The Green Machine

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

OAKLAND, Calif. The evening's topic was worthy of a think tank -- energy, jobs and public policy. But the rollicking scene at the First Congregational Church, where Van Jones was promoting his book "The Green Collar Economy," was as far from Washington wonkdom as you could get.

Jones received an enviable introduction. Poet, performer and hip-hop theater artist Aya de León read one of her works, actor Danny Glover praised Jones and recited the Langston Hughes poem "Let America Be America Again," and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) spoke about "our green dream" and how that was "going to be a reality, too."

Finally, with more than 500 people packed into the pews and staircases, Jones took the stage, a walking example of another dream become reality. The son of Tennessee schoolteachers, a 1993 graduate of Yale Law School and an Oakland community activist, Jones founded an organization called Green For All in 2007.

His new book -- which details how an ambitious public spending program on energy efficiency and renewable energy can stimulate the economy and create good jobs for the poor and unemployed -- couldn't have landed at a better time. President-elect Barack Obama, who is trying to figure out how to deal with climate change and energy security in a sagging economy, said Saturday that his stimulus plan would have "green" elements.

"You can cut pollution and put people to work at the same time," Jones said to murmurs of assent. "And guess what? It pays for itself," he added, noting the cost savings of more efficient homes and utilities.

As for whether the government has enough money for what he calls "a green New Deal," Jones said, "We weren't broke when bankers needed bailing out." Citing the financial crisis, he said "out of that breakdown, came a breakthrough."

Jones is just one of many people urging the incoming Obama administration to use the economic crisis to push forward a spending program that would kick-start wider renewable energy use and build the infrastructure needed for a more energy-efficient, and more energy-independent, nation. He also wants the next president to ban new coal plants, create a "Clean Energy Corps" for jobs and job training, install new electricity transmission lines, provide incentives to trade in gas guzzlers for hybrid cars, and establish a federal revolving loan fund for energy efficiency measures.

Instead of treating "green" measures as a luxury, Jones wants them to fight poverty. "We can help our Rust Belt cities blossom as Silicon Valleys of green capital," he writes.

The Center for American Progress, at which Jones is a senior fellow, has been advocating a $54.8 billion "green" stimulus package, with money for energy efficiency, mass transit, solar panels, green school construction and renovation, job training, low-income home weatherization assistance, and a carbon capture and storage project.

Obama has said he favors $15 billion a year in spending on renewable energy, weatherization and carbon capture and storage projects. As support for a big stimulus package grows it becomes more likely that much of it will include energy and efficiency projects. Obama's new national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones (no relation to Van) also supports measures that promote energy independence.

Some experts are skeptical of potential job creation numbers -- from two million to five million -- often cited by supporters of a "green stimulus" package. Economists note that money spent on such programs could create a similar number of jobs elsewhere. Moreover, some incentives for renewable energy could benefit foreign producers of anything from batteries to solar chips to wind turbines.

"If one is designing climate and energy policy, one would not do it through the lens of the economic recovery package," said Robert Stavins, head of the environmental economics program at Harvard University. "If you're [addressing] economic recovery, figure out what the optimal economic recovery package is." Stavins supports a cap and trade bill to steer people toward "green" energy projects.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company