Zimmerman: From profit to purpose—solving two crises with the American Jobs Plan
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

There is a false belief that effectively fighting climate change means we, as a society, have to suffer. People think of deprivation, restriction and sacrifice when solutions to the climate crisis are discussed. This is the wrong way to look at it.

“What if we could create stable, middle-class jobs (that cannot be outsourced or automated) in the private, non-profit and government sectors, which in turn will give millions of lives a sense of purpose and will stabilize our relationship with the planet that we rely on for our survival?”

This is a quote from “The Great Pivot” by South Bay local and environmental economist Justine Burt. In it, she notes that the climate crisis and the “crisis at work” can simultaneously be addressed by investing in work that focuses on fixing the core issues beneath our unsustainable transportation, industry, food and economic systems. In other words, we can combat climate change and make our lives better while doing it.

First, let me explain the “crisis at work,” though chances are you are living it. The consequences of outsourcing, automation and the unstable gig economy has resulted in two-thirds of the U.S. workforce feeling disengaged. Almost 40% of people believe that their job is meaningless, a serious problem when many people define themselves by what they do.

What is meaningful work?

So, what makes work meaningful? The answer is surprisingly simple. Meaningful work has significance and purpose, contributes to finding a broader meaning in life and makes a positive contribution to the greater good.

According to a report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, “Achieving net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050 is feasible and would not only help address climate change but also build a more competitive economy, increase high-quality jobs, and help address social injustice in the energy system.” It is already happening.

Stanford University’s completion of a campus-wide, cutting-edge heat recovery system is a good example. Called the Central Energy Facility, this system combines grid-sourced electricity and a first-of-its-kind heat recovery system that takes waste heat from one area of campus and uses it to heat another through a complex network of hot and cold water pipes.

From concept to reality, the Central Energy Facility created numerous jobs that provided meaningful work and resulted in an overall improvement for the local community. Once implemented, the school saw a 68% drop in campus emissions. In addition to its environmental benefits, it is projected to save the university $425 million over 35 years.

The American Jobs Plan is the best opportunity to link meaningful work to solving the climate crisis. The plan would invest heavily in U.S. infrastructure with the goal of upgrading that infrastructure and decarbonizing as much of it as possible.

As any good economist knows, infrastructure development means jobs. Retrofitting homes, rebuilding bridges, removing lead pipes, capping orphan oil wells, laying transmission lines, electrifying public transportation, all of these require workers who cannot be outsourced. Often, workers drawn directly from communities who have been most negatively impacted by environmental injustice have the most to gain from a just transition to a zero-carbon economy. Additional requirements that the materials for these upgrades are made in America ensures even more jobs stay in the country.

Adapting to and combating climate change doesn’t have to mean a lower quality of life. Instead, climate change can be a catalyst for creating well-paying and meaningful jobs while building an infrastructure that works for everyone.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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