There Is No Conflict Between Creating Jobs and Protecting the Environment

In the face of science march protests all around the world today, Donald Trump tweeted the following in his defense:

Let’s set aside the factual inaccuracy that Trump is committed to clean air and water (one of his few legislative acts of the first 100 days was to allow coal companies to dump pollution into stream rivers, his administration has been fighting to gut emissions rules that protect air quality, and his massive proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency will certainly do harm to the environment in various ways.) Trump is a liar as usual. But let’s just take his statement at face value for a moment.

Trump’s incoherent response is reflective of the typical conservative postulate that protecting the environment comes at the expense of jobs. But it does not.

First, let’s be clear that in the most generous application of “environmental protection costs jobs” philosophy, the jobs in question are only in the private sector. Conservative philosophy takes for granted that the only legitimate jobs are private sector, of course, but it would be a mistake to grant the conceit. Government doesn’t exist in order to steal from people for its own benefit. It exists in order to provide essential communal services that the free market either will not pay for, or will not provide to enough people to avert humanitarian disaster.  Education, police, firefighters, the military, roads, sewers, waterways, food and drug testing: these are all goods and services that the free market will not provide by itself except for the wealthy. Liberals and progressives would also add healthcare, child care, protections for minorities, restrictions on financial industry specualtion, and investments in science and the arts to the mix (among other things.)

There is no reason that in an era of record inequality and corporate profits, government investment in clean energy and environmental protection jobs paid for with progressive taxation cannot provide millions of much-needed jobs. With the loss of low-skill labor driving much of the populist anger that helped fuel the Sanders and Trump movements, an Apollo Program-style investment in green energy retrofitting would do much to help abate the problem. Millions of good-paying, low- and medium-skill jobs could be created in putting solar panels on roofs, sealing windows, building wind farms, scrubbing factories, building rail, and similar work. It would be a better, more permanent and more productive investment than the conservatives’ proposed border walls and increases to military spending.

Second, it’s not at all clear that environmental protection actually does cost private sector jobs in significant margins. Trump seems oddly obsessed with protecting the coal industry, but the entire coal industry employs fewer people than Arby’s. It’s not regulations but rather the cheap availability of natural gas that is killing coal. The near destruction of the American auto industry wasn’t due to overregulation of emissions, but the opposite: as consumers showed a clear preference for cars with good gas mileage, Detroit was still pumping out gas guzzling SUVs. Had American regulations been more stringent, American auto companies might not have driven themselves so deep into a ditch: it was the free market that put Honda and Toyota at the top of the automobile food chain, not the EPA.

In fact, America’s reasonable environmental regulations don’t seem to have much negative impact on employment at all.

Finally, there is the negative consequence of doing nothing. Poisoned rivers and bad air come at high social health and other related costs, which society bears on the back end. Tourism-related industries suffer. And then, of course, there’s the big bad wolf of climate change that literally imperils civilization itself if it remains unaddressed. Even if you believe that a carbon tax or other regulations will have a significant negative jobs impact in the short term (it wouldn’t), but long-term impacts of doing nothing would be far, far worse.

There is no reason to be trapped into a false dichotomy between creating jobs and protecting the environment. They are mutually beneficial and achievable goals. It’s just that the owners of polluting enterprises don’t want any threat to their bloated profit margins, or tax increases to pay for the necessary investments.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.