Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham recently said at a news conference that “the green economy is coming.” I couldn’t agree with him more. The signs are all around us, from studies that show green jobs are growing 2.5 times faster than conventional jobs to the fact that California’s clean energy industry attracted $6.5 billion in venture capital in the past three years.
These are just the signs from our own shores. From China to Germany, there is no doubt that nations are beginning to see the financial wisdom in preventing the exorbitant costs of global warming by putting clean energy solutions in place now.
The only question that remains is: Will America be a leader in the green economy?
If we seize this opportunity, we can put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work building a safer, cleaner future for our children. If we do not, others will dominate the global marketplace for clean energy. According to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, China invests about $12.6 million in clean energy every hour. Are we prepared to rise to that challenge?
People of the “greatest generation” grew up envisioning America as a leader. They rallied as a nation to help defeat fascism in World War II and used their own native resourcefulness to promote advances in aeronautics, medicine and information technology. But I have watched with growing alarm as we have let our early innovations in clean energy slip away.
America used to lead the pack on clean energy. In the 1970s, our engineers were on the cutting edge of photovoltaic and turbine technology, and Americans were starting to get excited about pollution-free power. Then Ronald Reagan became president, and the policies promoting renewable energy were stripped from the books. We lost precious time in the race to develop clean energy, while other nations moved ahead.
At about the same time, more people became concerned about global warming. In 1989, we held a summit at Sundance —- Greenhouse Glasnost — bringing together top scientists from the former Soviet Union, including the head of the Soviet space program, with American leaders from various sectors, including science, business, government and culture, to discuss their concerns about climate change.
They signed an agreement testifying to the dangers of global warming, and we sent it to President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev. I was excited. I realized that the climate crisis was verifiable and undeniable, and I believed that leaders would start acting on the evidence. Instead, Bush filed our agreement away in a drawer, and we never heard about it again.
Those efforts came too early to generate action, and we lost more precious time. But now we are getting a second chance — another American trait.
Now we have a president who wants to confront global warming, a clean energy and climate bill that has passed the House and senators who are considering their own version of the bill. We even have giant energy companies — from California’s PG&E to the Southeast’s Duke Energy — that believe this kind of clean energy legislation is good for business.
And we also have Americans who are hungry for a better future. They are reeling from the economic crisis, and they are beginning to feel the blows of climate change.
In Utah — a state very close to my heart — farmers are struggling with water shortages due to shrinking snowpack, while ranchers are watching soil from their grazing lands blow all the way to Colorado in dusty windstorms. Lake Powell, a magnet for southern Utah’s tourist industry, has dropped by more than 144 feet in 10 years. To keep the lake open to boating, the National Park Service spent $20 million to extend boat ramps, and a concessionaire spent $2 million to move a marina to reach the new water line.
We don’t want to continue to watch unemployment rates rise, nor do we have to let the costs of dealing with climate change pile up. We can solve both, but we need smart policies in place to drive investment into the green economy.
We can start by passing comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation. The American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House in June would set a limit on how much greenhouse gas large polluters can release. This would dramatically expand the market for low-carbon technologies, such as renewable power, hybrid engines and biofuels.
It would also generate jobs. Combined with the economic stimulus package from last winter, the bill would create 1.7 million jobs throughout America, according to the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts.
The potential for job creation is so great because clean energy jobs are more labor intensive and require more domestically made materials than the fossil fuel industry. In fact, for every $1 million spent on clean energy, we could create three to four times as many jobs as if we spent the same amount on fossil fuels.
Yet unlike oil and gas jobs — which are limited to regions with fuel reserves — clean energy jobs will be spread across every state. Building 25 moderate-scale wind farms in Missouri, for instance, would generate 550 permanent construction jobs and $75 million in economic activity. Ohio, meanwhile, has the potential to produce 70,000 green jobs.
These are good-paying jobs that cannot be outsourced. You cannot build a wind farm or install energy-efficient windows from China. The clean energy legislation that passed the House in June even included provisions that would keep manufacturing jobs in energy-intensive industries like steel and cement here on American soil.
Still, there are naysayers who claim that shifting to clean energy will hurt our economy, which is patently ridiculous. You have to wonder where they are getting their information, because the experts say otherwise. From the consulting gurus at McKinsey & Co. to the economists at the Department of Energy, analysts have concluded that climate legislation will keep the economy on a steady course for growth. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency found that the overall cost of implementing the House clean energy bill would be less than $10 per household per month.
The benefits of the green economy far outweigh the modest costs. Think about it. We can put America at the forefront of a global market, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and protect the planet from the ravages of climate change for about 43 cents a day.
But this is about more than just economics. This is about building a better future. This is about our children’s inheritance. What kind of Earth will we leave them? Will we bequeath them only photographs to learn what a glacier was or what a healthy forest looked like? Or will we actually build the clean energy systems that will hold our natural legacy intact for generations to come?
If you believe the time has finally come to restore the Earth and usher in the green economy, tell your senators to pass clean energy and climate legislation now.
Robert Redford is an actor, director and longtime trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council.