Talking about a revolution: Calls for action on global warming, inequality

The latest report of a world scientific panel on global warming has called for what amounts to a social revolution, one of the report’s authors said.

“Here, in the early years of the 21st century, we’re looking for an energy revolution that’s as comprehensive as the one that occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, when we went from gaslight and horse-drawn carriages to light bulbs and automobiles,” Tufts University professor William Moomaw told The New York Times.

The report, issued May 4 by the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, detailed steps that can and must be taken immediately to prevent catastrophic global consequences. Both developed and developing countries must cut heat-trapping carbon emissions and shift away from oil to non-polluting energy sources, the report said.

On May 7, Steelworkers union President Leo Gerard threw down a working-class challenge, telling a labor conference on the climate crisis that the global emergency cannot be solved by giving giant corporations the right to emit carbon pollution and make immense profits by trading and acquiring those rights, without ever addressing global inequalities.

“We need to use regulation of global warming and trade to lift 2 billion people out of poverty around the world,” Gerard said. “To do that, we’ll need to regulate a lot of economic activity — from power plants to fuel efficiency to energy efficiency — and we’ll need to use this regulation as a powerful tool to improve workers’ lives, both here in North America and across the globe.”

“Don’t think this won’t come about without a fight,” he warned. “It will be the defining struggle about the future direction of the global economy.”

That fight is evident in the battle over raising fuel efficiency standards for U.S. cars and trucks, something long resisted by the Big Three automakers. Vehicle exhaust is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and pressure is building to raise the federal standard, which has been stuck at 27.5 miles per gallon for cars since 1975. A new Senate bill would raise the standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, but it contains “very significant loopholes that could prevent us from actually getting there,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in his blog.

The struggle is also surfacing around measures to cap national carbon emissions and shift the U.S. toward clean energy sources.

Environmental advocates consider the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act, S 390, introduced by Senate Democrats Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.), to be the most advanced. It calls for cutting carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 with a combination of mandatory emissions reductions and incentives to develop clean alternative energies. A House companion measure, the Safe Climate Act, has been introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

These bills set marks that “we have to reach,” said Ian Kim, policy director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights’ “green jobs” initiative in Oakland, Calif. But they face an uphill battle in Congress because concern about global warming “still has not mainstreamed” among the American people, he said in a phone interview. “Until it has become the No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 issue, it will be hard to push.”

Democrats in Congress “want to do the right thing,” but in addition to powerful industry lobbying, they hear from workers who have real concerns about the possible impact of such measures on their jobs, Kim noted. “We can’t ignore or be cynical” about these concerns, he said. This underscores the importance of initiatives in cities and states that can build a base for national action. “Here in Oakland, there are ample opportunities to be involved and test out policies” that can both create jobs and protect the environment, he said.

Kim also coordinates the Oakland Apollo Alliance, a local chapter of the national labor-community-environmental-business coalition for “good jobs and clean energy.” “It’s like a dream team” of groups that are “not famous for getting along,” Kim said. “We are trying to find a win-win that unites these four groups.” He pointed to the “huge low-hanging fruit” of readily achievable solutions that are “good for the environment, good for the economy, and will bring people out of poverty.”

Kim sits on a city task force that is working on steps Oakland can take to dramatically reduce reliance on oil as quickly as possible.

Environmental justice means both “protection from the peril” and “promise for the future,” including opening up “access to the promise” for working- class people and people of color, he emphasized. “We are a blue-collar town working to become a green-collar town.”

Such initiatives, Kim believes, create grassroots momentum for strong environmental action in Congress and by a new Democratic president whoever he or she turns out to be.

suewebb @pww.org