Editor’s Note: As both Democratic and GOP conventions wrapped up, New America Media asked Van Jones to parse each candidate’s environment and energy agendas. Jones, briefly President Obama’s green jobs czar, is president and co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, an organization that advocates for economic reforms. He is the author of The Green Collar Economy and Rebuild the Dream. New America Media’s Ngoc Nguyen spoke with Jones about the role of green jobs in the recovery and what’s needed to address climate change at the national level.
New America Media: What stood out for you in Obama or Romney’s remarks on climate change, energy, or the green economy during the recent party conventions?
Van Jones: What struck me about Romney’s speech was his snarky joke about how Obama promised to stop the seas from rising. I thought that was a cheap shot. [It was] particularly disappointing to see the 2012 Republican nominee essentially pooh-pooh global warming when the 2008 GOP nominee John McCain took the issue so seriously.
It’s as clear a sign as any of the complete degeneration of the Republican Party into an extreme faction-based party that’s not qualified to govern. I was happy to hear President Obama rejoinder in saying that climate change is not a joke. In a period when extreme droughts are socking red states and hurting farmers, for the Republican nominee to make a joke about climate change isn’t funny at all.
NAM: How would you grade Pres. Obama’s record on the environment and energy in the last four years?
Jones: [I would give Obama a] B or B-minus, he can’t get an A because he didn’t fight for the cap and trade bill … [he] didn’t try to solve climate change, but he has other things when it comes to fuel efficiency for cars and some emissions stuff through the EPA.
NAM: What do you think are the key differences between Obama and Romney in terms of their environment and energy platforms?
Jones: Obama has tried to be consistent with his all-of-the-above approach [to energy] … [which] puts a big emphasis on renewables, and Romney has been all over the place on this issue ... At least you know what you are getting with Obama. You have no idea what you are getting with Romney. (But) the environmental movement is going to have to push Obama hard the day after the election …
I think what we have learned in the last four years [is that] you have to have a president who is willing to be moved in a positive direction on the environment. That is Obama much more so than Romney, but you also have to have a movement that is willing to do the moving … that means willing to run tough ads, being willing to criticize publicly, being willing to protest and do all the things that we would do no matter who -- a Democrat, Green Party member or Libertarian -- is in the White House during a global planetary crisis like the one we have.
NAM: A recent Brookings Institution report found that clean-technology jobs accounted for a small fraction -- just 2 percent -- of employment nationwide. What does that say about the green economy?
Jones: The green economy is a part of the U.S. economy; it’s not separate from the U.S. economy … There are 2.4 million to 3.1 million green jobs, according to the government [U.S. Labor Department] and expert [Brookings Institution] studies … [that] is not a small number, especially when you realize that cap and trade was never passed into law. The green economy needed the playing field to be level so polluters are not getting subsidies and permission to pollute for free. It’s impossible for the green economy to take off under the present conditions where all the subsidies go to the polluters and polluters can dump megatons of carbon and not pay a penny for it …That said … the potential for the greening of the U.S. economy is very big.
There are 80,000 coalmining jobs in the country total. Now, the coal industry is on TV every day bragging about how many coal jobs they are creating, but there are 80,000 people in the coalmines. There are 100,000 workers in the solar industry alone in America right now. There are 100,000 in the wind industry right now. There are more people working in wind and solar than there are coal miners in America.
NAM: You are now focusing your efforts on economic policies to rebuild the American middle class through your organization Rebuild the Dream. Do green jobs play a role in the recovery you envision?
Jones: [The] problem is that we need about 15 to 20 million jobs and those can’t all be green jobs … If you have 2 to 3 million [green] jobs, you’ll be short about 15 million jobs … If you are going to take seriously moving the economy forward, you’re going to have to do other things … We have a 10-point program called Contract for the American Dream, which calls for investing in infrastructure and education and stopping [spending] on wars. The jewel in the crown of any economic recovery for America will be the greening of the U.S. economy and clean energy jobs of the future, but the crown will be bigger than the crown jewel.
NAM: What’s needed in terms of leadership on the national stage around climate change? Obama has adopted a pragmatic approach – one of small achievable steps. If he’s re-elected, will this be enough?
Jones: If the environmental community continues to do what it is doing, then the president will continue to do what he is doing. You see, this president reacts when there’s public protest and public pressure … just like any other president … When the Tea Party was pushing austerity, then he talked a lot about austerity. When Occupy Wall Street talked about income inequality, he started talking about that. But when the main pressure was coming from big polluters, there wasn’t a lot of talk about environmental issues, and when [noted environmentalist Bill McKibben’s group] 350.org started marching and sitting in about the Keystone [XL] pipeline [which would carry tar sands crude from Canada to refineries along the Gulf Coast], he took up that cause … So presidents respond to public opinion as much as they shape public opinion.
The constituencies that have stood up to this president -- the immigrant rights community or the [LGBT] part of our movement -- have thankfully and wonderfully gotten some results…Those parts that stood down too much -- whether the environmental movement after the [BP] Gulf oil spill or the labor movement -- [they] didn’t get as much done as they wanted. The lesson there is elect a president that can be moved, and then unleash a movement that can do the moving.
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