Remember in 2008 when the terms green economy and green collar jobs were big buzz words? You probably know the basic idea: if we’re going to curb the climate crisis we need to replace energy sources and other systems with green ones. The transition will be a lot of work, but the upside is, we have a lot of people looking for work.
But whatever happened to the green jobs movement? It turns out, that we are at a moment when the green economy may be poised to take off: New construction projects are booming in the Bay, strong activism is emerging from within the communities impacted, and there’s an influx of cap-and-trade money to make it happen. It just might be time for green jobs, 2.0.
Demand for green construction labor grows in the Bay Area
West Oakland has historically had higher asthma rates than the rest of the city. The pollution from the nearby port and freeway have in the past been tough on the health of residents. In the future, sea level rise threatens the area in a way that Oakland is not prepared for. But people still live nearby and work right here -- like at the Cypress Mandela Training Center.
Cypress Mandela is a tuition-free program that teaches green trades, like solar panel installation and eco-friendly construction. It is conducted a bit like a military boot camp; The students stand at attention and they address each other with surnames. But Eric Jones says, it’s life changing.
“This is the number one peer apprenticeship program in the world!” he says loudly. Even if it’s tough, it’s worth it to him.
Green job training programs are, obviously, a pillar of the green economy. Cypress Mandela has been around since 1994. They’ve become more purposefully green as technologies like solar panels and grey water systems have become popular, but instructor Eric Shanks says being resourceful comes naturally to poor communities.
“My father always believed in removing the existing siding and reusing whatever was good and you discard what wasn't good,” explains Shanks. “If you didn't have the money that's what you were forced to do anyway.”
Shanks says that all the big construction projects in the Bay Area right now-- the BART extension, taking apart the old Bay Bridge, the Brooklyn Basin and the Port-- are utilizing that same kind of ingenuity. Instead of demolishing everything with machines, the city is requiring that existing structures are dismantled piece by piece, each bit salvaged for reuse. That requires a lot more manpower than demolition does. And that’s where Cypress Mandela comes in.
“Let’s just say, in Alameda County, there's a lot of work right now,” says Shanks. “In fact, there may not be enough workers, we may not be able to train enough for the demand. We'll feel that crunch very soon.”
So the local construction boom, combined with eco-friendly requirements, local hire agreements and solid workforce training means those mythic, too-good-to-be-true Green Collar jobs are happening.
African American community organizes around environmental justice
The Green Economy is also moving forward because people who haven’t been environmental activists in the Sierra Club way are joining in. People like Reverend Carol Ambrose from the Church by the side of the road in Berkeley.
“We're trying to speak to our friends who have been doing environmentalism right here because, as Van Jones likes to say, not only are the polar bears in trouble our cousin Pookie is in trouble with sea level rise, you know?” says Reverend Ambrose. “We need to hear about it in our houses of worship.”
This month, Reverend Ambrose launched the Green the Church campaign. He’s enlisting 1,000 churches nationwide over the next year to join the cause. That means retrofitting their church buildings to be efficient and mobilizing their congregations.
“We want to pull our numbers together,” says Ambrose, “there's a lot of legislative opportunities. In Berkeley, we won some legislation to get a soft drink tax. Congregants were able to hit the streets and so we're proud of that. But there are a lot of things statewide. We're fighting to get a ban on fracking and we're trying to articulate that to the African American community to show where that is important.”
Cap-and-trade money rolls out this year
So there’s new employment opportunities, a growing activist base and, the final piece, legislative success, like California’s Cap-and-Trade bill. That bill means we cap the amount that corporations can pollute, any more than that and they have to pay. A quarter of that money must go directly to disadvantaged neighborhoods. And the cash is rolling out now.
“This year actually, the first share of the moneys are rolling out for the first time right now!” says Vien Truong, with the Greenlining Institute. “Which is why it’s so exciting.” She and other activists fought for the piece of the bill that earmarks money for low income neighborhoods. In the Bay Area, that means funding public transit, electrifying AC transit buses and port vehicles, affordable housing by transit hubs, car sharing programs, low cost solar panels and urban forestry
“This is the biggest pot in history ever to communities that have been disproportionately affected by climate change,” says Truong.
And it’s paid for by polluters. Now maybe you’re thinking, ‘Wait, so we only get these things in exchange for more pollution? Doesn’t that cancel out the improvements?’ But Truong is optimistic. She says we’ve gone from subsidizing polluters to taxing them. And now they’re paying for the infrastructure that will allow us to wean off them.
“I'm seeing real collaboration and new stakeholders coming to the table as never before,” says Truong. “I am so excited about this new shift. It’s never had the constellation of stars aligned in this way before.”
The cap-and-trade money isn’t a one time thing, it’s new tax law. So the hope is that areas like West Oakland, where we started this story, can begin to make up for decades of disinvestment. And that more students can be trained at programs like Cypress Mandela, to fill a booming need for workers in the Bay Area.