If It's Broke, Fix It: President's Economic Agenda, Paired with Action on Climate Change, Is a Winning Strategy for Building a New Economy

Let's face it. The economy we have isn't working for far too many of us. The progress on unemployment has yet to make it to African-Americans, Hispanics, and youth, who still experience unemployment rates as high as twice the national average. This is especially troubling considering the rising majority we represent within the American population.

And these realities aren't lost on President Obama. Over the past few weeks, the president has expressed his growing impatience with two important issues confronting low-income Americans and people of color -- unemployment and climate change. On one occasion last month, he called for our nation to "stay focused on our economy and putting people back to work and raising wages." And a few days later he had this to say about climate change: "I don't have much patience for people who deny climate change... if you've got creative approaches, market-based approaches, tell me about them."

The old fossil fuel economy is not creating jobs -- it's actually cutting them. Despite generating $546 billion in profits between 2005 and 2010, and paying their CEOs an average of $13 million a year, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP reduced their U.S. workforce by 11,200 employees. Proposed projects like the Keystone pipeline will put our health and safety at risk, while creating just 20 permanent jobs (that's 9,980 less than what pipeline supporters claim). And last month's bankruptcy court ruling seemingly sanctioned a move by two of the world's largest coal companies (Peabody Coal alone generated over $1 billion in profits) to rob their workers of the retirement healthcare benefits they were promised. The companies simply transferred responsibility for the benefits to a subsidiary company they created -- then underfunded it and allowed it to go belly up.

Clearly it's time to turn things around. And President Obama's economic agenda gives us a chance to do it. Earlier this month, the president embarked on what he called his "Middle Class Jobs and Opportunity Tour." In places like Baltimore, Maryland, he talked about the pillars of his plan, which include reviving America's manufacturing sector, training workers, ensuring living wages, and addressing the deficit.

These are all sound objectives. And there is more to them than meets the eye. Done right, they will not only generate jobs and economic growth -- they can improve public health, create pathways out of poverty, and address one of the most pressing issues we face: Climate change.

Reshoring our manufacturing sector will do a lot to revive our economy. America needs to start making things again. And if we do it by doubling clean energy production and rebuilding our infrastructure -- sectors that are already putting millions of Americans to work -- we'll help fight climate change, too.

When it comes to creating jobs, we know clean energy works. The sector outperformed the rest of the economy even during the recession. And a recent study showed that every dollar invested in clean energy creates three times as many jobs as a dollar invested in fossil fuels.

Clean energy jobs tend to be the kind that create real opportunity and open doorways into the middle class. One reason is because they pay more -- about 13 percent higher than the median wage--while requiring less formal education. That's a recipe for escaping poverty. The materials used for energy efficiency upgrades, like sheet metal and insulation, are by and large made in America,so weatherization and green building are a smart way to give our manufacturing sector a shot in the arm. And by boosting American power sources like wind and solar while slashing energy waste, we can cut carbon pollution significantly and fight climate change.

Investing in infrastructure is not only a wise move for creating jobs, it's an essential response to a crisis. Right now, our country's basic water, transportation, and energy infrastructure is crumbling, putting all of us at risk. Just last month, a bridge collapsed in Washington State, sending drivers careening into the water. This kind of accident simply should not happen in a nation as wealthy and technologically advanced as ours. We need to fix our roads, bridges, and transit systems--and in doing so, we have an opportunity to make them greener and more efficient, and to train people for new, long-term, high-wage careers maintaining them.

It's not just our transportation system that needs help. Our basic water systems are failing. As a result, we're seeing a steady stream of sewage overflows and leaks that put all of us at risk of contamination from bacteria, parasites, viruses, pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, and other chemicals. According to the EPA, there are now between 23,000 and 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows in this country each year, and 3.5 million Americans get sick just from swimming in polluted water. Meanwhile, a whopping 40 percent of our lakes and rivers are too polluted to support recreational activities and aquatic life.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that we need to invest at least $188.4 billion over the next five years just to make our water systems safe and reliable. That translates into a lot of jobs: roughly 2 million. Investments in our water infrastructure would also generate an estimated $265.6 billion in economic activity. By using green infrastructure -- like permeable pavement, rain gardens, constructed wetlands, and green roofs -- we can slash energy demand and fight climate change. This type of green infrastructure also helps make communities more resilient in the face of extreme weather, by helping regulate urban temperatures, reducing flooding, and offsetting drought.

As we regenerate jobs in the manufacturing, infrastructure, and clean energy fields, we'll need more workers trained to do them -- and we need to make sure people of color and low-income communities have access to opportunities, and that the jobs pay living wages. That's why the President's focus on investing in job skills, making college more affordable, and raising the minimum wage is so important.

Finally, the president has said that he wants to cut the deficit in a balanced way. There are two steps we can take that will help us address the deficit -- while also dealing with our climate crisis. First, we need to end subsidies to big polluters. The oil industry rakes in the biggest profits in the world, yet continues to ask American taxpayers for handouts. We could save roughly $8 billion a year by cutting fossil fuel subsidies. Second, we need to put a price on carbon pollution. A $20 per ton price on carbon could generate roughly $1.25 trillion over ten years.

For too long, the fossil fuel industry has passed its costs along to the rest of us in the form of contaminated air and water, and the health problems that come with them. We're paying the price with increased superstorms, drought, and disasters. It's time to change that.

We have a golden opportunity right now. But we need to use it wisely. If we revive our manufacturing sector, but do nothing to protect Americans from climate change and pollution, we will have failed. If we create jobs, but pay lousy wages, and continue to leave vulnerable communities behind, we will have failed. We have a chance transform America's economy, and we need to do it right. If we do, we will leave a legacy of cleaner air and water, healthier, safer communities, and broader prosperity for everyone.