Two Numbers: One Matters, the Other Gets All the Attention

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Garvin Jabusch

This morning, in the realm of those who follow such things, the world became aware of two newsworthy numbers, 69,000 and 400.  The former number is how many jobs were added to the U.S. economy in May according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); the latter is how many parts per million (ppm) in our atmosphere are represented by carbon. 

You can guess our opinion: 400 parts per million is a far more significant milestone than the apparent ‘bad news’ of America adding 69,000 more jobs.

The jobs number is, at best, banal ephemera. It’s a trivially short snapshot of just one indicator of the immediate state of the U.S. economy, and it’ll be subject to revision a month from now.  Yet it’s almost all the financial press, and a lot of media in general, can talk about today.  Coverage like this from the LA Times is representative: “U.S. employers created 69,000 jobs in May, the fewest in a year, and the unemployment rate ticked up. The dismal jobs figures could fan fears that the economy is sputtering.”  Google news search the term “69,000 jobs” and you’ll see about 900 articles, most containing words like “bleak.” For what it’s worth, we think adding 69,000 domestic jobs in May, while below consensus forecasts, is a hell of a lot better than the alternative of losing jobs. Which, lest we forget, until October of 2009 there were 22 consecutive months of job losses. In relative, longer-view terms, today’s report isn’t especially awful. And again, for all the histrionics it’s causing in newsrooms, the BLS jobs report has the relevance lifespan of a mosquito. 

Unemployment Chart

Monthly jobs gained or lost, Jan 2008-March 2010. Source: BLS 

Meanwhile, in news that does in fact represent progress towards a cataclysm but that has been getting far less coverage, atmospheric carbon “readings are coming in at 400 and higher all over the Arctic. They’ve been recorded in Alaska, GreenlandNorwayIceland and even Mongolia.” 400 ppm is at or beyond what scientists consider ‘safe’ in terms of human society. In reporting of a 2009 paper in the journal Science, researchers concluded “the only time in the last 20 million years that we find evidence for carbon dioxide levels similar to the [then] modern level of 387 parts per million was 15 to 20 million years ago, when the planet was dramatically different.” How different? “Global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland.” Having just reached 400 ppm, our world doesn’t resemble that yet, but these are the society and economy wrecking outcomes of the path we have placed ourselves upon.  With these effects being the outcome of a sustained period at 400 ppm, it’s no wonder many activists are calling for a global stabilized level of 350 ppm.  As we go on beyond 400 ppm (a fate inevitable for now, as we continue to release 90 million tons per day of carbon into the air worldwide), things get far worse. According to NASA’s leading climate scientist, James Hanson, “that level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

Fixating on the monthly BLS jobs report while ignoring climate is like staring at your car’s tachometer while ignoring the road.  You’ll know exactly how fast your engine is revving at any given moment, but you’ll be oblivious to the collapsed bridge that’s rushing up in front of you.  

Jobs, of course, underpin the economy. So if creating jobs is our primary concern, we should seek to add them where they’re growing best and take a look at coverage of a new UN study that concludes that making the economic transition from fossil fuels to a lower carbon economy will create tens of millions of jobs worldwide.  Creating tens of millions of jobs while averting the worst of catastrophic warming. These are data we can subscribe to. Tentative monthly jobs estimate? Not as much.   Hitting 400 ppm shows us – incontrovertibly – where global economies have to invest at massive scale, soon, and for a long time if not indefinitely. 69,000 new jobs shows us where we were, for a second, last May.  

Garvin Jabusch is cofounder and chief investment officer of Green Alpha ® Advisors, and is co-manager of the Green Alpha ® Next Economy Index, or GANEX and the Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio. He also authors the blog Green


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