Basic Income’s Role in the Green Economy

As we move away from fossil fuels, we can’t forget their workers

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash.

When Joe Biden’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, was asked during a press briefing what he would say to fossil fuel workers who would lose their jobs to renewable energy, he replied that the new jobs would offer them better opportunities, saying that “they can be the people to go to work to make the solar panels.” In a vacuum, this sounds rather wonderful, but the reality is a little more complicated. After all, human beings aren’t machines who can be easily plugged out of one job they’ve been doing for 20 years and jammed into a completely new one. Kerry probably wants to set up job retraining programs for the laid off fossil fuel workers, but such programs can often have a middling success rate.

Ronald Reagan’s Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 was intended to help workers recover from the 1981–82 recession, but a study from IRL Review found that the program only accepted those “who were bound to get a job; those who were most in need, it found, were driven away to ensure the programs had high success rates.” Another job retraining program, the Trade Adjustment Assistance Fund, paid upwards of $11,500 for training, but a 2012 review found that only 37% of those trained ended up working in their industries of choice. This is not to say that job-retraining programs are completely worthless. A 2010 study of “demand-driven” retraining programs, which work in coordination with local industries, found that its recipients earned 30% more money after two years, than workers outside of the program. As to whether this model can be applied broadly to green jobs is still unknown. Job-retraining can help some people, yes, but may not always be as efficient as we hope.

This point stands as we look at the prospects for green jobs. David Popp, an economist from Syracuse University, co-authored a report that found that some jobs skills in the fossil fuel industry do transfer over to green jobs, but that such green job programs only increased opportunity in “areas that already had an existing clean energy industrial base.” Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post found that the projected estimates of new wind and solar jobs would still leave out 20,000 coal workers. In fact, many of the fossil fuel workers who are able to work at these green jobs, aren’t exactly looking forward to the opportunities ahead of them. Ron Berringer, a pipeline worker, has had experience with wind turbines before, but said that they didn’t offer the same overtime benefits as his current job. The coming green economy would make him less financially secure, and indeed, Kerry should acknowledge that the transition will not be smooth. He would be dishonest or naive to pretend otherwise.

Unsurprisingly, Kerry’s comments were met with fierce criticism from many Republicans. Texas Senator Ted Cruz called Kerry an arrogant elitist who thinks that people who work in these jobs have “made the wrong choices.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was similarly disgusted, and accused Kerry of personal hypocrisy: “flies in private jets, owned a 76-foot yacht and several mansions — has the carbon footprint of a small nation.” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, also of Texas, continued the framing of “millionaire Kerry” versus “blue collar workers,” adding that “solar will pay on average $20K less than oil and gas jobs.”

While these critiques may sound appealing to some, they carry a dishonesty all their own. Now, it is certainly true that many environmentalists don’t practice what they preach and could suffer to live more modestly. However, simply because Kerry is rich, doesn’t mean that he’s wrong about the need to phase out fossil fuels. I also feel that going after individual carbon footprints is rather moot. As of 2019, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 409.8 parts per million. We are far past the point where any one person can make much of a dent in that. In any case, we’re all hypocrites to one extent or another, for everything we do, from using our computers to driving our cars, puts carbon into the atmosphere. We need to structurally change the tools with which we use to live. In other words, transition to a green economy. Calling out hypocrisy has its merits, yes, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problems.

Let’s say that you think the dangers of climate change are exaggerated at best. Fine. There are plenty of other reasons why you may want to see coal, oil, and gas jobs go. Consider that 16% of U.S. coal miners are at risk for the incurable “black lung disease”, which can scar lung tissue and affect breathing. A recent study from the American Journal of Public Health has argued that, far from being a malady of the past, the disease is probably on the rise. Consider also that continuing to use oil will mean a continued risk of oil spills. While oil spills have fortunately decreased over the years, they can still do a lot of harm. Sen. Cruz criticized Biden’s executive order to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline for killing a lot of new jobs. He fails to mention that many activists opposed the pipeline out of fears that it could contaminate the Ogalla Aquifer, which many people depend on for drinking water. Furthermore, since the original Keystone pipeline leaked 400,000 gallons of oil in 2019, it appears that these fears were not entirely unfounded. Lastly, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that the mining of oil, gas, and coal was the second most hazardous job in the county. Less of this work would mean less risk of death.

At some point, you start to wonder if the zealous defenders of these fossil fuel jobs have thought about the negative impacts that they have on their workers and the communities where they reside. Would installing a solar panel or working at a wind turbine really be that much worse than “black lung disease” or a poisoned water supply? Of course, there’s a valid debate to be had about which green technologies are most effective in replacing fossil fuels, (I myself am skeptical of anything that isn’t nuclear), but let’s not pretend that oil and gas jobs don’t also come with serious consequences.

To most people, it appears that we have to choose between two distasteful options. Either we continue to employ people in jobs that are not only bad for the environment, but also for their health. Or we replace these jobs for green ones, which will inevitably leave many workers behind. Either way, people will get hurt. You could decide to break a few eggs for your particular omelet, or you could try to bridge the divide through a universal basic income.

Let’s imagine that out of compensation for the job losses that will occur, the U.S. government decided to give every adult citizen a monthly stipend of $1,000 a month, no strings attached. In this reality, losing your job no longer puts you at risk for extreme poverty. It provides many people with enough money to meet their basic needs. Considering the mixed success rate of job retraining programs, this better ensures that no one is abandoned in the shift to a green economy.

You might argue that this is an over-correction, since most of these fossil fuel workers are skilled enough to do green jobs anyway, but if we refer back to Rep. Crenshaw’s earlier critique of Kerry, some green jobs pay less than fossil fuel work. The facts back him up on this. As Kessler noted in The Post, the median wage for coal miners in 2019 was $59,000, while the median wage was $53,000 for wind turbine technicians and $45,000 for solar panel installers. The added government income will help them to recuperate this loss. It will also benefit those who aren’t even interested in green jobs. Now they won’t have to install solar panels if they don’t want to. With this added basic income, they can live in whatever way they find most fulfilling, and I imagine that for some of them, this can mean more than a coal mine or an oil pipeline.

Basic income presents us with a choice. Either we shift to a green economy with least resistance and optimal satisfaction, or do we do an abrupt switch which leaves a lot of workers resentful and in the cold. Underestimate this resentment at your own peril. When French President Emmanuel Macron announced a green tax on fuel in 2018, it sparked the massive, and sometimes violent, yellow vest protests. If America wishes to avoid its own “yellow vests”, then it can no longer think of fossil fuel workers as simple machines who can plugged in and out jobs with ease.

If we want the green economy, we need to give more greenbacks.

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com