Guest columnist K.C. Golden says its time to do away with the old jobs-vs.-environment policy discussions. Good policy and investment that protects the environment will help spur jobs in the economic recovery.

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GAPING budget deficits. Record foreclosures. High unemployment. Surely, this would be the perfect time to choose jobs over the environment.

That’s what two Texas oil companies figured when they put Proposition 23 on the California ballot in November. The measure would have suspended California’s Global Warming Solutions Act until unemployment fell below 5.5 percent. But the oil companies miscalculated. California voters rejected Prop. 23 overwhelmingly.

Do you think Californians, with 12.4 percent unemployment, were saying, “We want climate solutions, not jobs”? Of course not. They were saying something much more positive: “Climate solutions are jobs, and we’ll have both.”

Difficult economic conditions are a signal to accelerate this clean-energy economy, not to go back to the old-think that created our economically and environmentally devastating fossil-fuel dependence. With a sputtering economy and a deepening climate crisis, we can’t afford to freeze in the headlights of the broken, polarized, special-interest politics that pits jobs against the environment.

The West Coast clean-energy economy is a bright spot on a cloudy economic horizon. Renewable energy is a powerful job driver. Energy-efficiency programs are putting people to work in their communities, while keeping energy dollars circulating through their local economies. Cleaner cars and better transportation choices are reducing our crippling dependence on oil.

California’s business community — from Silicon Valley to small-town chambers of commerce — united against Prop. 23 to protect the clean-energy job engine against the oil interests who see reduced fossil-fuel dependence as a threat to their profits. Oil companies tried to sing the tired old “jobs vs. environment” song, but they were way off key.

Now, the global coal industry wants to play that same obsolete, self-serving noise here. They aim to use Northwest ports to ship mountains of coal from Wyoming to China. The first of these proposals — Australian coal giant Ambre Energy’s bid for a coal port on the Columbia River — would ship nearly 6 million tons of coal annually. That’s enough to put a 1,700-pound lump in the stocking of every Washingtonian, every Christmas.

Proponents say we need the 20 additional jobs this proposal would create. But who’s really getting the jobs if China does the manufacturing and innovating and investing while we shovel their coal?

Here’s the ultimate irony: Coal companies want to make the Northwest the transfer station for the Global Warming Express in part because we’re starting to use less coal ourselves.

West Coast states are aiming to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and beginning the transition to a clean-energy future. With our abundant hydro resources and these new clean-energy initiatives, Washington and Oregon could be coal-free within a few years. Gov. Chris Gregoire said recently, “I’d like us to get out of the coal business.”

We can build a stronger, more sustainable economy that produces far more and better jobs than the coal and oil industries offer.

The key to this new prosperity is developing our clean-energy economy. If you’re thinking just about windmills and solar panels, you’re thinking too small. Think of a new economic platform that strengthens local communities and traditional industries while attracting good new jobs.

We’re talking about Boeing and Alaska Airlines and the Defense Department developing more-efficient planes and sustainable alternatives to petroleum fuels for aviation. We’re talking about Microsoft partnering with Ford to displace oil-based transportation with smarter, cleaner homes and vehicles. We’re talking about weatherizing every building and delivering real economic opportunities for the folks who need them most — caulk guns replacing handguns in urban neighborhoods. We’re talking about rural counties served by small public power systems investing in energy efficiency that squeezes more work out of hydropower and builds local economic muscle.

An economic crunch is a time to advance together, not retreat into opposing camps whose lobbyists battle each other to a standstill to accomplish nothing — as they did when Congress failed to pass a national climate and energy policy this year. Let’s be clear: If we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate, and ship what we don’t use to Asia, we’re toast. Our economy will decline and we’ll leave our kids a future of catastrophic climate disruption. (It’s considered risky for climate advocates to use scary words like “catastrophic.” But it’s riskier and scarier to avoid these words when they are true.)

This is not an “environmental” thing; it’s not a political thing; it’s not cable-news partisan football. It’s a science thing, a reality thing, a moral crossroads — an epic human tragedy that we’re well on our way to creating. There’s no good future — for business, people, or the planet — if we keep stoking the climate crisis with more fossil fuels.

We know from our early experience in building the West Coast clean-energy economy that there’s a better way. We have a long way to go, but we have begun to demonstrate that a new, sustainable prosperity is possible. We know it’s necessary. A tough economy means it’s time to rise to that challenge, not duck it.

K.C. Golden is policy director for Climate Solutions, a Northwest nonprofit focused on practical solutions to global warming.