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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/5/2009 6:20:24 PM ET 2009-05-05T22:20:24

Environmentalists and labor advocates have contended for years that environmentally sound policies would create thousands of jobs — stockpiling arguments like firewood for the day when someone in Washington would light the match.

On Feb. 17, the Obama administration tossed in $40 billion worth of matches.

President Barack Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan is intended to revive the economy, largely by putting people back to work. A hefty chunk of that money, $40 billion, is aimed directly at creating what the administration calls “green jobs.”

“I know energy efficiency companies (and) weatherization firms are gearing up to take advantage of those recovery dollars,” said Van Jones, Obama’s special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “Those dollars are moving out into states and cities. There is already a lot of activity ahead of the complete disbursement of those dollars.”

Experts agree that the jobs are real, they’re nationwide and they’re multiplying. There are 750,000 to 4 million green jobs available in America, but “everyone is predicting growth in this sector,” Jones said.

While some involve launching new products or companies, most green jobs are traditional jobs with a green twist. Energy efficiency, especially for building retrofitting, and renewable energy are where the most opportunities for immediate employment can be found, said Jones.

“We have a Saudi Arabia of renewable energy in our country: solar, wind, smart biofuels, geothermal,” said Jones. “We know that renewable energy jobs across the country will be coming on line with more force. That includes solar energy in the Sunbelt, wind energy production in the Plains states and off our coast, smart biofuels in the Southeast and the Midwest, and geothermal everywhere.”

Other hot spots to watch:

People know there are green workers in these industries, but no one can say how many or who is counting them.

Right now, it’s easier to follow the money than the head count. As in the early years of computers or HDTVs, it takes time to sort out consistent definitions and standards in this new sector, said Jones. At present, there is no national consensus on what defines a green job, which jobs count, which industries are in or who is in charge of counting.

“The administration is working on getting more clarity and consistency with regard to this question,” Jones said. “ Any time there is a new development in the economy, it takes a while before there are consistent definitions and standards in that new sector. … That is going to be one of the roles of the administration.”

When the White House Task Force on Middle Class Families, led by Vice President Joe Biden, began in February, its first order of business was to evaluate green jobs as a tool to strengthen the middle class. The task force broadly defined green jobs as employment that involves some task associated with improving the environment; providing a sustainable family wage, health and retirement benefits, and decent working conditions; and encompassing diverse workers from across the spectrum of race, gender and ethnicity.

“That is not a given,” said Kate Gordon, co-director of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, environmental and community leaders working for a clean energy revolution that they believe will create millions of high-quality, American green-collar jobs.

“You have to make a conscious policy choice for any job to be a good job. Things like labor standards, health and safety requirements, you have to put those into place,” Gordon said. “A lot of the emerging green jobs are good jobs because there is an advocacy group pushing for that to happen. There are a lot of people focusing on making sure the green economy is a good economy.”

Gordon and some labor activists — notably the giant AFL-CIO — are concerned that public policies and increased demands are creating more jobs overseas because the American manufacturing sector isn’t ready yet.

But “the administration is committed to creating as many jobs as possible in the green sector,” Jones said.

The green jobs movement is gaining ground because shoppers, business owners, labor unions, lawmakers, environmentalists and community leaders are planting seeds, saying green jobs are an ideal tool to solve multiple problems.

“It is not just a California thing. It is a nationwide thing. Each region has its strengths. And there are some amazing things going on around the country,” Gordon said.

Jen Boulden and Heather Stephenson, co-founders of IdealBite.com, have been reviewing those amazing things since 2005, and they believe green products have been growing and getting better every year.

Their daily e-mail connects “enlightened” companies with consumers who want to make small changes to save the planet. In the beginning, armed with a strict editorial review process and insightful wit, the pair scouted co-ops for green products worthy of the Ideal Bite bump. In the early days, it was slim pickings.

Today, they employ 25 people, produce seven daily e-mail editions (one national edition, five city editions and a moms’ edition) and still have reviews left over. There are plenty of new, quality green products to choose from these days, especially food, bath and body, cleaning products and DIY (Do It Yourself), they said.

“If you want to get a green job or start a green business, you do not have to get up and move to do it,” Stephenson said. “…You are going to find pockets of these things all over the country. …

“There are opportunities everywhere. It is going to take time, opportunity and effort. People looking back — people are going to marvel at how rich a vein the green movement was to tap.”

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