Why the Green Jobs Movement Failed

"Federal and state efforts to stimulate creation of green jobs have largely failed," the New York Times reported last week, drawing similar conclusions to the ones we drew in our essay for The New Republic last October. Silicon Valley, home to the green jobs movement, actually saw the number of green jobs decline from 2003 - 2010.

The signature green jobs program was retrofitting homes and buildings to become more energy efficient, which boosters thought would create "millions" of jobs in the inner-city. In 2009 the Center for American Progress claimed that $5 billion in stimulus funding for weatherization and a price on carbon would lead to the retrofitting of every building in America in ten years, generating 900,000 jobs. In reality, we noted in TNR, the weatherization program had created just 13,000 jobs. "Two years after it was awarded $186 million in federal stimulus money to weatherize drafty homes," the Times reported, "California has spent only a little over half that sum and has so far created the equivalent of just 538 full-time jobs in the last quarter... the program never really caught on as homeowners balked at the upfront costs."

Most of the approximately $70 billion in green stimulus money went to retrofitting or stimulating the old economy and just one-third went to building a new one. Notably, even those modest investments in manufacturing and technology had a salutary effect, saving the American renewables industry, which was in free fall after the 2008 financial crisis, and giving a boost to U.S. manufacturers of electric car batteries. 

Obama could have focused on winning a long-term commitment to public investment in green innovation and manufacturing. Instead, he threw his political capital behind cap-and-trade, a pollution control program that was never imagined by the economists who invented it to be a means for creating vibrant new industries.