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Week of 5.29.09

Transcript: Green Jobs: Hope or Hype?

BRANCACCIO: As the American economy struggles to recover from the great collapse, one question being asked is this: what should the jobs of the future look like?

"Green collar" is the new buzzword; it implies that there are career paths to be found in energy efficiency and clean power. And the man who has spent the most time advocating for them now has the ear of the president. Van Jones is an activist and author and is now white house special advisor on green jobs.

Green collar jobs. It's catchy, but what's your definition? What does it mean?

JONES: Well, a green collar job is essentially a blue collar job that's been upgraded or up-scaled to better respect the environment. The great thing about this whole conversation about green collar jobs it that for so long, we've had this false division. This kind of, you know, false debate I the country. Are we gonna have great environmental performance or are we gonna have great economic performance? And so people thought you had to choose.

BRANCACCIO: You say that's a false dichotomy.

JONES: Absolutely false. Because everything that is good for the environment is a job. Solar panels don't put themselves up. Wind turbines don't manufacture themselves. Homes don't retrofit and weatherize themselves. Trees don't even plant themselves anymore. Even planting trees in this economy, in this industrial economy, is a job. And so what—President Obama has, you know, taken a stand about is we can actually accelerate our economic performance by raising our environmental performance. And that's the basis of the idea of green jobs.

BRANCACCIO: It's complicated, though, right? Some economists say, "All right. You create a bunch of green jobs putting up windmills." But maybe fewer jobs in the coal industry. And so, on balance, no new jobs in America.

JONES: Right. There's a—there—there's a concern that you'll either have no net increase in jobs. Or you may—even have a net loss in jobs. But what the better—models are showing us is that you actually get more jobs when you invest in energy efficiency and renewables than—than—than you might lose in the transition. For instance—take—you know, take our—investment in energy efficiency weatherization. The President through the recovery package put $5 billion on the table to begin retrofitting and weatherizing homes.

BRANCACCIO: This is in the stimulus plan.

JONES: In—in the stim—in the stimulus package. Well, you know, that—those are the hardest workin', most humble, hardest workin' dollars in the history of American politics. That same dollar you give to a worker who maybe was unemployed before to go weatherize a home. You just cut that $1 unemployment. But you also then cut the energy bill for that house. And because there's a coal-fired power plant down the street that's powering that house, if you cut energy costs by 30 percent, you just cut the pollution by 30 percent. Same buck—same dollar also made that home more valuable. So these dollars are humble, hard working dollars. They work triple time, overtime. They create so much value in the economy that the more we give people the incentive to do work like that, the stronger we make our economy. People talk about green solutions as solutions that are gonna cost us more money. These solutions are gonna save us money and help us earn more money. That's Barack Obama's—version of environmentalism.

BRANCACCIO: Well, let's see this in action. About a year and a half ago, we were up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They're trying to cut carbon dioxide output for the city by ten percent. We also met a wonderful mother. Her name is Zeyneb. And she is retrofitting. She is doing a remodel on an apartment. Trying to make it the most sustainable and the most energy efficient place I think on the planet. Let's take a look.

Zeyneb is turning this more than 80 year old classic Cambridge home into a green energy efficient and as non-toxic as she can get it.

Like for instance, you take a look at this wall. And you give—

MAGAVI: Don't push it, don't push it!

BRANCACCIO: Serious insulation is a good first step for keeping the New England weather out. Zeyneb found a product that is way more effective than typical insulation—it is also non-toxic. By installing these energy efficient features—she expects to cut her utility costs by at least 50%. She's figuring it will make selling the first floor unit that much easier—even in a down housing market.

Fixing up thousands of buildings could mean a lot of jobs for the city and for the region. Zeyneb Magavi is already training that new workforce in her own home.

Magavi also wanted her plasterer to use an unconventional material made out of clay. It's not only non-toxic—but it absorbs humidity which could help keep down air conditioning bills and energy use in the summer. The plasterer never used the stuff before. So Zeyneb paid for him to go up to New Hampshire to take a class.

If it works for him, though, and it—

MAGAVI: He's gonna be happy as can be.

BRANCACCIO: He will have this new training. He'll be able to actually market this to perhaps other people converting their homes.

MAGAVI: And—and that's been one of my benefits is I pull people in and I say look, you know, market's slower. And I'm going to give you a niche edge.

BRANCACCIO: There are people thinking about the future here who think that we are possibly entering a time when a lot of people want to get more serious about making more energy-efficient houses. You think that'll be good business for you guys?

O'LAUGHLIN: Oh, yeah. We're in Reno—renovations and retrofitting the older places. I mean, the housing stock is—in Cambridge, it's all over 50 years usually. And—I mean, boilers, insulation, they're all outdated. So it's—the growth area.

JONES: First of all, you just saw the future. I mean, that is the future. If you look at—what it's going to take for us to, you know, get on the right side of the clean energy revolution, a big part of it is retrofitting millions and millions of buildings. But look at the benefits. You—you put people to work. You save money. You have less pollution. And—you know—President Obama has put into the recovery package half a billion dollars for green job training. So rather than training three people—which is, you know—a worthy thing, we can be training literally thousands of people. Tens of thousands of people to do this kind of work. And then you've got people on green pathways to prosperity. Let's put 'em in a green economy, give 'em green collar jobs. Give 'em a paycheck and a purpose.

In this country, we've got to start making something besides lattes. Okay? Let's start making the things that are going to help us to meet our clean energy goals. Each wind turbine has—8,000 finely machined parts. Okay? There's enough steel in there to make 26 cars. So you could put Detroit back to work—making smarter cars, but also—and advanced cars. But also making advanced energy components. So you can imagine—Boeing level engineering on wind turbines helping us to tap the plain states. Now my job working here is to make sure that that agenda gets to help everybody. 'Cause—

BRANCACCIO: Everybody.

JONES: Everybody.

BRANCACCIO: Even poor people in cities.

JONES: Sure. Even poor people in cities. One of the things that—I was happy to discover is that cities, our urban environments, represent about 75 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. Why? Well, you've got crazy traffic patterns. Maybe you need better transit. Jobs. You've got buildings leaking all kind of energy. Well, maybe you need to retrofit those buildings. Jobs.

You're powering most of that with old, outdated energy technologies that pollute a lot. Well, maybe you can replace that with—micro wind, with solar, with cleaner ways of burning energy. Jobs, jobs, jobs. So the very places that are hurting for lack of jobs can now be the center of driving this recovery. A green recovery.

At the same time, you're not just talkin' about poor folks in the cities. Look at our rural communities. There is a huge agenda in rural America now that can also put people to work. Biofuel. Smarter biofuels. Wind. All of those—biomass. All of those are part of a rural agenda. You could begin to imagine—a—a country that is powering itself, repowering itself, retrofitting itself. Putting people to work both in poor rural communities like Appalachia. But also poor urban communities. And being one country again meeting a big challenge.

JONES SPEECH: We have to create an green economy Dr. King would be proud of - we have to create a green economy that includes everybody - that has a place everybody....

BRANCACCIO: Van Jones came to Washington through an unconventional route. He's been a pioneer for the green jobs movement—a movement that connects environmentalism with economic opportunity. He even wrote a book about it.. "the green collar economy." But Jones environmental activism grew out of his social justice work out west - in Oakland, California. He realized that the poor minority communities he was trying to help were being left out of a growing environmental movement. Jones saw a unique opportunity to lift people out of poverty by giving them green jobs.

JONES SPEECH (BIONEERS CONFERENCE): I spent the past 20 years trying desperately to get people to pay attention to what's going on in urban America. I mean we would call newspapers, we would call television stations. We would say, you know, kids are dying, we're going to funerals every other weekend. You know, not interested. Police brutality. Not interested. And then we said well we want green jobs and not jails for our youth and they said green, green, green! Give that man a microphone.

BRANCACCIO: Jones found a captive audience... and he started "Green for All" a national organization that gets people in low income communities into the green economy. Over the years Jones became a vocal activist for the movement and spent half his time traveling the country - giving his signature speeches...both inspiring and entertaining. He even takes the occasional jab at his fellow environmentalists.

JONES SPEECH: I went home for Thanksgiving with one of ya'll. We got off the plane. Dad comes, you know, honey I'm so glad to see you, all that stuff. We get in the SUV to go to dinner. My nice om friend - well dad, very nice SUV. How many miles to the gallon does it get. No, no Dad - not gas, Iraqi blood. How much Iraqi blood has gone into the car? I'm just curious. So ya'll have been making Thanksgiving awkward for like decades. And it's paid off. So thank you!

BRANCACCIO: Jones has garnered a devoted following, including the president. 11 weeks ago - he packed his bags and headed east to work for Obama. His new formal title: "Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality." this environmental activist who started at the grassroots - is now helping to shape the entire country's energy and climate policies.

JONES: Well, I have a great job. Because, you know, I used to be a community organizer. Trying to get kids out of trouble and into jobs. And—I learned how to deal with all kind of different people. Get 'em to talk together. Because that's the only way you can get a solution when you're dealing with a really distressed population.

Well, those same skills I use every day here in the White House and here in—within the federal family. In order for President Obama's agenda to get pulled together, multiple agencies, multiple departments have to work together in ways they never have before. And so my job is to be the—the green jobs handyman. Kind of go around and get everybody workin' together. Because going from the rhetoric of green jobs to the reality of green jobs is a long and winding road. And in order for us to get there in—in a way that has demonstrable success for people—we've got to work together in a different way. And so—so basically I'm—I'm still doing community organizing. I'm just doing it inside the federal family.

BRANCACCIO: Did you say you're green job's handyman?

JONES: That's —And people—people accuse me of being the green job czar.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, I mean—some of those guys get the czar title. You're the handyman?

JONES: I got—I got the handyman ti—I'm the green jobs handyman. You know, that—I'll—I'll do whatever it takes. I—I want—I want this President to be able to point to real success.

BRANCACCIO: There seems to be a calculation, Van, that just being worried about the environment and being green isn't enough. You have to say jobs a lot to make the case in America. That I think says something about the environmental movement.

JONES: Everybody in America—rich, poor, white, black, green, purple, Smurf—loves the environment. Loves the environment. You—nobody—nobody's running America saying, "I hate bunnies and trees." Right?

It doesn't come up. What happens is, everybody loves the environment. But they have other things that might be more pressing for them in their lives. And what's happened is you pit those things against each other and people are gonna say, "Well, I'm more concerned about my kids. I'm more concerned about my job. I'm more concerned about my neighborhood." More concerned. Not unconcerned. More concerned.

That's the window. So if there is a way to let people both take care of their sisters and brothers and their sister and brother species, they love it. And that's what you see—why you see so much talk about the green economy. People know in their hearts that there's something off. People are—look, you know, the weather's kind of wacky. I remember when we used to have seasons. And like now, you have to look out every day. Am I gonna wear shorts? Am I gonna wear a jacket? Something's wrong.

I can't let my kids watch the weather channel. Too much scary stuff there. Something's wrong. So people know something's wrong. They don't know what to do about it. But if you say listen, we can actually begin to have, you know, less cancer, less asthma, fewer—deadly weather events if we have clean energy. And you can have a job. And people in the neighborhood can have a future. They're with you.

I think it's actually we're getting deeper now into what the solution looks like. And it turns out that the solution for the economy and how we're gonna beat this global recession and the solution for the environment and how we're gonna beat the global warming is the same solution. And that is the power of the idea of green jobs. And that's what the President has seized on.

BRANCACCIO: And as we speak, there are people out there trying to do just that. In South Bronx, in the New York area, there's a fellow we got to meet on this program awhile back. Omar Freilla. And he's got the Green Workers Cooperatives. Essentially a place to recycle, often building materials, in interesting ways. Let's take a look.

HINOJOSA: Meet Omar Freilla, an environmental visionary who believes that a green utopia can exist in an unlikely place: one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City.

FREILLA: This is an area that's for too long been cast to the side. You know, we've been used as—as a dumping ground. You know, and it's a—it's a good metaphor. That's pretty common. You know, we've been used as a dumping ground for the things that no one else wants.

HINOJOSA: Freilla's answer to that was to found Greenworker Co-operatives and start a home-improvement store that sells salvaged construction materials.

FREILLA: There needs to be work. There needs to be jobs that are available to people. And we have to create ways of sustaining ourselves that sustain life. You know, that enable us to pass on what's—here to future generations.

HINOJOSA: Friella isn't the first green business-man in the South Bronx to try and take on that mindset and city hall... a decade ago, Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council wanted to build a paper mill in the South Bronx. The mill would have provided jobs and recycled most of New York City's waste paper.

But just a few short months before breaking ground, Hershkowitz tells us that the project abruptly lost the support it needed. Ultimately the project failed due to lack of political support, a shaky paper market and the loss of investors.

HERSHKOWITZ: What people need to recognize is that sustainability is not just a function of resource productivity by sophisticated technology. There are many political and cultural barriers in the way of building sustainable communities.

HINOJOSA: If a well-established group like the Natural Resources Defense Council couldn't pull off its project, how realistic is it to expect that a community group like Greenworker Cooperatives can challenge the status quo here? In fact, Greenworkers has spent most of the last five years just trying to get its first store opened

HINOJOSA: You have a vision. But to make that vision come into reality has taken a long time. How long from the vision to actual opening up, how long was that time?

FREILLA: It's been four and a half years.

HINOJOSA: Have you started to turn a profit? Have you even—

FREILLA: No, no.

HINOJOSA: Broken even?

FREILLA: Not yet. We just—this place just opened up a few months ago. So it'll be a few years before we project breaking even. I man, hopefully—you know, it's -it's our hope that it'll happen a lot faster. But you know, we are —we're very—try to be very realistic. You know, while we dream big but we try to be realistic.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, this is a young man who's a hero. He's been working for five years and maybe he's employed six people at the point that we caught up with him. There's got to be a way to—to speed that up. To bring us up to scale so we can change the world. Not just the lives of six people.

JONES: What—what somebody like Omar has had to deal with and other eco-entrepreneurs have had to deal with is—a situation where the ecological need was there. And even the economic need was there. But the political will was not there to do the things that we have to do to bring these new—technologies to scale.

This President understands that it's entrepreneurs like that that are going to power us out of this recession. That it's entrepreneurs, people who are willing to—when it wasn't—a media sensation, to take, you know, a tough look at an opportunity. Get in there, learn tough lessons. Those are the entrepreneurs who need to be able to drive and power—the recovery.

BRANCACCIO: The other week I was reading in The Wall Street Journal, nice company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa called Clipper Wind Power. They were hiring all these people to make windmills. Had some pretty fancy windmills. And they had to lay off a quarter of their staff the other day because of the recession.

JONES: Yes. Well, the—that's the bad news. The bad news is that the recession is hitting everybody. There's this—the recession is kind of freezing the economy. Here's the good news. The green part of our economy froze last. We—people were still hiring in solar and wind in the end of 2008, when everybody else was freaking out. It froze last. It's probably gonna thaw first.

There's a resilience and a determination in this part of the economy. Part of it driven by a change in consciousness, a change in local laws, state laws. As you're—you're getting these renewable energy—goals set by Governors, by Mayors. There's a resilience, there's a—tenacity to this part of the economy. I guarantee you're gonna see these—companies take off like rockets. Because once President Obama succeeds in getting a cap on the amount of carbon pollution that we can put up in the atmosphere—people who can figure out ways to either help us use less energy, green roofing, or use new energy, solar panels, are gonna be sought out. And they are going to be able to get contracts. And they're gonna be able to grow.

BRANCACCIO:: So climate change legislation will change the economics of all of this. They'll be a market for it that is more stable than it's been in the past.

JONES: Yes. Right now, the economy is based on the idea that energy is cheap, abundant, and we can use all the carbon we want to —-

BRANCACCIO: There's no cost to dumping CO2.

JONES: There's—yeah, there's no cost to dumping CO2. The minute you start realizing, eh, let's—let's not do it that way. Let's do it a smarter way. You start looking at all the ways that we're wasteful.

We have a very energy intensive agricultural system. A very energy intensive manufacturing system. Once we begin to say let's be a little bit less energy intensive, let's be more conservation oriented, let's be smarter with regard to energy. Eventually, all of the sectors of the economy get greener.

BRANCACCIO: You think this'll actually pass into law? I mean, we're—that's Pennsylvania Avenue over there. Capitol's there. White House about half a block that way. What do you think? Is it gonna happen? Because there are powerful forces arrayed to stop global warming legislation.

JONES: You're asking if we can pass global warming legislation this year?

BRANCACCIO: Yes, this year.

JONES: Yes, we can.

BRANCACCIO: Is that based on optimism?

JONES: We—we will win this year.

BRANCACCIO: All right.

JONES: We will win this year.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Van Jones, White House special advisor on green jobs. Thank you very much.

JONES: Thank you very much.

BRANCACCIO: If you are looking for dollars in all these green collars you can start by checking out our website, where we've compiled and described the top five green collar jobs in America. You can begin your investigations on our website.

And that's it for now. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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