At the outset of the nuclear era, Albert Einstein said, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” The same could be said today regarding global warming. Fortunately, we’re getting some glimmerings of a change in the modes of thinking both in the labor movement and elsewhere.
It’s hardly surprising that government, business, and labor all are reacting to global warming in terms of their long-established assumptions and policies. Changing the way we think will be hard – and success is far from inevitable. But the devastating scientific reports that preceded the UN negotiations for a new climate change treaty that just opened in Bali are doing a lot to concentrate the mind.
Recognition of the need for drastic change is coming from some unexpected quarters. When the environmental office of Britain’s Prince Charles hastily asked top world business leaders to sign the“Bali Communiqué” demanding that government leaders take “strong, early action on climate change,” the results were unprecedented. Officials from more than 150 companies with nearly $4 trillion in market capitalization signed on in the first three weeks. They included officials from Shell UK, GE International, Coca-Cola, DuPont, United Technologies, Rolls Royce, Nestle, Unilever, British Airways, and Volkswagen. Besides companies based in the US, the EU, and Australia, the Communiqué was signed by such Chinese companies as Shanghai Electric, Zhufeng Technology, and Suntech.
The Bali Communiqué states that “The scientific evidence is now overwhelming. Climate change presents very serious global social, environmental and economic risks and it demands an urgent global response. As business leaders, it is our belief that the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs of not acting.”
The Communiqué maintains that costs of unabated climate change could be very severe and globally disruptive for all countries, especially the poorest; the costs of action are manageable, “especially if guided by a common international vision”; delay will only increase the risks; and the shift to a low-carbon economy will create billions of dollars in business opportunities. All countries must play their part, but “the greatest effort must be made by those countries that have already industrialized.” They declare that “tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy" whereas “Ignoring it will ultimately undermine economic growth.”
The business leaders called for an “ambitious, international and comprehensive legally-binding United Nations agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” They said that “the overall targets for emissions reduction must be guided primarily by science.” (The accompanying press release notes that “this is in contrast to the argument that has previously been made by some parts of the business community that it is concerns over competitiveness and cost that should set the limit of emissions cuts.”) They note that a recent international report on climate change called for a 50 percent cut in emissions by 2050; Richard Barrington of Sun Microsystems in the UK and Ireland says, “That’s the minimum order of what we’re looking for.”
There may well be agendas behind this statement other than a sincere desire to reduce global warming. By demanding government action, some corporations may hope to deflect criticism of their own contributions to global warming. Some may hope to gain from the creation of “carbon markets.” Some may hope to gain by legitimating nuclear, biofuel, coal gasification, and other potentially harmful energy sources. Their pledge to “engage positively with governments” to help build “a low carbon economy” should certainly be welcomed, but it should also be used as a benchmark for evaluating their actual behavior.
If global warming is a drastic problem for business, it certainly is at least as drastic for labor. Global warming, and the measures taken to address it, will change the way we live and in particular the way we work. Both will inevitably have a huge impact on organized labor.
In this context, the good news is that more of organized labor in the U.S. is beginning to engage with the issue. Just the fact that, for the first time, there will be a U.S. labor delegation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is a good sign. Bob Baugh, head of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Council, chair of its Energy Task Force, and a delegate to Bali wrote in a comment on our recent post “Labor Goes to Bali,”
We have been deeply engaged on multiple levels with the climate change issue because the labor movement sees it as an opportunity for a cleaner planet and a revitalized manufacturing sector.
Baugh urges readers to take a look at the statements of the AFL-CIO Energy Task Force. We do too. As Baugh says, they include a lot of constructive criticism about how a cap and trade system can and should work – an Achilles heel of mainstream carbon reduction strategy. And they include concrete proposals for how resources should be invested in the struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, it is startling to compare the position of America’s largest labor federation with those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC, participated in by 2,500 scientists who were recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work), the International Trade Union Confederation (representing 168 million working men and women in 153 countries), and the Bali Communiqué of the global business leaders.
In a letter November 5 to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the AFL-CIO condemned the “overly aggressive Phase 1 emissions reduction target” in the proposed Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act. That target was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The letter also condemned the legislation’s commitment to a 70 percent national emission reduction below 2005 levels by 2050.
The IPCC scenario, in comparison, calls for an 85 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The ITUC endorsed this scenario, and added that developed countries should agree to further cuts, taking as a benchmark the EU’s proposal for a 30 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020. The global business leaders’ Bali Communiqué stated that overall targets for emissions reduction “must be guided primarily by science;” a spokesperson said that a 50 percent cut by 2050 was the least they were looking for.
Individual U.S. unions have also joined the climate debate. As part of a long-standing concern with environmental issues, the Steelworkers (USW – part of the AFL-CIO and the Industrial Union Council) have been way out in front on this issue. They recently formed a “Blue-Green Alliance” with the Sierra Club to push for alternative energy strategies. The Alliance is demanding that political candidates support policies that will lead to a 2 percent reduction in carbon emissions every year. If started today, that would equal the 85 percent by 2050 cut proposed by the IPCC.
Gerry Hudson, Executive Vice President of the Service Employees (SEIU), issued a statement prior to leaving for Bali saying that, “The accumulated scientific evidence leaves no doubt that climate change is an imminent threat that requires immediate, collective and decisive action at the global level. This ongoing environmental crisis will affect millions of workers’ communities and workplaces for generations to come.”
Hudson called for “transitional measures” to protect workers affected by climate change measures. “We must provide job training or re-training, and seek to diversify the economies of communities that currently depend heavily on energy-intensive industries.” He pledged that SEIU will use its influence to press U.S. elected officials to “support emission restrictions, and make investments in clean energy and quality green job creation. Such policies will reduce poverty and contribute to sustainable economic growth.”
At the least, these positions provide an opportunity for discussion and education on global warming both among labor leaders and the rank and file. A decision to initiate such a dialogue within labor would be a worthy task for those returning from Bali. Such a dialogue would make it much easier for the national labor federations to move beyond the limited vision of particular economic sectors to develop policies that protect the workers in those sectors in ways that also protect the broad interests of all working people against the threat of climate change.
Jonathan Tasini, who will represent the Labor Research Association in the international labor delegation to Bali, reports that “the delegation hopes to articulate labor's position about the threat to the planet” in a statement that already exists in draft form.
Such a statement would provide American labor, and specifically the AFL-CIO, a unique opportunity to vault to the front of the global parade that is forming to fight global warming. It would also allow the labor movement to become a vehicle for holding global corporations accountable to the commitments they seem to be making.
Y.R., M.O., N.H.