COP 21: Unions sow the seeds of labor to yield green jobs

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PARIS -- As the UN Climate Conference (COP 21) continues, the Trade Union Forum on Climate and Jobs debuted today at Climate Generations. Trade unions gathered with their allies and with one another to discuss the ever-looming dark cloud that is climate change, and how to find a silver lining within it, by creating clean jobs that sustain the labor movement and reduce or eliminate harm to the environment. While that's no easy task and there's a long road ahead for workers and activists, labor leaders presented real plans and logical solutions.

The key word today was "transition," and the ensuing question was, how do workers prepare for the adjustments that will have to be made as the world moves away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy? It was a question that had to be asked, and the Trade Union Forum, an event that began today and which will last through Dec. 7, did just that. First posing that query were members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who shared an assessment report based on their research to reaffirm, once again, that climate change is a real and portentous threat.

Sustainable future a prerequisite for progress

"Climate change is real. The consensus on this is stronger than the consensus that smoking causes cancer," said Jonathan Lynn, head of communications and media relations for the IPCC. "World public opinion has shifted and there is now a greater understanding of this. So a pathway for a sustainable future is a prerequisite for progress. We have to have greener jobs, but at the same time, they have to be unionized and made available to those who become displaced from other work. But we've pissed away a lot of the time we had, and now our window to do this is closing. Unfortunately, there's a lot of money to be made in destroying the planet. Companies like Exxon or people like the Koch Brothers will not deliver a sustainable future."

On the other hand, those who possibly can bring about such a future took center stage as the next phase of the forum, Climate Jobs Now, began. Here, union leaders spoke about the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign, organized by the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union group and supported by eight national unions. Its goal is to create one million green jobs, which would help shift the energy industry to one based on renewables and clean alternatives and which could kick-start the economy.

A social force behind an idea

Andreas Ytterstad, climate activist and leading union member of Concerned Scientists Norway, said that this initiative is important because it would mark a change in how we approach fighting climate change; that it would turn words into action. "If we blow it with climate change," he said, "there will be no shortage of people who say, 'I told you so.' But if we don't do something about climate change, it's probably because we only talked about it. We can't just come up with ideas and discuss them. We have to see what ideas have the potential to move millions to make political leaders act, and we have to find some way of linking the battles of today with the future. Creating green jobs can do that. But to do so, we need to mobilize a social force behind that idea."

"Many of our union members could be affected by climate change," said Clara Paillard, president of the cultural sector of the Public and Commercial Services Union in the United Kingdom. "We need to join in with the environmental movement. As part of the move to create one million climate jobs, we have been looking closely at putting people to work on wind energy, which is very important in the UK, more so than other alternatives. Then there's the building sector, in which we want to create at least 185,000 jobs by developing construction programs for sustainable housing. There are more than one million people in Britain right now who have to choose between heat or food in the winter. There's no reason this should be happening. And then there's the transportation sector - too many trains in Britain still run on diesel, so we need to shift them all to clean energy."

Moving from an industrial age to an ecological age

Tony Clark, member of the Green Economy Network, a labor-environmental coalition in Canada similar to the U.S.-based BlueGreen Alliance, said that the requirements in order to make that kind of shift will be just as massive as one might think. "We have to fundamentally change and move from the industrial age to the ecological age, which cultural historian Thomas Berry once talked about. That means coming to grips with reality and meeting the challenge of creating clean jobs. It's not easy. The problem for us in Canada was that the Harper administration was full of climate deniers. So we had to think of strategies and tactics that didn't try and lobby or convince a government that was committed to moving in the exact opposite direction."

The Harper administration was notorious for its anti-environmentalism, making excessive spending cuts and going so far as to lay off its scientists. The new administration, however, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has decided to move in a decidedly greener direction, with Trudeau criticizing Harper for making Canada a pariah on climate change issues.

"We went through a major change in government," said Clark. "And they're very open to dialogue on these issues. So the lights, for us, have turned on after a long stretch of darkness. Over a five-year period of investing in public renewable energy, energy efficiency and retrofitting, and the expansion of clean public transportation, we could reach our goal and create jobs, while at the same time reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 30 percent. With this strategy, we are actually fighting climate change by also fighting unemployment."

In order to reach the goal of creating one million climate jobs, Paillard said that the United Kingdom, at least, should have a special public service. She remarked, "You know, after World War II in the UK, we enacted the National Health Service," a publically funded healthcare system. "We invested in it, because after the war, there were so many people who were injured and sick, it was an emergency. Well, now there's a climate emergency, and we need a National Climate Service. We always hear that there's no money to do these things, but in the UK we somehow found 800 billion pounds in order to bail out the banks. If the world were a bank, we would have saved it already."

Photo: Left to right - Clara Paillard, Tony Clark, Andreas Ytterstad. | Blake Deppe/PW