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  December 5, 2017

A Green New Deal for Washington State

Trump may be leading the US backwards on developing a Green Economy but a new study by the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass, says Washington State can pave the way to a New Green Deal. Prof. Robert Pollin and AFL-CIO Labor leader in Washington State discusses the study and the possibilities. Link to report
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Robert Pollin is Distinguished Professor of Economics and Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He is also the founder and President of PEAR (Pollin Energy and Retrofits), an Amherst, MA-based green energy company operating throughout the United States. His books include The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy (co-authored 1998); Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity (2003); An Employment-Targeted Economic Program for South Africa (co-authored 2007); A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States (co-authored 2008), Back to Full Employment (2012), Green Growth (2014), Global Green Growth (2015) and Greening the Global Economy (2015).


SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Imagine, a comprehensive clean energy policy for Washington state. That's a topic we will discuss today. The new report we're going to discuss is titled, "A Green New Deal for Washington State: Climate Stabilization, Good Jobs, and Just Transition." It is published by the Political Economy Research Institute, PERI, and co-authored by some of our regular guests here at TRNN, Robert Pollin, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, and Jeannette Wicks-Lim. The study examines the prospects for a transformative green new deal for Washington state with a focus on energy investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It examines ways to improve two goals.

One, promoting global climate stabilization by reducing carbon dioxide CO2 emissions in the state of Washington without increasing emissions outside of the state. Two, it aims to protect existing employment levels and expand into good clean job opportunities. Here to discuss the report with me is Robert Pollin and Jeff Johnson. Robert Pollin is the distinguished Professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute, PERI, at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He's the author of many books. Among them, 'Back to Full Employment,' and 'Greening the Global Economy.' Good to have you with us, Bob.

BOB POLLIN: Thank you very much, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: And Jeff Johnson is the President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Jeff taught labor economics and labor studies at Empire State College in New York City. Jeff is a union activist in Washington state, promoting more just and effective organizing policy, and he represents the labor movement on the Governor's Council of Economic Advisors. Thanks for joining us today, Jeff.

JEFF JOHNSON: Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Bob, let me start with you. You call this proposal a green new deal. This is a part of a series of PERI reports about clean energy and analyzing not only climate stabilization impact, but also the impact on jobs and economic growth. Why do these two things have to come together and why invoke the new deal of President Roosevelt?

BOB POLLIN: Well, they don't have to come together. I mean, we can think about environmental protection, climate stabilization, and ignore the job's issue, and say that we're just focusing on saving the Earth at all costs. On the other hand, we can say we only care about jobs. That kind of divisiveness has been really critical in creating the opposition to a green adjustment program. In fact, the Trump administration has really flourished around creating these kinds of divisions. Now, what we try to show in the study is that whether we like it or not, a green investment program is good for jobs. It's not bad for jobs. It's good for jobs. That what we tried to show was that investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy will reduce emissions and in the study we show it reduces ... We could get it down by 40% by 2035 in the state of Washington and create about 40,000 jobs, new jobs, per year, and maintain our existing jobs as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Let me turn to you, Jeff. This report is published against a backdrop of President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Do you think that the U.S. should therefore find ways to promote responsible climate policy at the state level with or without the feds and what do you make of Trump's statement that his reason for leaving the Paris Climate Agreement is to protect American jobs?

JEFF JOHNSON: Yeah, so I absolutely think that since President Trump has seated the work on trying to meet the Paris Climate Accord, that at the state and local levels we have to do everything we can to reduce carbon emissions and make a transition to the new clean renewable energy economy. President Trump's statements about protecting jobs, I mean, he is in my estimation a false populist. He's making promises that he can't keep, that he can't back up with science, and I think most of our members, union members at this point are seeing through the facade that he's created. He's really not about creating jobs. He's about shifting the commonwealth to the personal wealth of wealthy individuals and corporations. We've got to do everything we can at the state level, at the regional levels, to work on combating climate change and doing it in a way that provides a voice for working people and real equity.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Bob, according to the report, Washington state has one of the lowest per capita emission rates of all states in the United States. This is perhaps related to the fact that 69% of the electricity consumption in the state of Washington is met through hydroelectric power. Why focus this report on Washington state and not on the top states in terms of per capita emissions, like West Virginia, North Dakota, or Wyoming for that matter?

BOB POLLIN: Well, the simplest and most honest answer, Sharmini, is because I was asked to write it by Jeff and the United Steel Workers, and I would be happy to write similar studies for West Virginia, Wyoming, you name it. We have done some work around those states as well. The point is, this tool, it's just that this study is also supposed to be a support for the organizing work that is being done by people in Washington state and elsewhere. Jeff Johnson is a leading labor official and has taken the lead in advancing climate stabilization policies that combine with jobs. Once it catches on in Washington state, we think it has a good chance of really taking hold throughout the country.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now Jeff, as a union leader, what do you think about the dilemma that unions and the union sector presents towards us in the sense that it's between climate stabilization or protecting jobs? This was never more evident than in the last presidential campaign. Even candidates on the democratic side who we would expect to be more favorable when it came to climate issues and CO2 emissions and getting a grip on the problem, tended to present it to us as if it's either/or. Is that situation changing and are you, people like you who think like you, more successful within the union sector now as a result of these kinds of studies that Bob does?

JEFF JOHNSON: Sharmini, the dichotomy between jobs and a strong clean environment has always been a false dichotomy used to divide and conquer working folks. We saw that play out in the last election clearly with President Trump exacerbating that false dichotomy both on the environment and jobs, as well as on race, and immigration, and other issues. Now, I think that Bernie Sanders on the other hand, I think did not run away from the issue and didn't wedge that issue, because we know as Bob mentioned that in fact it's not either/or. We can save the planet. We can create a clean environment and we can produce good family-waged union jobs.

In our state, for the last three years, I've had a Labor, Jobs and Climate Caucus and we've been working hard to figure out where we are on this issue and how we strengthen both our economy, give workers, give communities of color, give the environmental community working together a stronger voice in what we want our future economy to look like in our state. Because I want to tell you, when the south and southwest of this country were under water this past summer in Puerto Rico, up here in the Pacific northwest, we were on fire.

For the first time in the 30 years I've lived in this state, fires on the east-side of the state created ash falling on the west-side of the state as if it were a snowfall. We had a forest fire that actually leapt the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington state. We are facing this existential crisis. We've got to figure out a way to stop climate change and to create good family-waged union jobs in the process and that's why the study that Dr. Pollin and his crew at the PERI Institute is so valuable to us. It's the backdrop for the organizing work we're doing to run an initiative to the people in 2018.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jeff, if you are a working energy-intense sector or even carbon emission-heavy sector, like coal or oil, and you are committed to a green economy, and green jobs, and want to see a just transition, but they can't quite imagine it, these kinds of studies are sometimes abstract and especially coming out of economic institution, what do you say to those workers and what's supports are there or will there be in place as recommended by this study?

JEFF JOHNSON: Many of the jobs in the existing fossil fuel industry are good jobs with relation to wages and benefits. Many of them are union jobs, so these are workers that I represent and my counterparts in other states represent. One of the last things these workers want to hear is the word, "just transition," because the truth is, historically in our country we've not done a good job when industries begin to phase out, of taking care of those workers. Often times, workers and their communities are left behind. What we've been organizing around in Washington state is to build a just transition set of policies so that, say, fossil fuel workers who may lose their jobs as we transition to a clean renewable energy economy, that they're not left behind or that they're not simply thrown some training dollars and said, "Good luck."

Rather, what we're trying to build into a truly equitable just transition, is that there be some real income support and benefit support so that the worker's wages, their healthcare benefits, and their pensions continue for a period of time as they begin making the adjustment. That we have peer counseling set up, so a similar worker, say from a fossil fuel industry, is the worker that shares with you the types of policies and benefits that are available to you, a trusted messenger if you will. As well, there'd be real re-training benefits, up to two years' worth of re-training benefits and kind of an advance placement system for placing you in the new alternative clean energy economy.

I want to make sure that I was clear, workers based on their years of experience in the fossil fuel industry would receive income replacement benefits, wages and benefits, as well as when they find a new job, if the wages are lower than what their previous wages had been, that wage insurance, bringing their wages up to the previous wage level, would be in effect for a few years so that we have as seamless transition as possible. Again, so that these workers are not left behind.

SHARMINI PERIES: What about pensions? I mean, one benefit of the union sector is that workers accumulate their pensions and they'll be able to retire with a comfortable income. What will this mean in terms of pensions?

JEFF JOHNSON: Absolutely, great question Sharmini. Pensions are a big deal, so for fossil-fuel workers that are within five years of retirement, there would be what we call a glide path for retirement. Meaning, that their pension contributions would be paid for up to five years so that they can retire at their full union-provided pension. For workers that are not near retirement, their pension benefits would also be paid for a period of time so that the contributions continue to be made and it builds a stronger pension benefit for when they can retire.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Bob, there's a very important point in your study, which presents the opportunities available in terms of that we can tackle clean energy issues and look at investments, reduce emissions, but also there's an opportunity here for equal opportunity employment and increase the employment rates of women, non-White workers. Why is it important to connect all of these together to achieve equality in our society?

BOB POLLIN: The point is that like the new deal of the 1930s, what we're suggesting is this green investment program to stop climate change. It's also a tremendous opportunity to create new jobs, good jobs, and it's true that if we look at the types of jobs that are likely to be created through clean energy investments, a very high proportion of them at present are jobs held by white males. What is important that can be done through the investment process, through the clean energy investment process, and through the policy framework led by unions such as what Just Leadership, and others, and the United Steel Workers, and others is to use this opportunity of expanding job opportunities to also open up opportunities for underrepresented groups, mainly women and people of color.

SHARMINI PERIES: Bob, one of the most important questions that are asked when presented with such transitionary projects as you are proposing here, is how do we finance it? How do we finance clean energy transition? Your report suggests imposing a carbon tax and you believe that it can raise almost $900 million per year. Now, obviously the tax starts high and becomes lower as carbon emissions decline, and so does the state income. Doesn't such a tax actually create an incentive for the state to invite polluting industries to move to Washington state from areas in which emissions are banned? For example, so they will bring in revenue through carbon tax to the state. Is that likely to happen?

BOB POLLIN: Well, a carbon tax can be ... The details can be implemented in various ways. You can tax at the level of, say, the utility companies, or the firms that are selling wholesale petroleum oil to distributors. I mean, in the end, of course, the net effect of the tax will be felt by taxpayers. The point is that every time a ton of CO2 goes into the atmosphere it is taxed to reflect the damage being done to the environment. What we tried to show is that a very modest tax at $15 a ton, which would only increase gas at the pump at maybe around 15 cents, maybe, would still rank almost a billion dollars a year that could then be channeled into promoting the clean energy project for the state of Washington.

SHARMINI PERIES: Bob, so what does this mean to energy intensive industries in the state? Will they look to move?

BOB POLLIN: Well, no. I don't think they will. There are energy intensive industries in Washington state. In particular, paper and pulp, and aluminum. These are important industries and they are good jobs that people are working at those. What we try to show in the study is that these industries, the adjustments that they have to make and they will have to make some adjustments, but we've tried to design a program through which their adjustments will not have to be any more difficult proportionally than any other industry. They will be consuming energy, it's true, where they're going to increase their share of renewable energy as they proceed. Otherwise, their costs, we don't think their costs have to be any more severe than anybody else in proportion and we can still hit this target of a 40% reduction in overall emissions in the state by 2035.

SHARMINI PERIES: Jeff, let me give you the last word here. Again, on the carbon tax issue. For a corporation with high-polluting emissions, they can be convinced to move into a state with a carbon tax by more lax labor law regulations and state legislation against unionization. Are you afraid or concerned that a carbon tax could adversely affect unions in Washington state then?

JEFF JOHNSON: No. The potential leakage of jobs and CO2 emissions out of the state if we put a fee or charge on CO2 emissions, but again, working in a coalition called the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, the heart of which is made up of communities of color, unions, and the environmental community, we've worked hard and reached out to our energy intensive trade exposed industries and reached some tentative agreements with them on how this carbon fee would work. As Bob mentioned, in our state, given the way we have the charge set up right now, it would bring in actually slightly over a billion dollars a year and 70% of which could be invested in the clean energy economy, in cleaning up our air and our water, as well as providing equity.

Sharmini, I'm not going to kid you, that's not enough financing. The other piece that we're working on separately is to create a state infrastructure bank and on banking principles that could basically lend out money for every dollar of reserves, lend out $8 to $10 to really expedite this transition to the clean energy economy. It's going to take all of us working together and multiple strategies to make this transition and a transition that's in a fair and equitable way.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Jeff, so then let me ask you, what are the next steps for this new green deal for Washington? This is only a study. What will you be doing with it?

JEFF JOHNSON: The next steps are these ... With this wonderful study, is a background for the work that we're doing. Our intentions are to draft an initiative to the people in Washington state in 2018. The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, we've held so far this year 20 community forum around the state and we've been organizing what we call, "climate justice stewards," folks that will help us collect signatures to qualify for the ballot in November in 2018 that would put this carbon fee and investment strategy before the people. We're going to do everything we can to organize around the passage of this climate stabilization, job creation, and just transition initiative.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us and Bob, thank you for joining us. Looking forward to following the path of this report and how it might be implemented in Washington.

JEFF JOHNSON: Thank you both.

BOB POLLIN: Thank you. Thank you, Sharmini.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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