There was a time when the British Columbia Liberal Party had some vision for how the government might reshape the provincial economy to provide good jobs and benefit the environment, said Mark Jaccard, a professor of environmental economics at Simon Fraser University.
"Prior to Christy Clark, Gordon Campbell did contact me from time to time," said Jaccard in a phone interview from Washington, DC where he was attending a meeting. "Green jobs from reducing greenhouse gasses in our province were something BC Liberals talked a lot about. She has changed the discourse."
With the May 14 election taking place this week, British Columbians are set to decide between competing ideas of what the province might be like. All the parties of course say they are for plentiful jobs, but the conversation about what kind of jobs those might be has been limited.
While the BC Liberals have stepped away from envisioning a greener economy, the NDP is saying little to fill the void, according to observers.
"I am rather sickened and disgusted that the jobs from fossil fuel development [theme] has been so dominant in B.C.," said Jaccard. Clark is betting heavily on future revenues from liquified natural gas, something that might have something to do with the presence of people like former oil and gas executive Gwyn Morgan in Clark's inner circle, he said.
"Christy Clark is just this huge contradiction to me," Jaccard said. On the one hand she's talking about creating jobs and eliminating debt for our children and grandchildren. On the other she's championing development of a "toxic" resource that will increase global warming and degrade the environment for those future generations, he said.
"Why would you want those jobs?" he asked. A government could create jobs mining plutonium, producing heroin or building land mines, but it shouldn't, he said. "For me, it's the wrong kind of job creation."
Jobs, jobs, jobs, but what kind?
In the run up to the election, it was clear the battle would be fought on jobs and the economy, as elections in B.C. generally are. Polls consistently find the economy is rated as the top issue by the largest number of people, and Clark had started campaigning on her BC Jobs Plan as early as Sept. 2011.
Throughout the campaign, Clark has painted the NDP as being against development and business, a case helped by leader Adrian Dix's Earth Day announcement of opposition to the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline to Burnaby and the resulting increase in tanker traffic. The move was applauded by environmental groups, but gave Clark and the Liberals a talking point.
That debate highlighted the need for the NDP to have another way to talk about jobs, one that meshed with environmentalism, a territory that in B.C. has generally belonged to the Green Party.
"I certainly haven't seen [green jobs] discussed in any significant way," said Shane Gunster, a professor in the school of communication at SFU. "I think that's really surprising given that it would be such an ideal counter story [for the NDP]."
While the parties no doubt mention "green jobs" in their platforms, they've done little to highlight the idea. For the NDP in particular, it would be a way to address Clark's LNG push, he said.
"It would be quite valuable to have a conversation about what kinds of activities produce the most jobs and the best kind of jobs," he said. Oil and gas investment is a relatively inefficient way to produce jobs, compared to something like building retrofits, he said. "It seems like that kind of narrative could work for them on so many levels."
NDP allies laid groundwork for green jobs
Instead the election debate has been stuck in the old narrative of jobs versus the environment, Gunster said. The BC Liberals have tied job creation to resource development and portrayed the NDP as being opposed, he said. "To me as a communication person there are so many opportunities to pushing a green jobs agenda."
The lack of discussion of green jobs may have to do with the mainstream media's laziness in framing questions about jobs and the environment, he said.
But it's also the NDP's failure to push it harder, he said. "It seems like the NDP has been worried about being tarred with an anti-development brush," he said. "Maybe they think playing a green jobs card would make it look like the NDP are not really for resource development jobs."
Allies of the NDP started some time ago to build a response that would give Dix and the NDP another way to talk about jobs. You see it in the September 2012 summit that brought together labour and environmental groups to find common ground. Or in the make up of the Green Jobs BC group.
And in an opinion piece environmentalist David Suzuki and BC Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair co-authored for the Vancouver Sun last month that argued B.C. could do better on both climate change and employment.
The same kind of language can be found in the NDP's platform. The party's first key priority is to "Create jobs, build a prosperous and sustainable economy and increase the number of skilled workers."
The NDP platform mentions retrofits, though it doesn't describe them as the "energy conservation megaproject" Dix outlined in his leadership bid and they are lumped into a $120 million line item over three years that also includes transit and "green projects."
The BC Liberal platform, by the way, talks about B.C. companies being "at the leading edge of the green economy" and continuing to build a clean energy sector, but those parts are overshadowed by sections promoting LNG and trade with Asia.
Major action needed
Will Horter, the executive director of the Dogwood Initiative environmental group, said he prefers the term "clean jobs" rather than "green jobs." He said, "People think of white rastafarians selling coffee at Starbucks."
While Dix may not have talked much about clean jobs, "He talked a lot more about climate change than I anticipated he would" and has committed to meeting the province's legislated targets for reducing carbon emissions.
"They're going to need some big ticket items to achieve that," said Horter, referencing a report that showed a 30 per cent gap between the province's expected emissions and the targets if everything stays the same, not including increased gas extraction. "There's no little adjustments that get you to close that gap in the remaining years."
The government will have to do something such as a major retrofit program to make buildings more energy efficient, he said. It could be done through things like municipal local improvement bonds or incentives to the private sector, he said. "It doesn't have to be a government driven process."
Horter said he figures Dix is being cautious about what he chooses to highlight. "He seems like a guy who really wants to do what he says," he said. "He's not one of those politicians who throws out an idea every five minutes. Not like Christy."
There is much potential for cleaner jobs in a thriving economy, said SFU's Jaccard. In 2007 the Campbell government, as it rewrote its energy plan, stopped two coal plants and a 600 megawatt gas plant. Instead it replaced the electricity production with sources such as run of the river hydro and wood waste. Jaccard allowed those sources aren't environmentally benign, but said they produce no greenhouse gas emissions.
One of his students investigated and found the greener power sources produced three times as many jobs as the sources they replaced, he said.
Those kinds of stories are hard to find in the press, something Jaccard said may have to do with the fossil fuel industry's influence on the media.
"It's just overwhelming," he said. Article after article talks about jobs from coal, oil, gas, a proposed refinery in Kitimat or LNG, he said. Advertorials masquerade as news stories, he said. "You really feel like there's this tsunami of messaging coming on fossil fuel jobs."
As much as the NDP and Green parties talk about other sources of jobs, "I do see they're fighting an uphill battle," he said.
Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief. This article was originally published in The Tyee and is reprinted here with permission.
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