Last week the BlueGreen Alliance, a collaboration begun in 2006 by the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers, convened in Washington, D.C. for its annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference. The conference, although packed with hopeful discussions and plenaries on greening up America's power grid, proceeded under the looming (and surprisingly undiscussed) reality of the unstoppable geyser of oil billowing into the Gulf of Mexico. And although a series of inspiring speakers from both environmentalist and Union perspectives talked about joining forces to bring clean energy jobs back to a new America, it was hard to believe the change they spoke of was anything close to what will be necessary to wean our culture from its greenhouse gas addiction.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke early on the first morning of the conference, kicking off the three days with crowd-pleasing lines. Met with cheers, Pelosi likened our current "Green Revolution" to the Technological Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. We have, Pelosi said, a "moral responsibility to protect God's planet."
But in a smaller talk later in the day, Dick Williams of Shell said in his thirty-year career with the company, he's never once been asked to do anything "immoral, unsafe or unethical" for the company. Obviously there is some difference of opinion on the morality of drilling for oil, and just what constitutes "protecting God's planet."
Williams has recently been appointed President of Shell Wind, but seemed to view it as a fledgling crutch designed solely to offset the carbon footprint of the rest of the company. And with only about 50 people on the payroll of Shell Wind, many of the Union workers in the audience were left frustrated, feeling that Green jobs in renewable industries remain somewhat elusive. A woman in the audience complained the industry has yet to welcome Union members. Others corroborated, saying the renewable industry too often hires contract workers and won't offer benefits or steady work. It still behooves workers to go to oil and gas jobs over green jobs.
But in part, the conference was designed precisely to bring attention to those hurdles. In a plenary session, Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, spoke of the need to make Green Jobs more accessible and easier to get in the U.S. "What's the difference between having to rely on Chinese wind turbines versus Mideast oil?" Gerard asked.
The difference, of course, from an environmentalist's perspective, is that at least wind turbines are "clean" once they're working, no matter where they were manufactured. This distinction emphasized an interesting split between the environmental contingent and the Steelworker contingent. One side is motivated more by helping the planet, another by helping workers. During a smaller session, a representative from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers said, "Historically, our biggest concern has been, what is this going to cost us?"
But perhaps motivations don't matter so much, when two factions share an end result.
Although the overall feeling of the conference was proactive and positive, the kinds of major shifts necessary -- and still possible, if industry and political leaders act quickly -- were not alluded to. Natural gas, nuclear, and even "clean coal" were included at different points in the conference with the rest of the "green" energies.