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President Joe Biden has ambitious plans when it comes to addressing climate change. He wants to eliminate net carbon emissions from the energy sector by 2035, and from the entire U.S. economy by 2050.
The big shift away from the burning of oil, gas and coal that would necessitate will put many American out of job. The White House – as well clean energy advocates – try to point out, the likely net effect of the switch from fossil fuels to clean energy in coming years will result in more jobs, not fewer.
But it’s a long way from here to there.
Gina McCarthy, Biden's National Climate Advisor, acknowledged the challenges, including how some areas of the country may end up with less. She says the administration is just beginning to explore how to lessen the shocks coming from this “long-term challenge.”
It “has been one of the fundamental concerns that we have put on our plate since before day one,” McCarthy told Yahoo Finance.
Studies have shown that the switch to clean energy – in three big industrial sectors – is likely to lead to new jobs in manufacturing and construction alongside losses in mining and extraction. The overall effect will be positive, according to Ben Beachy, Sierra Club’s Living Economy director and a McCarthy ally. He said 15 million new jobs are possible in the years ahead – "enough to end the unemployment crisis while putting a down payment on a more clean-energy economy."
‘This is a long-term challenge’
McCarthy sketched out a range ways the administration was working on to help lessen the shocks for these workers.
“We are not going to think that sending somebody from their own community halfway across the country is going to be a welcome idea,” she said. McCarthy outlined ideas like allowing former oil and gas workers to help close up abandoned methane wells.
Beachy said some jobs like that may be temporary but the net effect of these initiatives are new industries that can sustain workers for at least a decade. "This is not a one-off, this is not temp work," he said. "We're talking about investing in family-sustaining careers."
Another effort McCarthy highlighted is the newly created Civilian Climate Corp. The program, according to the executive order that created it, will redirect existing money toward jobs and training programs to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers.” McCarthy acknowledged the effort might be most appealing for younger people, but also hoped it could intrigue at least a few “older dudes like me.”
McCarthy’s role, which didn’t exist during the previous administration, is to coordinate and implement Biden's domestic climate agenda. McCarthy serves as chair of the newly-created National Climate Task Force. Former Secretary of State John Kerry also has a newly created role in the Biden White House as Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.
'President Biden is on the wrong side'
Biden’s plans – particularly his move to discontinue building the Keystone XL pipeline – have come under criticism from groups like the American Petroleum Institute. “Thus far, President Biden is on the wrong side of a number of these consequential choices,” API President and CEO Mike Sommers said in a recent speech.
His group has argued that the effect is negative in certain locales. One example they recently pointed to is New Mexico; the API said the administration's move to suspend new federal drilling leases will cost the state over 62,000 jobs. New Mexico's economy relies heavily on onshore oil and natural gas production.
In just his first few weeks in office, Biden has taken a number of actions on climate change; he rejoined the Paris climate agreement and directed agencies to procure zero-emission vehicles, while hitting "pause" on existing leases for fossil fuel development on public lands.
The president's aides say the actions are needed and that some job losses are inevitable in the years ahead. “What's happening to them is happening because of other market forces already taking place,” is how Kerry put it at a recent White House briefing when discussing impacted workers.
The Trump administration promised to bring back jobs in areas reliant on fossil, but jobs still declined. And recent studies have predicted that the coal industry could be eliminated in as little as 12 years.
McCarthy says her work in the years ahead is going to be about getting ahead of the transition. “We want to anticipate where the shift in energy is,” she said, adding that she’d aim to lessen any impact. “This isn't the time to ask any human being to sacrifice.”
“Is it easy? No” she said.
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.