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.
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.
But thanks to the spike in oil prices and incentives like the recently extended Production Tax Credit for producers of renewable energy, some renewables are already competitive. Electricity generated from wind power is now competitive with that produced by natural gas. Wind-generated electricity has enjoyed a 27 percent growth rate in 2006 and is projected to grow at the same pace in 2007, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Already, it appears that the renewable energy sector has begun to deliver on its promise of new jobs. Spanish wind giant Gamesa Corp. is building a manufacturing plant in Edensburg, Pa., on the site of a closed steel mill. In all, Gamesa will bring 1,000 jobs to Pennsylvania, some 230 of them long-term manufacturing jobs.
Manufacturing giant Siemens, meanwhile, recently announced plans for a wind-turbine plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, that will employ some 250 people.
And last year, Seattle-based Imperium Renewables began building the largest US biodiesel facility near Aberdeen, Wash., an area hard hit by recent paper-mill closures. Biodiesel, made from vegetable oil, emits 78 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum diesel. It has also recently become competitive with fossil fuels.
But because the cleanest energy is energy not used at all, the area most likely to see immediate growth will be energy efficiency – training people to inspect, insulate, and seal buildings so they waste less. By 2030, half of all buildings in the US will have been built after 2000, according to a study by the Brookings Institution. "That's a great opportunity," says Joel Rogers, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a cofounder of the Apollo Alliance. And it implies many jobs.
The Bush administration can take credit for pushing unions and the environmental movement together, says Julius Getman, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Although the interests of the two groups have long coincided, mutual distrust has often – although not always – kept the two movements apart.
Environmentalists looked down their noses at organized labor as "goons" more interested in protecting polluting industries than protecting the environment. Organized labor, meanwhile, viewed the environmental movement as elitist and more preoccupied with saving trees than in saving livelihoods. The Bush administration has helped change those attitudes.
"They have run roughshod over the environmentalists, who thought they were so powerful," Professor Getman says, "and they have done everything possible to diminish the power of unions."
Mr. Rifkin envisions not only more jobs but also a more equitable distribution of wealth due to the decentralization of energy production. He foresees a land dotted with community- or individually-owned generators and hydrogen fuel cells to store energy, all connected by a "smart grid," an Internet-like network managing the ebb and flow of electricity.
"It will require the creation of millions of jobs," he says, "and it will require the attention of civilization."