Interview: Presidential Advisor Van Jones

  • Van Jones, speaking on the far right, at a White House event called "Investing in Our Clean Energy Future" (Photo by Jason Djang, courtesy of the White House)

The economy is bad. New scientific reports indicate global warming is worse. And the Obama Administration is trying to tackle both problems through creating green jobs. Lester Graham talked with one of the President’s advisers about that:


This is The Environment Report. Well, the economy’s bad and global warming is getting worse. There’s a lot of talk about creating jobs in a new clean energy sector. Van Jones is President Obama’s special advisor for green jobs, enterprise, and innovation at the White House council on environmental quality.

Lester Graham: Mr. Jones, back in 2007, when you were in the non-profit world in California, we aired a report where you said we need a new sort of environmentalism:

Van Jones (from 2007 clip): We need less about the Birkenstocks and the tofu, although that stuff is all beautiful, but it’s more about the hard hat, the lunch bucket, more of a working class, “we can do it” environmentalism I think is the next step to a new environmental revolution.

Graham: Now that you’re in the White House, what are you advising the president to do to take the first steps in that direction?

Jones: Well, I think that if you look at what the President has done, we’re moving right in that direction. We had to do two things: we had to get the public investments right and we did that with the recovery package, where depending on how you do the math, we did between 20 and 60 billion dollars in clean energy efficiency. That’s the biggest single investment in clean energy in the history of humanity. So that public investment side we nailed down and now we got to get the public rules right, and that is our climate and clean energy jobs bill that was voted on the recently—through the house successfully. The future started on Friday, as far as I’m concerned, when you had a chamber of congress step forward and say, “We are gonna change the rules so that clean energy can compete and we are gonna make sure that all sectors of America—rural, industrial—have a chance to transition effectively. But we are gonna move into this clean energy economy. And that’s where the jobs come from—when you get the public rules right and the public investments right you get a boom that is sustainable and lasting. We saw that in telecom, we’ve seen that over and over again, and that’s where we’re going.

Graham: You’ve mentioned a lot of times about, we’ll see more jobs in harnessing energy from the sun, wind, water, smart biofuels, geothermal and advanced geothermal. And that climate change bill would do that, but it faces a tough time in the senate. How will the fate of that legislation affect growth in those green jobs areas?

Jones: Well, I think the senate is going to show the same courage at the end of the day that the House did. The President has been very clear over and over again that if we want the jobs of tomorrow, we’ve got to make the products of tomorrow, and the products of tomorrow will be advanced vehicles, advanced cars, and also advanced energy—wind turbines, solar panels, and all that stuff. And I think the senate has to make a choice: does it want to stay on the sinking ship of yesterday and have the United States fall further and further behind in the race for clean energy, where China is spending 12 million dollars an hour to corner that market on every renewable technology. So we’ll be importing wind turbines, solar panels, smart batteries from them, or are we going to suit up and get in this race. And I think the Senate, looking at the same facts the House just did, is gonna step up and match the President in his leadership and vision.

Graham: During the debate in the house last Friday, we heard a lot about the loss of jobs because of higher cost of energy, because of the reduction of the use of fossil fuels. How much might the creation of green jobs offset the loss of jobs because of what the conservatives and opponents of the bill say we’ll see?

Jones: I mean, everybody who has looked at this objectively—I mean, there’s some reports out there that are circulating from extreme ideological groups, that are kind of masquerading as these reports, you hear a lot of, “Oh you’ll lose two jobs for every one green job.” All that stuff has been debunked. The Wall Street journal looked at that stuff and said the methodology is flawed. What every serious study shows is that you will create many more jobs in a clean energy economy—you’ll have more work, more wealth, and better health for Americans when we are producing the technologies of the future. There are just not that many more jobs available in some of the legacy sectors. But, we can put… we have a wealth of solar power, wind power, and other power in this country that we’ve never tapped. The challenge facing America is simply this: can we tap our clean energy power centers and connect them to our population centers. We have a sun belt in this country that is a wealth of solar power but it doesn’t stop there—really on rooftops across America. We have wind potential in this country—gigantic wind potential—untapped. Not just in the plains states, but off our coasts, up in the Great Lakes area, in our mountains. These are potential power centers for the country. If you tap our clean energy power centers, connect them to our population centers, you create jobs in rural America, urban America, you advance our resource and technology agenda, you get our scientists engaged and you unleash innovation and entrepreneurship on this problem. And that’s how we’re not only going to beat the global warming problem, it’s also how we’re going to beat the global recession by putting Americans back to work.

Graham: Who do you envision getting these jobs? Are we talking about out of work, blue-collar workers getting green-collar jobs or are we talking about low income folks who need training?

Jones: Well, the great thing about this green wave that President Obama is talking about is that it’s a green wave that can lift all boats. You’re talking about jobs from the GEDs to the PHDs and back again. And you’re talking about giving somebody who, maybe they were working in the automotive sector and they’ve been thrown out of work, well, Hilda Solis just put 50 million dollars, our secretary of labor, toward retraining those workers and giving them the opportunity to become green workers. If you know how to make a car, you probably know how to make a wind turbine and other things, with a little bit of retraining. If you were a home builder—we’re probably not going to be building am lot of homes in the next 12 months, 18 months—but we have five billion dollars in the recovery package for helping those home builders and others go into the work of rebuilding homes, upgrading homes, for energy efficiency, weatherization, retrofitting building. If you’re a farmer, if you’re in rural America, if you like at the recovery package, if you look at the climate bill there are opportunities to grow smart advanced biofuels, to put upwind turbines on your acreage, to become a part of the solution by grabbing carbon out of the air with your tilling and with your agricultural practices. Every part of America can play a role from the GEDs to the PHDs. The other thing that’s so important: get people on the ground floor, low-income people, people who are marginalized, people who have not had good economic opportunities—let’s get them in on the ground floor so that they can… maybe this summer their installing a solar panel, next summer if that firm grows, they can become a manager, and then an owner, an inventor, an investor. Green pathways to prosperity are available if we move now, seize the opportunity, and make sure all Americans get a chance to play.

Graham: When you talk to homeowners, many of the middle class homeowners get all excited about the gee-whiz stuff of solar panels on the roof, maybe a backyard wind turbine, but most people skip the first step, and that is weatherization. You’ve been talking about weatherization for not just homes, but buildings in general for a while now. How much employment could there be in just that sector alone?

Jones: Well, if we got serious and aggressive and said we wanted to retro-fit the majority of our building stock, you’re literally talking about millions of jobs. And what’s so exciting about that is we are an advanced industrial country, we have a lot of building stock, but it was built using what are now outdated technologies, outdated materials. The chance to go back through all of those buildings and blow in clean, non-toxic insulation, replace ill-fitting windows and doors with the new high-performance windows, putting in the high-performance boilers and furnaces—all that is work, but it’s work that pays for itself in energy cost savings. So you’re talking about going back and upgrading our buildings and cutting unemployment, cutting energy costs, cutting pollution from our power plants, which will have to work less hard. And at the same time, you say “How are you going to pay for it?” Well, it can pay for itself through the energy cost savings. That’s why the President but 5 billion dollars, as opposed to the last term’s 200 million, five billion into energy efficiency for people of moderate income, because we know it’s not just the solar panels, which everybody likes, the gee-whiz stuff as you said, it’s also the caulking guns. It’s also those existing technologies that right now are sitting on the shelf. You’ve got workers sitting on the bench—stand those workers up, let them take those technologies off the shelf, and get out there and retrofit America, save money on energy bills and also put people to work.

Graham: Conservatives, some members of Congress, some think tanks have expressed some concern that businesses, ne’er-do-wells, will grab government money saying their creating green jobs when in reality it simply might be the difference between and janitor or a lawyer working for a bank, and a janitor or a lawyer working for a solar panel installer or environmental group. What are you doing to make sure we’re actually creating green collar jobs with the taxpayer money that’s being used to kick-start those jobs?

Jones: Well, you know, one of those things is that we have more commitment to transparency and accountability in this program, the recovery program, than in the history of the Republic because we have the technology now that makes this stuff a lot more possible. We’re very confident that we’re going to be able to make sure that we get the maximum benefit to the American people out of the recovery dollars. I think that sometimes we don’t worry about the right things. Often the upshot of that is that therefore the government should sit back and do nothing, we should let people pay too-high energy bills, we should let workers go idle, we should continue to pump massive amounts of carbon-pollution, heat trapping pollution, into the atmosphere, and continue to let Asia and Europe get all of the jobs of tomorrow. And I think the problem with that way of thinking is that it has nothing to do with the way Americans have been for the past 200 hundred years. This is the one country in the world that has always leaned forward into change; we’ve always led the change. Talking about the industrial revolution, the information revolution, the space race—we weren’t afraid of the future. We went out and defined the future, created the future. And for some reason we’ve had stagnation in our energy sector, which we’re now finally busting through. We’re shattering that old logjam that we’ve had where we were told that if we tried to do right by our grandchildren environmentally, to give them the best possible future, we would be starving our children economically. We would have to take care our children economically or our grandchildren environmentally but we couldn’t do both. Well, Barack Obama has shattered that old logjam, that false choice, he says no we can actually do great by our children economically, grow our economy, but do it using the clean and green and new technologies that will also take care of our grandchildren environmentally. And that’s the breakthrough. You know, you’re always going to have naysayer’s but they’ve never won in American politics, and they’re not going to win on this one either.

Graham: I’m wondering if there’s anything you think we should be talking about that I haven’t asked you about so far?

Jones: Well, I just think that the courage of the president to actually run for office talking about environmental issues as he did, talking about clean energy jobs and green jobs as he did, and then to actually use his political capital to get it done, is something that is extraordinary. I think sometimes we take this stuff for granted. But I’m someone, again, coming from outside of electoral politics, more working at the community level, I’ve always seen politicians come and they make all these promises to the community and as soon as they get elected you never hear from them again. Here’s an administration I’m proud to be a part of, that made a bunch of promises around healthcare, made a bunch of promises around the environment, and the economy, and education, and we’re actually beginning to deliver. And my big hope is that not only do we restore our economy, and restore our environmental health, we can begin to restore people’s confidence that government and community and people working together can actually solve tough problems again. This is not the only tough problem we’re going to have to solve in this century but I hope we’ll be able to set a good example on this one.

Graham: Van Jones is the special advisor on Green Jobs to President Obama. Thanks for talking with us.

Jones: Well, thank you.

Graham: That’s The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Van Jones is a special advisor on green jobs, working with President Obama. He spoke with The Environment Report’s Lester Graham.

Related Links

Super Unpatriotic Vehicles

Recent reports that sales of SUVs, mini-vans, and light trucks have outstripped car sales has Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Don Ogden wondering if SUV is short for Super Unpatriotic Vehicle: