Influencers Opinion

Can California both create new jobs and protect the environment? The short answer is yes

A worker carries a solar panel into place at a customer’s home in Carlsbad, Calif., Oct. 18, 2018.
A worker carries a solar panel into place at a customer’s home in Carlsbad, Calif., Oct. 18, 2018. NYT

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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When making the case for clean energy jobs, Karen Skelton talked about polar bears.

“The question of how to create jobs without damaging the environment assumes there is an either-or paradigm – either you create jobs and damage the environment, or you preserve nature and lose jobs,” said the longtime Democratic consultant and environmental advocate. “This question sets up false choices, between industrial manufacturers or polar bears, oil drills or clean air, infill development or affordable housing.”

Can we really save the planet and grow the economy all at once, without any tradeoffs or hard choices?

Skelton didn’t say it was easy. But she and many of her fellow California Influencers strongly argue that environmental protection and job creation are mutually reinforcing policy goals. They cite the reductions that the state has made in greenhouse gas emissions – below 1990 levels – and the increase in the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources – roughly one-third of all retail energy sales here – during a time of sustained economic growth.

“California has successfully demonstrated to the nation and global community that it is possible to achieve record-breaking economic growth while slashing emissions and setting some of the world’s toughest clean air and clean energy goals,” said former state Senate leader Kevin de León, adding that the Golden State has created more than 500,000 jobs in the clean energy industry. “Incredibly, that’s 10 times more jobs in California’s clean energy space than there are coal mining jobs in all of America.”

Support for the premise comes from less predictable points on the political spectrum as well.

“Californians today are demonstrating that technology and innovation can reduce or even eliminate the environmental consequences inherent in job-creating industries … such as agriculture,” said Dave Puglia, executive vice president of the Western Growers Association, who pointed to his organization’s technology incubator that has provided state farmers with access to environmental protection techniques. “California farmers … produce more food using less water, fertilizer and chemicals than ever before. That continuous progress has been enabled by rapid innovation and adaptation of new technologies.”

But even in a state as committed to green technology as California, there are still obstacles to overcome.

“While California has done a great job of jumpstarting renewables, the transition to a clean future has not been smooth or certain,” cautioned Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director for the California Solar and Storage Association, who criticized unpredictable regulations on solar users. “Setting ambitious long-term goals is important, but it’s not enough. We can create jobs and meet our long-term environmental goals more smoothly if we avoid the hiccups of stop-start policies and value continuity in the long path to cleaner air and a carbon-free future.”

Other Influencers raised similar concerns, warning that increased energy costs could ultimately undermine economic growth.

“Because California is a global leader, it is easy to assume we’re invulnerable. But, we’re not,” said Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California. “Other states are finding a balance between environmental goals and economic development that lures away young workers and families with the promise of good jobs and a more affordable lifestyle. If we’re not careful, too many of our publicly-funded college graduates will start their careers elsewhere, and stay there.”

John White, executive director for the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, stressed the importance of prioritizing clean energy job creation in low-income and minority communities.

“Maintaining public support for these strategic investments will require workforce training, attention to equity, and ensuring economic benefits and jobs are widely shared across California’s diverse and economically disadvantaged communities,” White said.

Tammy Tran, senior manager of Community Engagement at Southern California Edison, agreed.

“These are communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution and suffering from high concentrations of unemployment, low levels of homeownership, high rent burden, and low educational attainment,” Tran said. “(We must) make sure no communities are left behind as we move toward a clean energy future.”

Kate Gordon, director of Governor Newsom’s Office of Planning and Research, pointed to a historical precedent to underscore the importance of this approach.

“Henry Ford famously paid his workers enough to afford to buy his vehicles, so they would be fully invested in the new auto economy,” Gordon said. “If we truly want a sustainable low-carbon future, our workers deserve the same.”

Finally, Senate Majority Leader Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) offered a reminder that policy change comes from cultural and attitudinal shifts.

“Ultimately, the underlying cause of climate change is human behavior,” said Hertzberg. “If we teach sustainability at every level, from our youngest students to our eldest residents, we will change our collective disposition and engender a culture whose mindset leans towards sustainability.”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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