The Energy Transition and the Working Class

Is Biden right? Can we attack climate change while uplifting the lives of workers?

In most of the world, May 1 is International Worker’s Day. It celebrates the collective struggle of workers for better wages and working conditions. That made me start thinking about the efforts that have been made to unite climate action with the interests of workers.  That has been a particular emphasis of the Biden Administration and is reflected in recent spending laws.

From the start of his administration, Biden has linked jobs and workplace issues with climate action.

Soon after taking office, Biden issued an executive order on “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.” Several sections of the order had the phrase “empowering workers” in their titles. At the time, the NY Times reported that Biden “said his agenda would create ‘prevailing wage’ employment and union jobs for workers to build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes, to manufacture and install a half-million new electric-vehicle charging stations, and to seal off one million leaking oil and gas wells.”  In announcing the order, Biden said, “Today is climate day in the White House which means today is jobs day at the White House.”

The more recent Inflation Reduction Act provides upwards of $370 billion in incentives for clean energy projects. The incentives are structured to encourage domestic production of various clean tech products. According to Jessie HF Hammerling at the UC Berkeley Labor Center,

“In addition to prioritizing domestic production, the IRA includes strong incentives for employers to pay good wages and benefits. Throughout the law, tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects are five times higher if work performed by contractors and subcontractors is paid at prevailing wage rates, using registered apprentices and journeymen workers.”

The incentives for apprenticeship programs may be especially significant, as Hammerling goes on to explain:

“Apprenticeship programs are industry-driven and industry-funded, long-term, paid training programs. The most well-developed apprenticeship programs are in the building and construction trades, which are typically run by a joint labor-management committee involving unions and employers. Most programs are four to five years and involve both on-the-job and classroom instruction.”

The optimistic scenario is that IRA will stimulate exponential growth in the clean energy sector while creating the workforce needed to support further growth. In the process, the labor provisions of the law could improve the lives of millions of Americans, reduce the sense of alienation experienced by many working-class people, and build political support for further climate action.

There are a number of ways this could go wrong. The Republicans are currently during their best to eliminate this boon for American workers.  Assuming their effort fails, the most obvious risk is that higher labor costs could drive up the price for clean energy technologies from solar panels to EVs and substantial slow the energy transition. That would have serious repercussions for climate policy. A slower transition would also mean a slower-growing workforce, undermining the goals of the labor provisions themselves.

Thus, the IRA is a major experiment that could produce economic transformation or fizzle out. The result will probably be somewhere in-between, but a lot will turn on exactly where we come out on the spectrum between total success and abject failure.


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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “The Energy Transition and the Working Class”

  1. Prof. Farber, academics keep proving that they don’t know how to communicate/have conversations with the public, and treating us like we are “Impure” (per Hofstadter) isn’t working.

    If academics can’t figure out how to inform, edcate and motivate the public to make the right things happen in time, how shall we ever survive this Age of Chaos (including Out of Control Worldwide Climate Change disasters, mass murders almost every day that are enabled by politicians/SCOTUS, political Civil Wars in Washington, Denial of Women’s Rights by politicians/SCOTUS, The Power of Money over politicians/SCOTUS, and failures to protect and perpetuate an acceptable quality of life for our newest generations, no wonder we have out of control mental health problems)!?

    Can our Best and Brightest academics today do anything about that, with the greatest sense of urgency, especially since we don’t know how much time we have left the way things are going wrong today?

    1. Prof. Farber, I just received some L&S information on Big Ideas Courses such as Climate Change and the Future of California, and Sense and Sensibility and Science. The courses as described were extremely interesting and the first thought that came to me after reading the L&S letter and information on my PC is have any of these courses been able to solve the most destructive problems the human race may have to experience to prevent the end of our civilization?

      Is there any emphasis on information for and conversations with We The People to help us overcome these problems with the greatest sense of urgency because time is running out, if not already out based on current events of increasingly out of control destruction of our planet and peoples around the world already?

      Do any of the faculty members, especially course instructors, have any successful experience in successfully implementing solutions to our problems so the students can immediately maximize their successes because we are out of time for trial and error?

      And, will faculty and students be capable of supporting the IRA to produce immediate economic transformation?

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more