With President Obama promising long overdue action on the climate crisis, I decided to address the ongoing tensions between elements of the global labor and environmental movements in this talk I gave last week at the 7th International Conference on Labor Law and Social Security in Havana, Cuba. Much of it is based on work I did with Roger Toussaint at the TWU.
In the United States, the corporate-controlled media has cast the labor and environmental movements as bitter enemies in a struggle over jobs versus the environment. And there have been sharp divisions between some unions and environmental organizations, most recently over the future of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport so-called bitumen sands from Canada through the United States to refineries on the Gulf Coast, where the bitumen sands would be processed into petroleum, largely for export.
Yet the reality, when one looks more closely, is that these movements are not only natural allies, they must both succeed for either movement to survive. It is a myth that Union members do not support a safe and healthy environment. Union members don’t only want their working environments to be safe and healthy, they want healthy communities and a healthy planet for themselves, their children and their grandchildren.
We also share the same enemies. The missionaries of market fundamentalism and the deniers of climate science are the very same forces that are attacking unions and holding the global economy hostage in their effort to destroy the safety net for people around the world. The billionaire Koch Brothers, who have bankrolled both the attacks on the labor movement and climate science denial in the United States, are but one example.
It is no exaggeration to say that taking the lead in responding to climate change represents labor’s greatest opportunity to rebuild the labor movement by helping to build the green economy of the 21st century.
Let me put it bluntly. The climate crisis is a dagger aimed at the heart of the trade union movement. It is a job destroyer. For years, there has been an overwhelming scientific consensus that humans burning fossil fuels are pouring so-called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate that has caused an unprecedented and potentially devastating threat to life on this planet. Specifically, scientists agree that if the global temperature increases 2⁰ Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, the effects of the climate crisis on the planet and human life will become irreversible, with crop failures, water shortages, sea-level rises, species extinctions and increased disease. Hundreds of millions of workers around the world will suffer permanent job losses as a result of damage to infrastructure for water, energy, transportation and public health, as well as important economic sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism. A landmark 2007 study on the economics of climate change, known as the Stern Review, concluded that global warming, if left unchecked, would lead to a massive economic downturn comparable to the combined effects of the two world wars and the Great Depression of the 20th century. Yet the greenhouse gases humanity has already put in the atmosphere will raise global temperatures by 2⁰ even if we stop producing carbon today.
Many more vulnerable countries have been experiencing the impacts of the climate crisis for years. While the crisis is a long-term phenomenon, with short-term variations in temperature, in the United States, we have recently suffered through consecutive years of record heat, devastating hurricanes and forest fires, which scientists agree have been made much worse by the climate crisis. For example, scientists say that the combination of higher sea levels and more intense storm surge attributable to the climate crisis added about 15” to the flooding in lower Manhattan from Hurricane Sandy, which drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and closed many offices for weeks, including my own.
When it comes to the future of the planet, we all have “skin in the game.”
The only way to stop the doomsday scenario from happening is to dramatically reduce fossil fuel production and consumption and transition to clean energy sources, beginning immediately. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently said, “we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now.” Specifically, the world’s scientists agree that, to keep the global temperature increase under 2 degrees, humanity must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by the year 2020, and by 80% below those levels by 2050. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
That is why the International Trade Union Confederation, at its 2009 Congress in Vancouver, unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a fair, ambitious and binding international climate change agreement and just transition policy aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and dependence on fossil fuels while improving people’s living standards. The ITUC specifically called for the reduction in ghg emissions necessary to limit the global rise in temperature to a maximum of 2°C, and expressed “strong support” for precisely the dramatic emissions reductions called for by the world’s scientists.
This is a very tall order. We cannot get there without making a profound transition, beginning right now, from a global economy that is dominated by market fundamentalists who defy any consideration of the public good, towards a more sustainable economic future based upon fairer, more equitable, healthier societies. And we have to protect miners, power plant workers and other workers who will be impacted by climate protection measures as part of the transition.
This necessity provides the biggest and perhaps only real opportunity for growth of the labor movement over the next generation. Achieving the goal of a fair, ambitious and binding global climate agreement will make it necessary to retool and re-engineer the entire global economy. If done properly, this retooling will lead to a massive expansion of jobs. To save our movement and our planet, we need to build a massive global social movement with the power to force governments to generate policies and funding for millions of “climate jobs” that will help us make the transition to a low carbon economy. We need millions of new jobs in railroad and pipeline repair, public transit, bridge construction and repair, energy conservation, upgrading the grid, and developing alternative fuels and energy sources, among others. These are jobs that can help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency.
It is past time for massive public investments in infrastructure modernization and repair and climate protection as a means of putting people to work and laying the foundations of a more sustainable economic future. Such work can be a central part of building a new energy system, saving our water infrastructure, building a new transportation system, and constructing sustainable cities – everything that’s necessary to halt human destruction of the climate.
On a second front, the environmental justice movement, the struggle to fairly address the disparate impact of environmental devastation on poor and working class people, communities of color, indigenous people and emerging nations, is a huge intersection and popular front touching on the core concerns of billions of people. It has created an enormous opportunity to advance a social justice agenda on a scale we’ve never seen before.
The simultaneous and closely related crises of the environment and of the economy ought to have been a nail in the coffin of the neoliberalism of the last few decades. Instead we see a resurgence of market fundamentalism in the austerity policies being implemented throughout Europe, the United States, and parts of the Americas and the Caribbean that have not yet experienced their own versions of the Bolivarian revolution. These forces of austerity are seeking to dismantle both the social safety net and the very notion that Governments have fundamental obligations to their citizens to ensure decent work, food, housing, health, and lives free of conditions that oppress the human spirit.
The resurgence of austerity and market fundamentalism suggests that, so far, labor and the other movements for social justice have failed to build the capacity to use the opening created by the global economic and environmental crises to build the momentum to drive the economic transition we need.
Over the last century and more, the labor movement often displayed the ability to anticipate and greatly impact, if not lead, emerging social movements and literally change the world on behalf of those who work for and have stood on the side of equality, liberation from oppression, and progress. The difficulty we see in labor taking its place at the front of the environmental and climate justice movements, in my country and other countries, is a matter of grave concern. We cannot simply view the call for environmental and climate justice as an irritant and take the attitude that it is fine to let the floods come – as long as it is after our watch is over. It is vital for the very survival of labor that we rise to the occasion.
Sectors of the environmental movement, for their part, do not yet fully appreciate the need to move jobs and decent work to the core of their agendas. They must join us in the fight, as some are, for a just transition that protects the well-being of workers and communities who may be hurt by side-effects of climate protection policies. Every time environmentalists fight to shut down a fossil fuel production facility they must fight just as hard for new union jobs that protect the futures of the workers and communities whose livelihoods come from fossil fuel production.
Naturally, there is tension between these positions. We need to confront these differences, allow space to have the conversation, and allow some time for them to play themselves out. As precious and rare as it is, we need to “give time time.” Because time is in fact short and events are fast moving, my sense is that the course of events will either help our movements sober and awaken, or render some of us irrelevant and obsolete.
Strategically, the environmental and climate justice movements need to join in demanding that governments take up their obligations to provide quality public services, including decent work, clean water, health care, education, transportation and access to culture. While people are increasingly aware of environmental impacts, they still tend to connect them to their self-interests only in a remote sense. One challenge is to work on the language and conversation about environmental and climate justice so that what people actually hear with their “inner ear” moves them to action; so that environmental justice becomes the “human rights” issue of this generation.
To accomplish this, we in labor must more aggressively educate our ranks and incorporate environmental and climate justice demands not only into our contract negotiations connected to the health, safety and opportunities of our members, but into our work to build strong coalitions standing together with broader communities.
To conclude, the fight to defend and extend the concept of the “public good” and the struggles for climate and environmental justice are cutting edge issues that separate a serious, forward looking unionism that builds broad coalitions to defend our longer term interests, and the brand of trade unionism that pursues only short-term, narrowly conceived self-interest. The labor movement has to remain a change agent. If we confine ourselves to the current so-called realities, we lose. Historically, change has always sprung from people who saw beyond their current time and place, never from those who confined themselves to the politically possible as defined by the powers-that-be. Systemic change has never been “realistic”. It is both impossible and necessary. Together, we can do it. Si se puede!