far from where it's to be used simply won't be cost-effective. Neither will transmitting energy over long distances. That means jobs will be more evenly distributed as well.

The real impetus for this market is most likely to come from top-down regulation on a national scale, a measure President Bush has so far rejected, but which many see as inevitable. "Everyone sees carbon regulation down the line," says Kate Gordon, a senior associate with the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.