Biden task force pushes 'green jobs'

The first meeting of the White House's Middle Class Task Force on Friday focused on how the creation of so-called green jobs can help fuel the economic recovery and bolster the middle class.

Matt Rourke/AP
(Left to right) Vice President Joe Biden, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D) of Pennsylvania, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, Mayor Michael Nutter, Rep. Bob Brady (D) of Pennsylvania, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania tour the University of Pennsylvania's campus Friday.

The first meeting of the White House's Middle Class Task Force on Friday focused on how the creation of so-called "green jobs" can help fuel the economic recovery and bolster the middle class.

The meeting, which took place Friday afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and was live-blogged on the White House's website, is chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. Speakers included John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; Van Jones, president of Green for All, a group that seeks green jobs for the poor; Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund; Carol Browner, Obama's special adviser on energy and climate change; Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers; and Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia.

Many members of President Obama's Cabinet were also in attendance, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHoodEducation Secretary Arne Duncan, Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and the newly confirmed Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis.

In his opening remarks, Vice President Biden drew applause with this line:

Look, folks, we're making an unprecedented investment in this country, in the recovery of this country, and an unprecedented investment in clean energy, clean energy that will be able to create tens of thousands, over time, of good, high-paying jobs, the vast majority of which are not exportable – they're all American jobs.

Green for All's Mr. Jones, a civil rights activist and attorney who has long maintained that the work of building a greener infrastructure can provide a pathway out of crime and poverty, built on Biden's theme.

"There is a moral principle to green the ghetto first," he said. "To give young people the chance to put down that handgun and pick up a caulking gun."

Jones called for a "new math," one that recognizes that early and effective government intervention can prevent unnecessary spending – such as on prisons or health care – further down the road.

But what exactly is a green job?

The term "green job" is, as the Monitor's Marilyn Gardner pointed out last year, notoriously slippery. Ahead of the meeting, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an op-ed by Vice President Biden that attempted to explain it:

So what exactly are "green jobs"? They provide products and services that use renewable energy resources, reduce pollution, and conserve energy and natural resources.
Investing in green jobs also means keeping up with the modern economy. At a time when good jobs at good wages are harder and harder to come by, we must find new, innovative opportunities.
According to the Council of Economic Advisers, green jobs pay 10 to 20 percent more than other jobs. They also are more likely to be union jobs. Building a new power grid, manufacturing solar panels, weatherizing homes and office buildings, and renovating schools are just a few of the ways to create high-quality green jobs that strengthen the foundation of this country.

Reframing environmentalism

That so many top officials are asserting that insulating homes and erecting wind turbines will boost the economy represents something of a victory for those who have long sought to reframe environmentalism.

Environmentalists have long been viewed by many as mortal enemies of prosperity. Famously, in the early 1990s, the Northern Spotted Owl became widely reviled as an icon of job destruction.

Bruised by these types of characterizations, many environmentalists tried to claim that their goals would actually promote economic growth. In an important October 2004 essay, political strategists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus declared environmentalism dead. The movement, they wrote, had focused too much energy on seekeing to simply preserve natural ecosystems without offering a compelling, positive vision of the future.

Here's what they proposed:

Talking about the millions of jobs that will be created by accelerating our transition to a clean energy economy offers more than a good defense against industry attacks: it's a frame that moves the environmental movement away from apocalyptic global warming scenarios that tend to create feelings of helplessness and isolation among would-be supporters.

It seems that, just over four years later, these ideas have arrived at the highest levels of the US government.

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