As the residents of the southeast recover from Hurricane Florence, wall-to-wall network coverage of the catastrophic storm has told stories of human tragedy and resilience, heroes rescuing their neighbors, and even the quality of the federal disaster response. Climate change — which almost certainly made Florence a nastier storm than it would have been otherwise — has barely been mentioned. An analysis from Public Citizen found that climate change came up in just 4.3 percent of broadcast news segments about Florence.
The dynamic isn’t new. Climate change — as political commentator Chris Hayes recently pointed out — is a “ratings killer,” which is kind of a bummer considering one major, potential consequence of not doing something about climate charge is the end of human civilization. It’s long been considered a political nonstarter that’s just too complicated, too expensive, and too divisive to inspire action in the U.S. Yet as organizers around the country are fresh off marches and rallies to help prevent species death last week, new polling has found that inserting climate change into other popular demands can make them even more popular. It also suggests that Americans are ready for a rapid transition to a clean energy economy.
In a study commissioned by the climate groups Sunrise Movement and 350 Action, the upstart think tank Data for Progress has found that a federal job guarantee wins over slightly more supporters when it’s framed as a policy intended to mitigate global warming. A Rasmussen poll from April found that 46 percent of Americans support a federal job guarantee. According to Data for Progress’s numbers, 55 percent of people would back a “green job guarantee,” with just 18 percent opposed to such a program. Granted, that’s not a huge difference, but considering what a third rail issue climate has been, it shows an excitement to take it on, particularly in a way that’s attached to big, job-creating spending programs. Opposition to a job guarantee was also lower when a climate framing was integrated into it. The polling also found that 48 percent of Americans would be more likely to support a candidate if they supported transitioning the U.S. to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 — a more ambitious target than any currently being proposed in Congress.
“There’s a growing interest in the democratic socialist wing of the Democratic Party in messaging around jobs and work, and the importance of labor in our political and economic system. This poll suggests that the strength of that messaging is strong,” says Julian Noisecat, U.S. policy analyst for 350.org. While much of 350’s work in the last several years has focused around opposing fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure — including supporting resistance to projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines — Noisecat notes that the group is excited to map out what a transition to renewables could look like. At the end of last week, 350 helped coordinate a series of demonstrations around the country, collectively titled “Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice.” The flagship event, in San Francisco, brought out an estimated 30,000 people.
“We need to show the benefits of a just transition for all Americans. There could be incredible benefits for working-class Americans in a transition to clean energy,” he added.
Support for candidates running on a green job guarantee and a rapid transition off fossil fuels was highest among voters under 30, though a majority of poll participants across age demographics backed both ideas. Support was strong across regions, too. Along racial lines, support for a green job guarantee was highest among black voters, 58 percent of whom support such an idea compared with 57 percent of white respondents and 41 percent of Hispanic respondents, per the categories outlined in the survey.
Asked why young people in particular are excited about such policies, Sunrise Movement organizer Varshini Prakash told The Intercept in an email that “young people bear the brunt of so many intersecting crises. We’re disproportionately effected by unemployment and underemployment. We suffer the continued ramifications of gender and racial inequality, and wealth disparities are at the highest point we’ve seen in a hundred years. Add onto that crippling student debt, and a global ecological and humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize the very world we’re growing up in. Policies like a job guarantee have the greatest chance of cutting through all of that.”
In a perhaps surprising finding, a “green jobs guarantee” was 14 points more popular among 2016 Donald Trump voters than one not framed in terms of the environment, although the division along party identification was stark: Seventy-two percent of Democrats supported the idea, compared to 38 percent of Republicans.
Should Democrats take back the House in the midterms, Noisecat said, “Our hope is that all of the jobs guarantee bills that are in the works would include a significant climate and environmental angle.” He said 350, Sunrise and other climate groups have been in touch with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s team about building climate framing into their fledgling job guarantee proposal.
Alongside the poll numbers, Data for Progress also rolled out a report — co-authored by World Resources Institute fellow Greg Carlock and researcher Emily Mangan — outlining a Green New Deal, including a federal job guarantee, the creation of a national infrastructure bank, a rapid transition to a clean energy economy, greatly expanded mass transit infrastructure, and the possibility of reparations for those at the receiving end of environmental injustice, among several other measures. The authors further delineate the types of of “shovel-ready” environmentally friendly work that could be performed by workers without previous qualifications, like Brownfield restoration and stormwater management, as well as projects that could be done by job guarantee recipients with some relevant qualifications, such as community education and energy auditing. Carlock and Mangan also detail how such a program would be funded, highlighting the ballooning cost of climate-fueled extreme weather — $1.5 trillion in 2017 alone. “Instead of spending millions on wars in other countries or tax breaks that do not trickle down to everyday Americans,” they write, “there is evidence that investments in American communities make life better, the environment cleaner, communities more resilient, and economies more stable.” The launch site contains endorsements for a Green New Deal from several insurgent candidates, including California Senate hopeful Kevin de León, House candidate Randy Bryce and almost certainly incoming Michigan House Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
The plan contains several elements that could prove controversial among climate hawks. For instance, while it calls for a phase-out of coal plants, it leaves the door open to continued natural gas development and even other, more polluting fuels should they utilize carbon capture and storage — still a largely experimental technology, existing commercial uses for which are almost entirely in service of continued oil extraction. That said, Data for Progress has among the first comprehensive plans sketching out what a policy package for a Green New Deal might look like, and could inspire others.
The results of this new polling throws a wrench in the “jobs versus environment” narrative often parroted by industry, the right and, recently, the Democratic National Committee. Thanks to talking points dreamed up largely by fossil fuel companies, there’s long been an assumption that environmental progress and widespread economic prosperity are opposing goals. In 2016, however, the clean energy industry created jobs at a rate 12 times greater than the rest of the economy. And according to a report released last year by the Department of Energy, five times as many Americans work near or full-time in green sectors as they do in fossil fuels. Another new study estimates that a breakneck shift away from carbon-intensive fuels could save the global economy a whopping $26 trillion by 2030.
A green job guarantee, Prakash says, is the best policy option available to dismantling the jobs versus environment myth. “Rather than pitting activists and workers against each other,” she says, “the job guarantee offers a program that elevates the lives of working families while addressing the impending existential crisis our generation faces.”
Needless to say, job prospects on a world warmed to a degree that is “incompatible with organized global community” — as scientists have described a world plagued by runaway, catastrophic climate change — aren’t great.
The Data for Progress survey describes green jobs then as those “scaling up renewable energy, weatherizing homes and office buildings, developing mass transit projects, and maintaining green community spaces,” although the scope could indeed be much larger. A new paper out from a team of Finnish researchers with the BIOS Research Unit — commissioned by the U.N. team overseeing its Sustainable Development Goals — outlines several major areas of work, in food, energy, housing, and transportation. They embrace the idea of a job guarantee (alongside other measures) as a means to “lessen insecurity and the need to compete for environmentally destructive jobs on the individual and the collective level.” As the BIOS team suggests, a job guarantee could create work that poses an alternatives to low-wage positions in industries that rely on carbon-intensive supply chains, like fast food and big-box retail stores.
The evidence that a climate-tinged job guarantee is a winning idea would seem to bear out in recent elections, too. While climate hasn’t been a major part of the narrative surrounding insurgent Democratic candidates — Bryce, Tlaib, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York all ran on platforms that included either a Green New Deal or support for a speedy transition away from fossil fuels. For these and other candidates, their climate plans were housed within larger progressive policy visions that see it as the responsibility of the government to provide a basic standard of living to all Americans — including a livable planet. Sunrise and 350 Action have each endorsed candidates running on ambitious climate platforms for federal and state races.
If a job guarantee represents a shift away from the kinds of cautious, triangulating politics that have defined the Democratic Party in recent decades, it’s just as much of one for the climate movement — many parts of which have tended to embrace a market-driven approach to scaling back emissions, and de-emphasized the role of regulation and investment.
“In the past, the climate movement has been hyper-focused on a carbon pricing and cap-and-trade scheme, in sort of a ’90s-era iteration of American politics get the right combination of centrist Democrats and Republicans together and get 60 votes in the Senate,” Noisecat says. “One of the interesting things about seeing climate legislation in terms of work and jobs is that it’s a much different frame, and a much different way of imagining what climate policy will look like moving forward.”
Prakash echoed that sentiment: “The only solution to the climate crisis at the scale and scope we need is active government intervention. A climate jobs guarantee fully embraces strong government investment and action for the sake of the common good.”