02/20/2013 09:51 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Feeding Two Birds With One Hand

It's conventional wisdom that the U.S. was pulled out of the Great Depression and deposited on top of decades of prosperity by the industrial expansion required to fight World War II. Over the last decade, the U.S. has attempted several times to stimulate the economy through tax cuts and increased investments -- but few jobs have followed. If climate change is the new Hitler, as Bill McKibben declared in "Obama vs. physics," perhaps your solar installer is the new Rosie the Riveter. By addressing the climate crisis, the President can also create jobs.

In clean tech, not wanting to kill birds with stones, we call this "feeding two birds with one hand."

As a civilization, we can no longer afford to treat jobs and climate as an "either/or" proposition. We hear a lot about "job-killing regulations." This is very dated thinking. Less regulation can promote industrial inefficiency, decreased innovation and job loss. For example, the coal industry in Appalachia employs ever-fewer people to extract energy by leveraging enormous machines, powerful explosives and toxic chemicals to level the mountains and isolate the coal. Regulations that restrict mountain-top removal, such as the Clean Water Act, might reduce corporate profits, as this type of extraction is less expensive than underground mining, but it would not kill jobs. The "jobless recovery" has showed us that increasing corporate profits and employing more people are not the same activity. Achieving higher employment is a different result.

President Obama has vowed to address climate change and has sidestepped some of the bickering over the jobs issue by now framing it as a moral imperative, noting in his second inaugural address that "failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."

Insane weather like Superstorm Sandy is driving this home to the American people: If your Manhattan bedroom is under 6 feet of water (and can be again), or millions of cows can't find one green blade of grass because of drought, or all the polar bears die because we lose the Arctic sea ice, do we really care if the solution creates jobs? Not really, we don't.

But the fact is, the president and Congress can recognize the moral imperative and create a new prosperous society, because the solution does create jobs. Two birds. One hand.

One of the most effective ways to fight climate change is to stop using fossil fuels and deploy clean tech capturing solar, wind and other renewable energies. The Wall Street Journal noted a study by DBL Investors in September saying that clean tech has created 2.7 million jobs, many of them in conservative, "red" areas of the country. Forbes sorted through the many competing studies on green jobs and said recently it was "inarguable" that clean tech was growing rapidly and producing good numbers of jobs. One of our favorite pieces is this one by Hamish McKenzie at Pando Daily, deploying lots of graphs showing that "high-tech" industries (including clean tech) were creating more jobs than any other sector, and in particular STEM occupations -- science, technology, engineering and math -- had outpaced all other occupations by a ratio of 27 to 1.

Obama can expand this trend with investment and commitment, but it will take political will: building a real jobs boom will mean not just supporting big utilities as they site huge solar concentrating plants in the desert, or building giant biofuel installations, but facilitating "distributed" solutions. The answer to climate change has to be in every home. Car companies don't make their money selling fleets to UPS; they make money selling two or more cars to every family in America. Similarly, the real jobs boom comes when every family has a solar array, installs high-efficiency appliances, and demands public infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

Filling this demand creates a job boom. Creating that demand requires policy.

Hawaii shows us how this works: According to a just-released study by University of Hawaii economist Dr. Thomas Loudat, the island state receives $2.67 in sales tax revenue for every $1 it spends on its solar tax credit program. State legislators have argued that the program is too expensive and should be curtailed. But the study also found that, for every buck in tax credit, $7.15 stays in the Hawaiian economy and creates $55.03 in additional sales -- and each commercial PV installation creates 2.7 local jobs per year over the 30-year lifetime of the system. Those are good returns.

And it's not just local. The opportunity is global. Sen. John Kerry brought this all into clear focus during his recent confirmation hearings as Secretary of State. Citing the bad storms, he emphasized clean tech as the solution, saying, "I will be a passionate advocate on this, but not based on ideology, based on facts. Based on science. And I hope to sit with all of you and convince you that this $6 trillion market is worth millions of American jobs and leadership and we better go after it."

He added: "You want to do business and do it well in America? We gotta get into the energy race."

We hope the man who nominated him, President Obama, shares this passion.