Democrats Say Their Climate Plans Will Create Jobs. It’s Not So Simple.

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2019

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont at a Green New Deal event at Howard University in Washington this year.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Democratic presidential candidates are rolling out their plans to fight climate change, and one thing is clear: Averting catastrophe is only one selling point. So far, nearly every presidential candidate claims that cutting greenhouse gases will also lead to an economic bonanza.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said her climate policies would create 1.2 million jobs in “green manufacturing.” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said he intends to create 3 million jobs. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Julián Castro have claimed that their plans would each lead to 10 million jobs. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, though, beat them all last month when he said his plan would generate 20 million jobs.

President Trump, on the other hand, has claimed that policies to slow the pace of climate change would be “totally disastrous, job-killing.”

Economists generally agree that inaction on climate change would result in deep economic pain for the United States. A government reportin November, for instance, warned that, unless significant steps are taken to rein in global warming, it could knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

But will the candidates’ proposals to fight climate change really spur job growth and if so, is there an accurate way to tally it?

Experts say Democrats’ assertions are accurate, to a point. Fighting climate change will create jobs. Yet the rosy net numbers, some warned, don’t tell the far more complicated story of what that green growth could look like.

“Some of the rhetoric around creating ‘green jobs’ is intended to rebut that false narrative that we sacrifice our economy if we try to become greener,” said Douglas W. Elmendorf, dean of the Harvard Kennedy School and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office.

But, he added, “In general, economists are skeptical of claims of big numbers of jobs gained or lost from policies that are really about shifting sectors.”

Democratic candidates are expected to trumpet their plans when they appear on a CNN climate change forumon Wednesday. Here are three important things to know about their job claims.

The estimates are rough, at best

Most of the job-creation claims that come with Democratic climate plans are vague.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey unveiled a plan this week he said will create “millions of jobs where they are needed most.” Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from Texas, promises that his plan to inject $5 trillion into clean energyinfrastructure and research “will create jobs, support communities, and strengthen our economy.” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota on Tuesday released a package that includes $1 trillion to modernize energy infrastructure and “create good-paying union jobs.”

Mr. Biden, Ms. Warren, Mr. Castro, Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders have attached specific numbers to their promises. But the candidates often arrive at their numbers in very different ways.

T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for Mr. Biden, said the former vice president’s estimate of “10 million well-paying jobs in the United States” was based on several studies linking infrastructure spending with job creation, including a Council on Economic Advisors studythat found every $1 billion in highway spending translates into 13,000 jobs. Mr. Biden’s plan calls for $1.7 trillion in federal spendingover 10 years into clean energy, which suggests a possible 22.1 million jobs.

But Mr. Ducklo said the campaign chose to cite a more conservative number, in part because much of the spending under Mr. Biden’s plan would go toward research, and also because the job-multiplier studies were conducted in an economy in recovery, resulting in more jobs per dollars spent.

Ms. Warren is the only candidate to detail how she intends to pay for her proposed $1.5 trillion clean energy investment: an increase of 7 percent in the corporate tax rate. She is also the only one who commissioned an independent economic analysis, which found the plan would lead to 1.2 million new jobs in the coming decade.

Jon Erickson, a professor of sustainability policy and science at the University of Vermont who advised Mr. Sanders’s campaign, said the senator’s prediction of 20 million jobs was based on a widely used economic modeling tool. Mr. Erickson said he had run simulations based on all the ways Mr. Sanders intends to spend $16.3 trillion over 15 years, from wind-power development to weatherizing homes, and added up the jobs that were likely to created both directly and indirectly.

Tess Whittlesey, a spokeswoman for Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign, said his figure of 3 million jobs also is a rough estimate. His plan calls for spending between $1.5 and $2 trillion over 10 years on clean energy development and modernizing energy infrastructure, while also putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

Ms. Whittlesey said the campaign used a formula calculating $33,000 in infrastructure spending per job, which came to 4.5 million jobs, and then the campaign rounded down.

Mr. Castro’s campaign did not respond to a request to discuss his job numbers.

The shift will be painful for some

Jobs do follow the dollars, so it’s no surprise that a plan to inject trillions into the economy for any specific purpose — be it the development of wind farms, electric-vehicle charging stations or solar-panel production — would lead to new employment in those fields.

That said, more solar panel installers and wind turbine manufacturers would also mean fewer jobs in other fields, such as coal mining. According to a 2019 Department of Energy report, the natural-gas, wind and energy-efficiency sectors were the fastest job-growth areas in the United States between 2017 and 2018, increasing 7 percent, 3.5 percent and 7.4 percent respectively. Employment in coal-fired power generation, by contrast, declined by 7.2 percent.

That shift can be politically perilous. Hillary Clinton discovered that when she told a CNN town hall “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” in 2016.

After the Democratic debates in Detroit in July, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, apparently tried to leverage that when he wrote on Twitter: “Bye bye coal, Democrats & @JoeBiden just said they are done with you. How do you feel about that Pennsylvania?”

Robert N. Stavins, a professor of environmental economics at Harvard University, said politicians were understandably loathe to acknowledge the inevitable elimination of jobs in fossil fuel industries. “They have to come up with these stories about ‘win-win,’ and ‘it’s all good news,’” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not true.”

Not all jobs are created equal

Republicans say they are skeptical of the Democrats’ job claims. Grover Norquist, the founder and president of the conservative anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, likened the plans to a shell game. Spending trillions of tax dollars on clean energy may create jobs, but the politicians fail to mention what that money could have done if it had been left in the hands of consumers and entrepreneurs.

“They want you to take a dollar out of your left pocket, put it in your right and then they say ‘Hey, I gave you a dollar,’” Mr. Norquist said of Democrats.

Mr. Elmendorf said he thought the bigger problem was that even the most robust plans do not necessarily ensure the Americans who most need an economic boost will get one. After all, the unemployment rate is currently about 3.6 percent, the lowest in nearly five decades.

“Our economic challenge in this country is not creating jobs,” Mr. Elmendorf said. “It is creating good jobs for people without college degrees in the places they live,” adding: “Whether a green-jobs plan or any other kind of plan will create those types of jobs is very difficult to know.”

Josh Bivens, director of research at the Economic Policy Institute, said job creation is a positive byproduct of climate change policies, but he believes it shouldn’t be the focal point.

“I understand why politicians talk about it,” Mr. Bivens aid. Regardless, he added, “It’s obvious that climate change is a horrifying reality that is worth a lot of money to spend to ameliorate.”