A Green New Deal for Washington State

Trump may be leading the US backwards on developing a Green Economy but a new study by the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass, says Washington State can pave the way to a New Green Deal. Prof. Robert Pollin and AFL-CIO Labor leader in Washington State discusses the study and the possibilities.

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Imagine a comprehensive clean energy policy for Washington state. That’s a topic we will discuss today. The new report we are going to discuss is titled A Green New Deal for Washington State: Climate Stabilization, Good Jobs, and a Just Transition. It is published by the Political Economy Research Institute, PERI, and co-authored by some of our regular guests here at TRNN. Robert Pollin, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, and Jeanette Wicks-Lim. The study examines the prospects for a transformative Green New Deal for Washington state. With a focus on energy investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, it examines ways to improve two goals: one, promoting global climate stabilization by reducing carbon dioxide, CO2 emissions, in the state of Washington without increasing emissions outside of the state. And two, it aims to protect existing employment levels and expand into good clean job opportunities.

Here to discuss the report with me is Robert Pollin and Jeff Johnson. Robert Pollin is the Distinguished Professor of Economics and codirector of the Political Economy Research Institute, PERI, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of many books, among them Back to Full Employment, and Greening the Global Economy. Good to have you with us, Bob.

ROBERT POLLIN: Thank you very much, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Jeff Johnson is the president of the Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO. Jeff taught labor economics and labor studies at Empire State College in New York City. Jeff is a union activist in Washington state, promoting more just and effective organizing policy, and he represents the labor movement on the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors. Thanks for joining us today, Jeff.

JEFF JOHNSON: Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Bob, let me start with you. You call this proposal a Green New Deal. This is a part of a series of PERI reports about clean energy and analyzing not only climate stabilization impact, but also the impact on jobs and economic growth. Why do these two things have to come together and why invoke the New Deal of President Roosevelt?

ROBERT POLLIN: Well, they don’t have to come together. I mean, we can think about environmental protection, climate stabilization, or the jobs issue and say that, you know, we’re just focusing on saving the earth at all costs. On the other hand, we can say we only care about jobs. That kind of divisiveness is really critical in creating opposition to a green adjustment program. In fact, the Trump administration has really flourished around creating these kinds of divisions.

Now, what we try to show in the study is that whether we like it or not, a green investment program is good for jobs. It’s not bad for jobs, it’s good for jobs. And so then what we try to show is that investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy will reduce emissions. And in the study we show it reduces- you can get it down by 40 percent by 2035 in the state of Washington, and create about 40,000 jobs, new jobs, per year, and maintain our existing jobs, as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: Let me turn to you, Jeff. This report is published against the backdrop of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement. So do you think that the U.S. should, therefore, find ways to promote responsible climate policy at the state level with or without the feds? And what do you make of Trump’s statement that his reason for leaving the Paris climate agreement is to protect American jobs?

JEFF JOHNSON: Yeah. So I absolutely think that since President Trump has ceded the work on, you know, trying to meet the Paris climate accord, that at the state and local levels we have to do everything we can to reduce carbon emissions and make a transition to the new clean renewable energy economy. You know, President Trump’s statements about protecting jobs. I mean, he is, in my estimation, a false populist. He’s making promises he can’t keep, that he can’t back up with science. I think, I think most of our members, union members at this point, are seeing through the facade that he’s created. He’s really not about creating jobs. He’s about shifting the common wealth to the personal wealth of wealthy individuals and corporations. So we’ve got to do everything we can at the state level, at the regional levels, to work on combating climate change, and doing it in a way that provides a voice for working people and real equity.

SHARMINI PERIES: Bob, according to the report, Washington state has one of the lowest per capita emission rates of all states in the United States. This is perhaps related to the fact that 69 percent of the electricity consumption in the state of Washington is met through hydroelectric power. So why focus on, why focus this report on Washington state, and not on the top states in terms of per capita emissions like West Virginia, North Dakota, or Wyoming, for that matter.

ROBERT POLLIN: Well, the simplest and most honest answer, Sharmini, is because I was asked to write it by Jeff and the United Steelworkers. And I would be happy to write similar studies for West Virginia, Wyoming, you name it. We have done some work around those states, as well.

But the point is, this tool, as Jeff said, this study is also supposed to be a support for the organizing work that is being done by people in Washington State and elsewhere. Jeff Johnson is a leading labor official, and has taken the lead in advancing climate stabilization policies that combine with jobs. And so once it catches on in Washington State, we think it has a good chance of really taking hold throughout the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, Jeff, as a, as a union leader, what do you think about the dilemma that unions and the union sector presents to us in the sense that in the sense that it’s between climate stabilization or protecting jobs? And this was never more evident than in the last presidential campaign. You know, even candidates on the Democratic side who we would expect to be both favorable when it came to climate issues and CO2 emissions, and getting a grip on the problem, tended to present it to us as if it’s either-or. Is that situation changing? And are you, people like you, who think like you, more successful within the union sector now as a result of these kinds of studies that Bob does?

JEFF JOHNSON: So, Sharmini, the dichotomy between jobs and a strong clean environment has always been a false dichotomy used to divide and conquer working folks. And we saw that play out in the last election clearly, with President Trump, you know, creating, exacerbating that false dichotomy, both on the environment and jobs, as well as on race and immigration, and other issues. Now, I think that, you know, Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, I think did not run away from the issues, and didn’t wedge that issue. Because we know, as Bob mentioned, the fact it’s not either-or. We can save the planet. We can create a clean environment. And we can produce good family wage union jobs.

In our state, for the last three years I’ve had a labor, jobs, and climate caucus. And we’ve been working hard to figure out, you know, where we are on this issue, and how we strengthen both our economy, give workers, give communities of color, give the environmental community working together a stronger voice in what we want our future economy to look like in our state. Because I’m going to tell you that when the South and Southwest of this country were underwater this past summer, and Puerto Rico, up here in the Pacific Northwest we were on fire. For the first time in the 30 years I’ve lived in this state, fires on the east side of the state created ash falling on the west side of the state as if it were a snowfall. We had a forest fire that actually leapt the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington state.

You know, we are facing this existential crisis. We’ve got to figure out a way to stop climate change, and to create good family wage union jobs in the process. And that’s why the study that Dr. Pollin and his crew at the PERI Institute is so valuable to us. It’s the, it’s the backdrop for the organizing work we’re doing to run an initiative to the people in 2018.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jeff, if you are a worker in an energy intense sector, or even a carbon emission heavy sector like coal or oil, and you are committed to a green economy and green jobs, and want to see a just transition, but they can’t quite imagine it, these kinds of studies are sometimes abstract. And especially coming out of, you know, economic institution, what do you say to those workers? And what supports are there, or will there be in place, as recommended by the study?

JEFF JOHNSON: You know, many of the jobs in the existing fossil fuel industry are good jobs, with relation to wages and benefits. Many of them are union jobs. So these are workers that I represent, and my counterparts in other states represent. You know, and one of the last things these workers want to hear is the word ‘just transition,’ because the truth is historically in our country we have not done a good job, when industries begin to phase out, of taking care of those workers. Oftentimes workers and their communities are left behind.

So what we’ve been organizing around in Washington State is to build a just transition set of policies so that, say, fossil fuel workers who may lose their jobs as we transition to a clean renewable energy economy, that they’re not left behind, or that they’re not simply thrown some training dollars and said good luck. But rather what we’re trying to build into a truly equitable just transition is that there be some real income support and benefits support, so that workers’ wages, their healthcare benefits, and their pensions continue for a period of time, as they begin making the adjustment. That we have peer counseling set up so a similar worker, say from a fossil fuel industry, is the worker that shares with you the types of policies and benefits that are available to you. A trusted messenger, if you will. But as well, that’d be real retraining benefits, up to two years worth of retraining benefits, and kind of an advanced placement system for placing you in the new alternative clean energy economy.

JEFF JOHNSON: So want to, I want to make sure that I was clear. You know, workers, based on their years of experience in the fossil fuel industry, would receive income replacement benefits, wages and benefits, as well as when they find a new job, if the wages are lower than what their previous wages had been, that wage insurance, bringing their wages up to the previous wage level, would be in effect for for a few years so that we have as seamless a transition as possible. And again, so that these workers are not left behind.

SHARMINI PERIES: And what about pensions? I mean, one benefit of the union sector is that workers accumulate their pensions, and they’ll be able to retire with a comfortable income. What will this mean in terms of pensions?

JEFF JOHNSON: Absolutely. Great question, Sharmini. Now, pensions are a big deal. So for fossil fuel workers that are within five years of retirement, there would be what we call a glide path to retirement, meaning that their pension contributions would be paid for up to five years so that they can retire at their full pension, at full union-provided pension. For workers that are not near retirement, their pension benefits would also be paid for a period of time, so that the contributions continue to be made, and it builds a stronger pension benefit for when they can retire.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And Bob, there’s a very important point in your study which presents the opportunities available in terms of that we can tackle clean energy issues and look at investments, reduce emissions. But also there’s an opportunity here for equal opportunity employment, and increase the employment rates of women, non-white workers. Why is it important to connect to all of these together to achieve equality in our society?

ROBERT POLLIN: The point is that, like the New Deal of the 1930s, what we’re suggesting is this green investment program to stop climate change is also a tremendous opportunity to create new jobs, good jobs. And it’s true that if we look at the types of jobs that are likely to be created through clean energy investments, a very high proportion of them at present are jobs held by white males. And so what is important that can be done through the investment process, through the clean energy investment process, and through the policy framework led by unions such as Jeff’s leadership and others, and the United Steelworkers and others, is to use this opportunity of expanding job opportunities to also open up opportunities for underrepresented groups, mainly women and people of color.

SHARMINI PERIES: Bob, one of the most important questions that are asked when presented with such a transitionary projects as you’re proposing here is how do we finance it? How do we finance clean energy transition. Your report suggests imposing a carbon tax, and you believe that it can raise almost $900 million per year. Now, obviously the tax starts high and becomes lower as carbon emissions decline, and so does the state income. Doesn’t such a tax actually create an incentive for the state to invite polluting industries to move to Washington State from areas in which emissions are banned, for example, so they will bring in revenue through carbon tax to the state? Is that likely to happen?

ROBERT POLLIN: Well, a carbon tax- you know, the details can be implemented in various ways. They can be, you can tax at the level of, say, the utility companies, or the firms that are selling wholesale petroleum oil to distributors. I mean, in the end, of course, the net effect of the tax will be felt by taxpayers. So the point is that, you know, every time a ton of CO2 goes into the atmosphere it is taxed to reflect damage being done to the environment. And what we try to show is that a very modest tax, at $15 a ton, which would only increase gas at the pump maybe around 15 cents, maybe, would still raise almost a billion dollars a year that could then be channelled into promoting the clean energy project for the state of Washington.

ROBERT POLLIN: Bob, so what does this mean to energy intensive industries in the state? Will they look to move?

ROBERT POLLIN: Well, no. I don’t think they will. There are energy intensive industries in Washington State, in particular paper and pulp and aluminium. And these are important industries, and they are good jobs. People are working at those. So what we try to show in this study is that these industries, the adjustments that they have to make, and they will have to make some adjustments, but we’ve tried to design a program to which their adjustments will not have to be any more difficult proportionally than any other industry. So they will be consuming energy, it’s true. They’re going to increase their share of renewable energy as they proceed. But otherwise, their costs- we don’t think their costs have to be any more severe than anybody else in proportion. And we can still hit this target of a 40 percent reduction in the overall emissions state by 2035.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jeff, let me give you the last word here, again on the carbon tax issue. For a corporation with high polluting emissions, they can be convinced to move into a state with the carbon tax by more lax labour law regulations, and state legislation against unionization. Are you afraid or concerned that a carbon tax could adversely affect unions in Washington state then?

JEFF JOHNSON: No. The potential leakage of jobs and CO2 emissions out of the state if we put a fee or charge on CO2 emissions- but again, working in a coalition called the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, the heart of which is made up of communities of color, unions, and the environmental community, we’ve worked hard and reached out to our energy intensive trade exposed industries and reached some tentative agreements with them on how this carbon fee would work. And as Bob mentioned, in our state, given the way we have the chart set up right now, it would bring in actually slightly over a billion dollars a year, 70 percent of which could be invested in the clean energy economy, in cleaning up our air and our water, as well as providing equity.

But Sharmini, I’m not going to kid you, that’s not enough. That’s not enough financing. So the other piece that we’re working on separately is to create a state infrastructure bank, and on banking principles that basically lend out money, for every dollar of reserves lend out eight to ten dollars, to really expedite this transition to the clean energy economy. So that’s going to take all of us working together, and multiple strategies to make this transition. And a transition that’s in a fair and equitable world.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Jeff, so then let me ask you, what are the next steps for this New Green Deal for Washington? This is only a study. What will you be doing with it?

JEFF JOHNSON: So the next steps are these. With this wonderful study, as you know, as as a background for the work that we’re doing, our intentions are to draft an initiative to the people in Washington State in 2018. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, we’ve held so far this year 20 community forums around the state. And we’ve been organizing what we call climate justice stewards, folks that will help us collect signatures to qualify for the ballot in November in 2018 that would put this carbon fee and investment strategy before the people. And we’re going to do everything we can to are going to organize around the passage of this climate stabilization, job creation, and just transition initiative.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jeff. Thank you so much for joining us. And Bob, thank you for joining us, and looking forward to following the path of this report and how it might to be implemented in Washington.

JEFF JOHNSON: Thank you both.

ROBERT POLLIN: Thank you. Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.