If you've been paying any attention to politics, you've probably heard of the Green New Deal. Some high-profile Democrats—most notably New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have been championing it, getting it into headlines everywhere. The Green New Deal is a sweeping government program that's equal parts economic aid for those left behind in America's current economy and a rescue mission for the global climate. It proposes to employ everyone who wants to be, and relieve poverty, by making the American economy 100 percent fossil fuel free. The idea is that one will drive the other: We'll fund jobs and health care and mitigate historic inequalities by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency technology and eliminating the United States' contribution to climate change. And the government will pay for it.
Will the Green New Deal work? How many jobs will it create, and how many will it destroy? Can America really afford something like this? These are big, important questions. Luckily, science has answered some of them.
It's hard to predict exactly what will happen, researchers say, because the official proposal doesn't go into enough detail. Ocasio-Cortez told Politico on Tuesday that she's drafting a resolution that will contain more specifics. In the meantime, some of the Green New Deal's components have been studied for decades and we can get broad answers to questions of who it'll affect, and how. We've addressed several of those questions with help from researchers and existing studies, and we'll publish the answers over the next few weeks. Below is our first batch of questions about what the Green New Deal will mean for jobs.
How Many Jobs Will the Green New Deal Kill and Create?
Every economist I talked to agreed: The Green New Deal would be a job creator. Most said it's impossible to know exactly how many jobs it will add to the economy, but studies generally show that government investments in green technology boost employment possibilities.
That's not to say no jobs will be destroyed. Obviously some will—including all of those associated with the mining, refining, and burning of coal, oil, and gas. But studies generally find that green investments create more jobs than they eliminate because there's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built to make the economy carbon-free, while the number of fossil fuel-dependent jobs is comparatively small. Still, those jobs are central to the well-being of the people who hold them and their families. The Green New Deal proposes to aid individuals and communities where de-carbonization will take away jobs. That doesn't have to be an empty promise—economists I spoke to say it's possible, if challenging, to transition workers whose jobs have become irrelevant to new careers. (More on this later.)
Some factors might make the Green New Deal's job numbers smaller. For example, if our new green energy turns out to be more expensive than electricity is now, people and companies may be inclined to use less of it and thereby create fewer jobs, says Sylwia Bialek, an economist at the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University.
If you're looking for numbers, this report is the closest thing I've seen to quantifying the Green New Deal. It published in 2014, at the behest of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. A team of economists from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst calculated what would be needed to cut the U.S.'s carbon emissions by 40 percent in 20 years. The study found that the American government and private companies would have to invest a collective $200 billion a year, the government should collect about $200 billion a year in carbon taxes, about 1.5 million jobs would be destroyed, and 4.2 million new jobs would be created.
"We could extrapolate, based on the work that we've done here, just to get some really rough numbers," says Heidi Peltier, one of the researchers who worked on the report. So: If a 40 percent emissions cut cost $200 billion a year and created a net 2.7 million jobs, then a 100 percent emissions cut might cost $800 billion a year and create a net 6.8 million jobs. "It's not necessarily going to be linear like that, but it might give us a ballpark, at least," Peltier says.
Others caution that the report's numbers are probably too rosy, but agree that the idea that the Green New Deal will create new jobs, on the whole, is correct.
What's Going to Happen to People Who Don't Have Jobs Under the Green New Deal?
At least in the short term, the Green New Deal will create winners and losers. You might guess who's who just by looking at which parts of the country are abundant in coal, oil, gas, wind, and sun, says Dave Swenson, an economist at the University of Iowa. Thus, we might expect the sunny South and Southwest, windswept Great Plains, and states that are amenable to offshore wind turbines to benefit. Top fossil fuel-producing states, such as Wyoming, West Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania, might be in for a rough transition.
The Green New Deal promises to help those whose livelihoods are rendered obsolete by the new economy. It says it will "diversify local and regional economies, with a particular focus on communities where the fossil fuel industry holds significant control over the labor market." It also pledges to aid all struggling communities, regardless of whether decarbonization was the cause of their troubles.
Over the past decade, hundreds of programs across the U.S. have aimed to help disadvantaged Americans by preparing low-income workers to enter industries poised for growth, such as health care, information technology, and, yes, green energy. Think of them as mini Green New Deals for different fields. Studies of these programs reveal what makes them succeed and fail.
Researchers who studied three successful programs—in Madison, Wisconsin; Boston; and New York City—offered their ideas for what made these programs able to boost both the employment rates and wages of their program participants. Researchers thought the keys to success included having good relationships with employers in their communities, so they could understand what skills companies were looking for, and screening program participants to make sure they would be good matches for local companies. These characteristics helped programs land jobs for some traditionally difficult-to-place workers, including people who were formerly incarcerated. Another study, which included both successful and unsuccessful programs, found that one unsuccessful program (its participants earned no more than non-participants) struggled to adapt to changes in the labor market.
So much for job training programs for disadvantaged workers. What about job retraining programs? They have a much worse reputation. One study of government-funded retraining, for laid-off workers whose jobs had been shipped overseas, found that the training didn't help them earn any more than their peers who hadn't participated. Four years after their training, program participants, especially older folks with less education and who had had high salaries before they were laid off, earned less than before their lay-offs, on average. The study's researchers write that it's possible that four years wasn't long enough to see the effects of the training.
In studies, it's much harder to show positive effects from worker retraining than from programs that simply place people who have always had a hard time in the job market, says Carolyn Heinrich, a public policy professor at Vanderbilt University. Often, with worker retraining, she says, "what we're not able to do is get to them where they were before." People might have to start over in a new industry, at a lower level than they're used to. Or, if a disappeared industry affects their entire region, they may have to move (but then, how to sell a house in a region where jobs have been gutted?). "So it looks like a negative impact, right?" Heinrich says. "Compared to people who just go out and start working."