Author: Sean Sweeney

Director of the Murphy Institute’s International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment

Sean Sweeney speak at People's Summit 2017

Winning Clean Energy & Climate Justice for All

Sean Sweeney, from New Labor Forum and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED),  speaking at the 2017 People’s Summit, held on June 9-11th, on the three tasks in front of the labor movement today to win energy democracy. Sweeney argues that trade unions need an independent voice on issues of climate justice; independent from the renewable energies industry and influential environmental groups. He also argues that climate activists should challenge the idea that renewable energy must compete on an even playing field with fossil fuels. In this short clip, Sweeney also cautions against proposing programs that do not answers the important questions; Who will do the work? Who will do the investing?  And who will own the energy?

Check out the full panel here:

Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There?

In the months leading to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, representatives of global institutional investors and multinational corporations made headlines after they demanded that world leaders adopt radical emissions reduction targets, among them “net zero” emissions by 2050. Examples include the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, which was signed by 409 investors representing more than $24 trillion in assets, and the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (which includes the likes of Shell Global and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited). Following the Statement’s adoption in Paris, a cluster of corporate heads led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson (calling itself the “B Team”) demanded that all governments turn the Paris net zero emissions target into national-level laws.

What are we to make of this? The practical implications of the net zero target adopted in Paris—if it is seriously pursued—are nothing short of revolutionary, opening up a “system crunch” scenario when the forces of growth, profit, and accumulation that presently propel capitalism collide with the political imperatives required to reach virtually total “decarbonization” in little more than a generation.

Paradoxically, the corporate push to adopt net zero by 2050—a target that is unprecedented in terms of its ambition—merely draws attention to the fact that the corporate elite has no clear or convincing idea about how it might be achieved. The capitalist spirit is progressively willing, but the flesh grows all the time steadily weaker.

Thus, the Paris Agreement can be a clarifying moment for labor, the climate movement, and the broader left in that, more than ever before, it exposes the gulf between what needs to be done from a scientific standpoint and what the global corporate and political elite are actually able to deliver.

Elite Consensus

Corporate statements on climate change invariably attract media attention, but it is worth remembering that major institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the International Energy Agency (IEA)—all of them unswervingly loyal to the corporate neoliberal agenda—have for some years been sounding the alarm about climate change and have urged, in fact demanded, bold action. As a result, the Paris Agreement included the goal of net zero emissions by 2060-2070. This is more or less consistent with what is required to control global warming. With still more emissions projected in the years ahead, it is virtually certain that the world will approach and perhaps exceed dangerous temperature thresholds. The adoption of net zero therefore reflects a consensus held by the majority of the world’s business and political elite that the situation is serious; the science needs to be acknowledged, and determined action at the global level is required.

The Paris Contradiction

The problem, however, is not a lack of consensus on the need to dramatically reduce emissions; it is, rather, the inability to actually act on the consensus that has already been achieved. To illustrate this, we need look no further than the Paris Agreement itself. It acknowledges the need for global warming to stay “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and states that efforts should be made to limit warming to 1.5°C. However, the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) that lie at the heart of the agreement—even if they are fully achieved—will set the world on a pathway toward 2.7°C to 3.5°C of warming (and that assumes a comparable level of ambition after 2030). The 1.5°C threshold will therefore be breached long before the Agreement’s 2030 expiration date. Thus, the Agreement acknowledges the scientific reality and then institutionalizes “contributions” that are not even close to being consistent with that reality.

Instead of reducing emissions, the INDCs in the Paris Agreement will result in an increase in emissions—albeit at a slower rate than would be the case according to the “business-as-usual” scenario. The IEA notes, “There is no peak in sight for world energy-related CO2 emissions in the INDC Scenario: they are projected to be 8 percent higher than 2013 levels in 2030 while primary energy demand grows by around 20 percent.”1

The elite consensus around the net zero goal is solid enough, but when the discussion turns to considering how the target might be reached the consensus breaks down and differences emerge. Three perspectives can be distinguished. For convenience, these three can be labeled the “Gaia Capitalists,” the “Carbon Traders,” and the “Adaptationists.” Each of the three can tell us something different about the kind of responses that the system’s representatives are considering.

Go Gaia

The term Gaia Capitalism was apparently the creation of Richard Branson. Just prior to the Paris talks, the Branson-led B Team—adherents to “Plan B,” described as an ecologically focused alternative to “Plan A” profit-based ‘business as usual’—issued the call for net zero emissions by 2050. But the statements issued by the B Team and similar groups are largely devoid of details as to how this can be achieved. Branson’s group assures us that once governments turn the Paris commitment into national laws, it will, in Branson’s own words, “unleash new innovations, mobilize large-scale investment, and reshape consumer behavior, all of which will create new jobs and economic growth.”2

However, for the Gaia Capitalists, laws will not be enough. Reaching net zero will also require corporations to embrace a new ethic, one that combines ambition with altruism. The defining trait of the capitalist—making money—can be turned into a humanitarian act if CEOs can embrace a new set of values. The world needs a new form of capitalism—one that is not driven exclusively by concern for the bottom line.3 This new capitalism must recognize that the earth is one large living organism, and all life is connected. Before the Paris conference, the Plan B group issued an awkwardly phrased rallying cry to other corporate heads, one that urged them to embrace “people and planet . . . alongside profit.”

It is hard not to see this group as heirs to the paternalistic anti-union “welfare capitalists” of the early period of the twentieth century, among them John D. Rockefeller, George Pullman, and J. P. Morgan. As Naomi Klein reminds us, a decade ago Branson said he would commit $3 billion to green investments, of which less than 10 percent materialized (mostly in biofuels) and then dried up altogether.4 During the same period, Branson opened new airline companies and the aviation business is presently booming as a result of cheap oil.

Branson’s group attracts a level of media attention but, one or two exceptions aside, the companies identifying with this approach are not major players in the global economy. And in common with “green growthers” everywhere, the problem of decoupling economic growth from emissions is simply brushed aside.

Trader Woes

The most important camp of climate-concerned capitalists is the “Carbon Traders.” Carbon pricing lies at the heart of neoliberal climate policy—the “primary mitigation mechanism” according to the IMF and the World Bank, and think tanks like the Stern Commission.5

Carbon Traders (the Traders) represent a hard-nosed subset of investors and corporate CEOs, most of whom probably look at the narcissistic hubris of Branson’s “B team” with disdain and perhaps some embarrassment. For them, net zero is needed to preserve their assets and investments, but reaching the target will require governments to introduce a global price on carbon to drive and incentivize the low-carbon economy. Governments need to “take carbon out of competition.”

The Traders understand that capitalists primarily respond to the laws of capitalist competition. Singing from the Milton Friedman songbook, they take seriously the idea that the fiduciary responsibility of a corporation or bank is to provide a return on investment regardless of the social and ecological implications. As the Prince of Wales group candidly admitted, “The private sector invests trillions of dollars . . . but in most cases the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions does not guide such spending.”6 Therefore, “a clear, transparent, and unambiguous price on carbon emissions” is needed.7 Similarly, in February 2015, British Petroleum’s chief economist Spencer Dale described how, over the next twenty years, the use of oil and gas would grow 25 percent and, therefore, climate goals could not be reached. “Policy makers may wish to impose additional policies,” principal among them being a “meaningful global price for carbon.”8

The problem for the Traders—a problem they have thus far refused to acknowledge—is that carbon pricing has failed to have an impact on emissions and is going nowhere. The World Bank’s detailed assessment of carbon markets reported that, in 2015, only 12 percent of global GHGs were covered by a price. “A global average carbon price,” the Bank reminds us, “of between US$80 and US$120—per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)— . . . would be consistent with the goal of limiting the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.”9 The average carbon price is today around $10 per ton. So more than twenty years after the Kyoto Agreement established pricing carbon as the principal policy instrument for reducing emissions, still 88 percent of global GHGs are not covered by a price, and the price on the emissions that are covered is so low as to be completely useless. The World Bank cannot point to a single instance where carbon trading has had more than a barely measurable impact on emissions levels.

The prospects for carbon markets are poor. Corporations do not want to pay for their pollution because it cuts into the bottom line. Any anxieties with regard to the long-term viability of the system are almost invariably trumped by short-term competitiveness concerns of an individual company. Meanwhile, unloading the net zero responsibility on to governments allows corporations to continue more or less on a “business-as-usual” course. If the Traders were to face up the failure of carbon pricing, they would need to offer something different—the most obvious solution being decisive government interventions, ranging from heavy and restrictive regulations to all out social ownership of key economic sectors. But this would require an ideological shift away from neoliberal groupthink—and there are few signs that this is going to happen absent sustained pressure from social movements.

Adapting to the Future Normal

The “Adaptationists” resemble something of a secret society. And while few corporate heads will openly admit it, there is a growing belief that the net zero target will not be reached by 2060-2070. The INDCs submitted in Paris already reflect the distance between the scientific consensus and the declared intentions of governments, many of whom are mere mouthpieces for business interests. Net zero will require full decarbonization of the global economy in just four or five decades. At that point, any GHGs released—to generate electricity; make products; power cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes; heat and cool buildings; raise and slaughter billions of animals, and so forth— must somehow be offset or “neutralized.” In the case of CO2 , this can be done by enhancing photosynthesis through reforestation and expanding the amount of vegetation on the surface of the planet. However, at present, some forty-six to fifty-eight thousand square miles of forest are lost each year—equivalent to fortyeight football fields every minute.10 Currently, the global economy emits roughly fifty-seven billion tons of CO2 per year; almost twice the annual emissions levels of the mid-1990s.11 Emissions from fossil fuel use have risen a staggering 61 percent since 1990 and will continue to rise, albeit more slowly.12 Furthermore, the global economy is expected to be three times larger in 2050 than it is today.13

Aware of these realities, the Adaptationists have concluded that the chances of reaching net zero amounts to, well, practically zero. And rather than adopt a politically dangerous or untenable target that could become a lightening rod for discontented radicals, they are trying to shift the policy focus toward dealing with the effects of warming, and the need for building resiliency. This perspective is presently expressing itself via important pro-corporate think tanks—perhaps a clear sign that CEOs are also thinking in similar terms. According to the World Economic Forum,

Advocating for greater attention to be paid to adaptation is controversial in some quarters as it is interpreted as a tacit admission that mitigation efforts are no longer worth pursuing. However, the less effective mitigation efforts are, the more pronounced adaptation challenges will become.14

Using stronger language, in a 2013 report titled Too Late for Two Degrees? the pro-corporate PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) noted, “This year (2013) we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2 degrees warming target has risen to 5.1 percent a year, (every year) from now to 2050.” Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C, it noted, therefore “appear highly unrealistic.” The PwC report concluded, “businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world—not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.”15 Such levels of warming are, in the words of one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson, “incompatible with an organized global community.”16

How we can actually plan for global chaos remains something of a mystery—but the key message of the Adaptationists is valid. PwC’s report makes this point: “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions.”17 Such radical transformations would threaten the system itself—which is a political “no-no.” Therefore, we need to suck it up and hope for the best.

Capital’s Conundrum and Climate Justice

These differences of approach among the global corporate elite are unlikely to lead to open conflict, at least not yet. But it is already clear that none of these perspectives warrant the support of labor and other social movements. The Paris Agreement expresses the distance between what the science says is needed and the “best we can do” reality offered by those who work within the ideological and systemic confines of competition and accumulation.

To get even close to net zero in the time agreed will require dramatic changes in the global political economy. The capitalist paradigm of extraction, accumulation, and consumption, wrapped up in the ideology of growth, is incompatible with true ecological sustainability or a stable climate.

For labor, climate justice, and other social movements, capital’s climate conundrum is an opportunity. We need to continue to develop our own proposals to pursue radical emissions reductions by way of deep restructuring of the global political economy; to reassert the need for extending democratic control, advancing “public goods” approaches to essential needs and services; and to implement a just transition based on mass popular participation in key economic decisions.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



  1. International Energy Agency (IEA), “World Energy Outlook 2015 Special Report on Energy and Climate Change” (Paris: International Energy Agency, 2015), available at http:// The IEA also reported that the Paris Agreement would see electricity generation from coal grow by 24 percent by 2040, available at http://www.
  2. climate-opportunity-paris.
  3. People and planet alongside profit available at in Guardian, http://www paris-climate-change-summit-richard-branson? CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco.
  4. 2014/ sep/13/greenwashing-sticky-business-naomiklein.
  5. For example, see May 29, 2015, letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat and the COP21 Presidency, available at http://s08 corporate/corporate/downloads/pdf/media/ speeches/2015/letter-to-unfccc.pdf.
  6. Carbon Price Communiqué (first issued 2012). Statement available at
  7. Ibid.
  8. 2015 BP Energy Outlook 2035 (published February 26, 2015). Presentation by BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale energy trends, available at PBww4o_Do.
  9. World Bank, State and Trends, page 23. How much more the price would need to be to limit warming to “well below 2°C” or even 1.5°C per the Paris Agreement has still to be calculated, but perhaps $150 per ton seems a fair estimate.
  10. deforestation.
  12. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report,” available at .pdf.
  14. risk-case-1/testing-economic-and-environmental -resilience/#view/fn-10.
  15. =player_embedded&v=ct6cJc G5o1M.

Earth to Labor: Dispatches from the Climate Battleground

Contested Futures: Labor After Keystone XL

by Sean Sweeney

The extraordinary story of the political battle over the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline that began in the summer of 2011 came to an end when President Obama finally rejected the project on November 6, 2015. President Obama’s decision was met with anger and derision from many unions in the Building Trades (North America’s Building Trades Unions)–the Trades, but was a cause for reserved celebration for the handful of unions that opposed the project.

Time to Kiss and Make Up?

Labor’s part in the fight over KXL was lazily portrayed in the mainstream media in ‘here we go again’ jobs vs. environment terms. But this was no ordinary squabble, and there are no plans for a ‘group hug’ moment of reconciliation for the principal officers of a number of key unions now that the saga is seemingly over.

KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious union leadership-level dispute in the years ahead. Referring to the split in labor over KXL, the pro-pipeline president of Laborers’ International union of North America (LiUNA) Terry O’Sullivan said in early 2013, “That divide is as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.”[i]

Can future KXL-like fights be avoided? Yes, but it will require that certain unions rethink their relationship to coal, oil, and gas industry groups and take the lead in driving a different conversation about ‘extractionism,’ energy, and climate change.

Energy Wars and the Black-Blue Alliance

Today, the fight over the energy future of the U.S. is clearly defined. On the one side there are those who feel that the country’s rich coal, oil, and gas resources will ensure the U.S.’s economic prosperity in the years ahead. World prices today are low, but over the longer term demand for these fuels is assured, unless of course climate commitments to reduce emissions get in the way. A significant number of unions share this “Saudi America” vision of the future. In 2009, the Building Trades forged an explicit partnership with the oil and gas industry to develop North American energy sources, via the Oil and Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee (later described by some as the “Black-Blue Alliance”.)[ii]

On the other side of the U.S.’s energy war is the growing movement that sees the social and environmental costs of drilling, blasting, mining, moving, and burning of fossil fuels. The extraction, transporting, refining, burning, and waste by-products associated with fossil fuel use is inflicting intolerable damage on communities and ecosystems; further destabilizing the earth’s climate, and will ultimately weaken the U.S. economy over the longer term. Unions are in this camp also, and one or two have become proactive in moving members into key fights around coal, oil, and gas infrastructure, and fracking in particular. These unions see potential allies in their long-term fight for social and economic justice, in the movements against fossil fuels and against climate change.

Done Deal Undone

When TransCanada Corporation had applied for a State Department permit to build the 1,700-mile KXL pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to two oil refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, four unions signed Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) with the company, and joined the oil industry to lobby Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue the permit to build KXL.[iii] Few at that time doubted that the permit would be issued; the industry wanted it, labor wanted it—Keystone XL was a ‘done deal.’[iv] For the Trades, there was much more at stake than the jobs involved in building KXL. TransCanada and the oil industry expected unions to use the jobs argument in order to deliver a permit to construct the pipeline, and to do the same for a string of future infrastructure projects related to tar oil, coal export terminals, and fracking. If KXL had been approved, other “KXLs” would have followed and that meant PLAs for years to come—a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why KXL became a top priority for construction unions like LiUNA.

But opposition to KXL grew dramatically in 2011 and 2012, led by indigenous organizations, farmer and rancher groups, and environmental, environmental justice, and climate advocates like Normally cautious and beltway-constrained environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) were also important players in putting KXL into the national political spotlight. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) were the first U.S. unions to say no to KXL in August 2011.[v] National Nurses United (NNU) and the New York State Nurses Association also issued strong statements, and in mid-2013 more than 2,000 nurses and other union members marched over the Golden Gate Bridge carrying placards that read “No the KXL, Stop Climate Change.” The National Domestic Workers Alliance, Domestic Workers United, United Electrical Workers and 1199 SEIU would complete the group of unions that would oppose the pipeline.[vi]

Other unions chose not to explicitly oppose KXL, but were concerned to protect President Obama from GOP efforts to use KXL as a way of hammering the President on jobs in a presidential election year. In January 2012, SEIU, Steelworkers, CWA, UAW, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSW) backed the President’s decision to delay a ”yes or no” on the pipeline until the environmental and economic impacts had been fully investigated by the State Department.[vii] Reacting to the President’s decision to delay, the Trades lined up with Republican critics like Mitt Romney in criticizing President Obama for turning his back on the unemployed and blue collar America.[viii]

It is important to note that the decision on the part of several unions to oppose KXL was anything but pro forma or routine, especially for the AFL-CIO affiliates. They knew that the reaction would be both harsh and swift. In a series of statements, LiUNA president Terry O’Sullivan railed against the ATU, TWU, and the NNU. Unions opposing KXL, said O’Sullivan, had no right to take food from the mouths of work-deprived union members, and “should come out from under the skirts of delusional environmental groups which (sic) stand in the way of creating good, much-needed American jobs.”[ix]

Client Koch?

The Black-Blue Alliance is still very much the compass that guides the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD), but it is worth noting that the BCTD no longer identifies with the Federation—as a simple search for “AFL-CIO” on the BCTD’s website will immediately confirm. At its 2015 legislative conference of the North America’s Building Trades Unions it was announced that the Trades would endorse candidates based on how supportive they were of the kind of industries that employed their members. In an interview, the Trades’ leader Sean McGarvey stated, “We’re not about political parties. We’re about construction workers…Both parties have changed, and we have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.” When asked about big GOP- and Tea Party-backers Koch Industries, McGarvey responded “They’re one of our biggest clients. You’ll never see us making public statements saying negative things about Koch Industries.” [x]

In recent months LiUNA and the International Union of Operating Engineers have linked arms with the likes of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute in a call on Congress to lift the export ban on U.S. crude oil that was introduced in 1975 during the Middle East oil crisis. Letters supporting the bill to remove the ban described how the U.S .could become an ‘energy superpower’ and create jobs along the way. Noting how union members worked a record number of hours on pipeline projects in 2014, LiUNA and the Operating Engineers stated that, “Lifting the ban will result in increased domestic crude production and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs across all sectors of the American economy.” [xi]

Realignment from Below?

But the pro-industry positions of the BCTD and individual union leaders cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that many union locals in the Trades have shown creativity and leadership around environmental issues, and they continue to work alongside others on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste management, and related initiatives. This suggests that ‘realignment from below’ is possible. Meanwhile, the collapse of oil, coal, and gas prices has led to huge layoffs and a dramatic plunge in investment levels. In Alberta, 63,000 jobs were lost in the first 8 months of 2015 due in large part to falling oil prices and rising costs of tar sands extraction. In the U.S., the closure of coal-fired power stations has led to thousands of layoffs for members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Utility Workers Union of America AFL-CIO (UWUA). All told, the U.S. lost 122,000 energy and mining jobs in 2015.[xii]

Many members and leaders in the Trades cannot be comfortable playing the role of attack dog for fossil fuel interests, including the likes of the Koch brothers. They realize that even if prices rebound in the coming years and “Saudi America” looks to become a reality, only a few unions will benefit and many of the labor movement’s sworn enemies will become a whole lot stronger than they are today. They will have also noted that the defeat of TransCanada and KXL has emboldened the movement against fossil fuels, and resistance to ‘carbon lock in’ and extreme energy is rising, and the number of victories against the industry is growing.

The Trades Can Lead a Policy Shift

Realignment on the part of the Trades could also allow for labor to pursue a different approach to climate policy in the U.S. and to the whole question of ‘just transition.’Clearly, one of the unintended consequences of the closeness of the Trades to the oil, coal and gas industries is that when unions in the Trades or the energy sector raise legitimate worker and societal concerns they are often interpreted as acts of opportunism aimed at promoting fossil fuel interests or are simply viewed an attempt to preserve the status quo. Similarly, by supporting unpopular right-wing initiatives like Proposition 23 in California—which again saw unions side with groups like Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity in order to repeal California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32 or AB32)—it undermines the important role unions could play in highlighting the many serious flaws in current liberal and market-based approaches to climate and energy policy.

This has been illustrated in the present debate around President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The EPA’s new federal regulations on power plants mandates a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2025 based on 2005 levels. Mainstream green groups and mostly non-union wind and solar companies are staunch advocates of the regulations, which also featured prominently in the current Administration’s commitment on emissions made at the COP (Conference of Parties) 21 Paris Climate Talks in December 2015.

However, the IBEW, Boilermakers and Operating Engineers have signed on to a lawsuit to prevent the EPA’s implementation of the regulations. At first glance, opposition to the EPA’s regulation looks like another example of key unions aligning with fossil fuel interests and GOP leaders to prevent bold action to address climate change. But this is too simplistic. IBEW president Lonnie Stephenson is right when he says, “Human-caused climate change is real, and a real threat, but focusing on power generation in isolation–leaving out industry, agriculture, and transportation—ignores three-quarters of the problem…Everyone will benefit from an effective response so everyone should share in the cost.”[xiii]

Energy unions are acutely aware of the fact that the U.S.’s power generation sector is in a deep crisis, with cheap shale gas from fracking having led to thousands of job losses in coal-fired power stations. The deregulation of the sector has led companies to neglect both the physical and human infrastructure that sustains the system—a point also made forcefully by the UWUA. Meanwhile, renewable energy is mostly non-union and its levels of deployment are low; therefore renewable energy is not ready to fill the massive loss of power generation capacity, and energy conservation is also another woefully neglected area.

Renewing Labor’s Energy for Change

Unions in health care and public transport opposed KXL because they saw it as their responsibility to advocate for, respectively, their patients and passengers as well as the interests of their own members. They understand that they have an obligation to do more than ‘just say no’ to environmentally damaging projects, and they have begun to engage with members on energy and climate issues. Unions’ visibility in the local struggles against fracking, ‘bomb trains,’ coal export terminals, etc., has grown significantly in the past two or three years, with union nurses leading the way. And in these struggles, unions have been on the winning side more often than not.

Beyond ‘blockadia,’ progressive approaches to energy and climate are also expressing themselves in national politics. Of this writing, unions like CWA, NNU, and the Postal Workers (APWU) are backing Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries—and Sanders just happens to be the first national politician to oppose KXL. Sanders, in turn, has proposed legislation (Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act) that would advance an energy and climate protection agenda that protects workers and takes on the political power of the large fossil fuel companies.

So the choice is clear: Labor’s KXL fight could be the precursor to more disunity and acrimony in the labor movement in the years ahead, especially if the Black-Blue Alliance remains in place and “Saudi America” imaginings continue to shape labor’s discourse. Alternatively, unions in all sectors—the Trades, transport, health, etc. –can work together to support an approach to energy and climate that is needs-based, grounded in the facts, and independent of both industry interests and the mainstream environmental groups that support renewable energy ‘by any means necessary.’ Such a coalition could unite labor behind an “energy democracy” agenda that rejects the expansion of fossil fuel use; seeks to reclaim key parts of the energy economy to public ownership and democratic oversight; and shifts control over energy toward workers, communities, and municipalities.




[ii] Leadership Chairman: Sean McGarvey, President, Building-Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Secretary/Treasurer Jack Gerard, President and CEO, American Petroleum Institute

[iii] Importantly, the four union presidents counterpoise jobs and the environment—choosing the former while dismissing the latter. The letter acknowledges the fact that “further development of Canada’s oil sands puts in jeopardy U.S. efforts aimed at capping carbon emissions and greenhouse gases” and that “comprehensive energy and environmental policy should strive to address climate concerns while simultaneously ensuring adequate supplies of reliable energy and promoting energy independence and national security.”


[v] ATU and TWU, 2011

[vi] NDWA, et. al. 2011



[viii] Mark Ayers a

[ix] Statement, LiUNA, September 9, 2011. On November 11, O’Sullivan wrote in Nebraska’s Journal Star:

LIUNA members are angry and surprised that some of our fellow union brothers and sisters, who don’t have any members in the pipeline industry and who themselves have never worked on a pipeline, now speak out as pipeline experts in their attempt to block Keystone. For thousands of LIUNA workers, the stakes are too high to not hold them accountable.

[x] The full quote: “Even if you look at Koch Industries — they’re one of our biggest clients. You’ll never see us making public statements saying negative things about Koch Industries, They’re a huge client of ours. Do we agree with some of the things that they supposedly support? No. Do we understand why they do it? Yeah, OK, because they’re looking for political advantage for a political point of view, and the Democrats don’t see it the way they see it. And other unions in the labor movement tend to be much more Democratic unions. And if you can hurt the labor movement, i.e. you hurt the Democratic Party. It’s just a system that we really don’t want to be engaged or involved in .

[xi] LiUNA and Operating Engineers, Letter to the Honorable John Boehner, Speaker and The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader, Sept 9, 2015; See also:




Author Biography

Sean Sweeney is director of the International Program on Labor, Climate and Environment at the Murphy Institute, and coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.




Earth to Labor: Dispatches from the Climate Battleground

Corbyn’s Class Act is a Climate Game Changer

On September 12, 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected the leader of the Labour Party in Britain. Supported by several key unions, the victory of the veteran socialist member of Parliament (MP) has shocked the political establishment and dealt a crippling blow to the neoliberal consensus that has dominated British politics for over three decades. Corbyn won the support of thousands of younger activists who were not even born when the Labour Party began its rightward drift in the 1980s. For the perennially demoralized British left, Corbyn’s initials “J.C.” have invited enough “savior” quips to fill a stack of New Testament bibles.

Business as Usual Won’t Work

Taken together, Corbyn’s policy commitments amount to a declaration of war on the existing “austerity-lite” platform of the parliamentary Labour Party.

Making headlines during the leadership battle was his Protecting Our Planet statement on energy and climate change, which pledged to break up the Big Six cartel and to essentially nationalize the sector. The Big Six refers to a handful of companies that dominate the country’s energy market: the UK-based SSE (electric- and gas-producer and distributor), the gas giant Centrica, German-owned companies E.ON and Npower, ScottishPower (which is Spanish-owned) and the French corporation EDF Energy (EDF). Corbyn’s nationalization pledge comes at a time when energy policy in the U.K. is widely regarded to be in a shambolic state. North Sea oil and gas are running out, and as much as 64 percent of U.K.’s electricity is generated by imported fuels. The recently elected Tory government has announced a full on “dash for gas” and has recently granted licenses to gas companies to start fracking in large parts of the England, Scotland, and Wales. The government has been heavily criticized for facilitating a contract with China General Nuclear Power Corporation, the state-owned Chinese company, to build a massive new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in South West England. Meanwhile, support for onshore wind and solar power has been removed and the government plans to sell its majority state in the Green Investment Bank it established in 2010 to promote renewable energy.

In complete contrast, Corbyn boldly asserts public ownership and the need for an inclusive, democratic, and equitable energy transition from fossil-based power to renewable sources of energy (renewables). Corbyn wants to ban fracking, phase out nuclear generation, and restore investment in energy infrastructure to pre-privatization levels. Corbyn will convene an energy commission to develop a full-on transition to a new energy system that is “open, democratic, sustainable, and accountable” and be able to deliver 100 percent carbon-free electrical power by 2030.

Protecting Our Planet and other policy statements have been dismissed by other politicians as naïve and dangerous. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that Corbyn’s politics exist in some kind of “parallel reality akin to Alice in Wonderland.” But on climate change and energy, what Corbyn understands far more clearly than any of his establishment detractors is that “business as usual” projections for emissions levels will lead to catastrophic levels of atmospheric warming. Energy-related emissions are expected to double between now and 2035, and renewables are growing only incrementally when compared to the global expansion of coal, oil, and gas. Recent U.K. governments have maintained a stubborn faith in aspirational targets and public-private partnerships (P3s) to address these alarming trends. The results have been miserable. Neoliberalism’s monumental failure in the face of climate change means that Corbyn’s “parallel reality” is decidedly more authentic than the one to which his opponents subscribe.

Hitting the Big Six

To the majority of the public, the Big Six energy companies act like a cartel, raising prices in lock-step coordination in order to maximize profits. Several have been heavily fined for essentially tricking customers into paying more for electricity and for willful tax evasion. Electricity costs in the U.K. are 18 percent higher than in Germany and 25 percent higher than in France, according to a 2012 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Corbyn’s nationalization commitment is therefore more than an expression of nostalgia for the post-war socialism implemented by the 1945-1949 Labour government (which nationalized a number of key industries). Rather, it is decidedly in tune with contemporary public opinion. Most U.K. residents consider the Thatcher-era privatization of energy to have been a complete failure. The 1988 sell-off was supposed to introduce competition and lead to better service and lower prices, but today the idea that “consumer choice” exists in the gas and electricity markets has become a national joke. Around 70 percent of the British public want energy renationalized—and this level of support pre-dates Corbyn’s election by more than a year. This combines with rising concerns about climate change. The 2012 record-breaking floods in Southern England and other expressions of “extreme weather” have made a lasting impression. Today 75 percent of U.K. residents feel the U.K. should support an ambitious global agreement to reduce emissions, and support for renewable energy is high.

Corbyn regards the route to nationalization to be via “government majority shareholding in order to establish public control.” He supports the large-scale deployment of onshore wind and locally generated or “distributed” solar photovoltaic (PV) power. He also sees a role for small producers and cooperatives, with municipal authorities playing a part of the new ownership and governance structures. While Protecting Our Planet is conservation-focused and concerned to create jobs, the statement also openly references the union-backed One Million Climate Jobs campaign that calls for the dramatic scale up of climate-friendly jobs in order to create employment while at the same time reducing emissions.

Contradictory Policies

Corbyn’s call for a “fundamental shift” in energy policy will, of course, face many challenges. First, it is sharply at odds with European Union energy policy, which has been anchored in two core priorities. The first priority was electricity market liberalization and a fixation with the so-called “contestable market.” This entailed the “unbundling” of the state-owned public utilities so that different companies, performing different functions, could compete against each other at the level of production and sales. Wholesale markets were created and private power producers were granted access to formerly publicly owned and operated grids.

The second policy priority originates from the desire for the E.U. to be a world leader on climate change. By way of the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, the E.U. hopes to achieve a 20 percent share of renewable energy in overall gross energy consumption by 2020. The Directive also mandated a 20 percent reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, and a 20 percent savings in energy consumption by the year 2020 (based on 2005 levels). These are the so-called “20-20-20 targets” to which each member state is expected to comply.

The U.K. has actually tried to do more than most of the E.U. The 2008 Climate Change Act legally obliged the U.K. to reduce its emissions by at least 80 percent (from the 1990 baseline) by 2050. The Act was the world’s first legally binding climate change target. The U.K. has reduced its emissions substantially since 1990 and 8 percent in 2014 alone. But, as with the U.S., the U.K.’s emissions reductions look good only if one ignores that fact that they are largely due to the offshoring of manufacturing along with reduced demand for energy due to the 2007-2008 recession and warmer winters. Established by Parliament, the Committee on Climate Change, in its 2015 Progress Report, concluded that the underlying emissions trends for the U.K. still point in an upward direction when viewed over the longer term. “Without significant new policies, progress (in emissions reductions) will fall behind what is required to meet legal obligations through the 2020s.” A similar story is playing out across most of the E.U.

Risky Business

A fundamental problem with the U.K. and E.U.’s “targets and markets” approach is that it wrongly assumes that liberalized energy markets can happily co-exist with government playing the role of ringmaster. But this is not working. Liberalization has led to an oligarchic situation across the E.U. where just a handful of energy companies are dominant. Firmly anchored in fossil fuels and nuclear power, these companies spend an inordinate amount of political capital resisting the push for renewables. In their view, political support for wind and solar power has undermined their capacity to attract investors. The top 20 European energy utilities were worth roughly €1 trillion at their peak in 2008. In 2014 they were worth less than half that amount. Today utilities are no longer a “safe bet” investment, and many utility companies fear that if renewable energy continues to be protected by increasingly ambitious E.U. targets, then lower sales and profits are inevitable.
But renewable energy companies are also in trouble. While the 2020 targets initially gave a boost to the industry, it was clear that meeting the targets required government support in the form of power purchasing agreements, “capacity mechanisms,” and other subsidies. Governments have therefore acted as a life support system for renewable energy companies—one that (as the Tory government recently demonstrated) could be switched off at any time. At the end of 2014, E.U. investments in renewables had fallen a staggering 55 percent from the 2011 peak. The slide occurred as soon as governments across Europe concluded that falling prices for solar modules meant that the industry could compete against fossil fuels on its own. But this reaction somehow overlooked the fact that coal, oil, and gas prices had also fallen dramatically. The main message is this: The prevailing neoliberal approach means that all energy investments are today exposed to “political risk,” which has resulted in low investment in the sector across the board. This is not only a problem for energy companies, but also calls into question who will provide electrical power in the future (a “capacity crunch”) with so many private investors running for the exits.

Thatcher’s Ghost

A strong case for energy nationalization was made recently by the Center for Policy Studies (CPS), a think tank founded in 1974 by none other than the late Margaret Thatcher. A March 2015 CPS assessment noted how it is “impossible to integrate large amounts of intermittent renewables”—markets cannot predict how much the sun will shine or the wind will blow on any given day—“into a private sector system and still expect it to function as such.” Furthermore, “private investors end up having to price and manage political risk, imparting a further upward twist to costs and prices.” And the conclusion? “You can have renewables. Or you can have the market. You cannot have both….If renewables are a must-have, then nationalisation is the answer.” Nationalization “removes political risk thereby cutting the public sector’s cost of capital. Together with the savings from abolishing retail competition”—thought to add $1.3 billion a year to electricity prices in 2013 alone—“it would cut average (per capita annual) bills by around £72 a year now, and £92 by 2020.” Nationalization, says CPS, would also improve accountability and transparency, granting the Treasury “greater incentives and ability to control and scrutinise costs.” Similarly, a recent World Bank report acknowledged that scaling up renewable power to meet climate goals will depend on “a public sector-led proactive planning effort” in order to address the problem posed by the private sector underinvestment.

That both an avidly Thatcherite think tank and the World Bank would reach these conclusions merely draws attention to the compelling logic behind Corbyn’s commitment to public ownership. Indeed, Corbyn’s Protecting Our Planet statement is also informed by the fact that renewable energy has made real headway in Germany and Denmark as a result of an expansion of municipal control and public investment. In recent years many German municipalities have decided to reclaim their local grids from private corporations. Germany has thus seen a major expansion of direct municipal provision of energy services.

Climate Protection and the Public Good

Corbyn’s nationalization commitment is certain to ignite a major debate inside the labor and environmental movements. Some unions have begrudgingly come to terms with energy privatization and have maintained a strong bargaining presence in the energy sector and established sufficient relationships with the private companies. Other unions will unequivocally welcome Corbyn’s commitment to re-nationalization because it will provide a platform for economic development in economically depressed regions such as those in the north of the country. As the union UNISON has pointed out in a recent study, the U.K.’s aging housing stock, if fully weatherized and insulated, could reduce energy consumption in buildings by as much as 20 percent and generate many thousands of jobs. Unions involved in initiatives like One Million Climate Jobs and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy will see Corbyn’s victory as an endorsement of the kind of bold policy interventions the situation demands.

But the most important idea embedded in Corbyn’s Protecting Our Planet is that it views climate protection and emissions reductions as a public good, one that should be beyond the reach of the market. Corbyn’s climate commitment is grounded in the knowledge that, for many decades, public ownership and management of health, education, sanitation, transportation, and—of course—the provision of electricity were all hugely successful endeavors that improved the quality of life and economic prospects of millions of people. Such an approach is urgently needed now to address the climate crisis. “Markets and targets” have failed. There is, it seems, really no alternative.


[3] Source: OECD/Nuclear Energy Agency (2012), Nuclear Energy and Renewables: System Effects in Low-carbon Electricity Systems, Table 4.7.
[4] Guardian, Jan 29th, 2015, see also:
[6] Digest of UK energy statistics (DUKES), published in July, state that UK emissions of greenhouse gases between 2011 and 2012 increased by 4.5%.
[9] Marcelino Madrigal and Steven Stoft, Transmission Expansion for Renewable Energy Scale-Up: Emerging Lessons and Recommendations, The World Bank, June 2011.

White and African American males hold signs that read: "The Dress Shipping Clerks' Won't Cross the Picket Line. We Stand United with the Dressmakers Union!" 1958.

Green Capitalism Won’t Work

For the last 20 years, unions in the U.S. and internationally have generally accepted the dominant discourse on climate policy, one that is grounded in assumptions that private markets will lead the “green transition,” reduce emissions, and stabilize the climate over the longer term. Indeed, unions began attending the climate negotiations convened by the UN in the early 1990s, a time when the “triumph of the market” went unchallenged and the climate debate was awash with neoliberal ideas. Unions therefore focused on articulating the need for "Just Transition" policies.

Read more

Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers: Are the Trades Putting Labor’s Head in the Gas Oven?

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.

In a recent interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[1] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that several unions opposed the DAPL, of this writing the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. They have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[i]

Split, Coup, or Both?

It is important to note that the AFL-CIO issued its statement on the basis of a generic ‘pipelines’ Executive Council (EC) resolution passed in Feb 2013. Does this DAPL statement therefore speak for the 55 affiliates of the Federation? Hardly. The use of a vague EC resolution to support the DAPL is therefore something of a coup for NABTU, one that will further damage the reputation of the entire US labor movement both at home and abroad.

In this column a year ago I tried to draw some of the lessons for the labor movement following the acrimonious fight among union leaders around the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. I said KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious leadership-level conflict in the years ahead, and that this could be avoided if certain union officers were to rethink their close relationship to coal, oil and gas industry groups (the so called Black-Blue Alliance) and take the lead in driving a different conversation about ‘extractionism,’climate change, and jobs.

The DAPL fight suggests that the split in labor is deepening. McGarvey’s letter to Trumka warrants careful study. Referring to the fact that many of the unions that opposed KXL are now opposing DAPL, McGarvey writes, “It seems the same outdated, lowest common denominator group of so-called labor organizations has once again seen fit to demean and call for the termination of thousands of union construction jobs in the Heartland. I fear that this has once again hastened a very real split in the labor movement at a time that, should their ceaseless rhetoric be taken seriously, even they suggest we can least afford it.” [ii] For now, NABTU has managed to align the federation squarely with the fossil fuel industry.

So what is Labor’s Climate and Energy Policy?

The AFL-CIO’s statement on DAPL says that it is ‘neither effective nor fair’ to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects. So what kind of climate policy does the AFL-CIO support?  The 2013 Executive Council ‘pipelines’ resolution begins, “The AFL-CIO supports a comprehensive energy policy focused on investing in our nation’s future, creating jobs and addressing the threat of climate change.” Fine words, but have there been any actions to back them up?

At the global level, the Federation has never supported the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) commitment to the science-based emissions reduction targets proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Every other major national labor body supports these targets, but not the AFL-CIO. Similarly, it was the only major national trade union center to oppose the Kyoto Agreement in the 1990s and, again, the only one to applaud the State Department’s voluntary ‘pledge and review’ approach to emissions reductions expressed in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Global labor was unanimous in its condemnation of the weak, non-binding and science-denying content of the Accord—with the AFL-CIO once again being the exception.

During the 2008 Congressional debate on the (failed) climate bill during president Obama’s first term in office, the AFL-CIO, urging  ‘a cautious approach’, could only support the weakest bill, one that ensured more free pollution allowances for the fossil fuel sector than any other bill drafted. Following the defeat of the climate bill in the Senate, the AFL-CIO essentially stepped away from energy climate policy altogether. And with Congress obstructing action on climate change, the Obama Administration ordered the EPA to take the lead. The EPA developed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that seeks to achieve a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants by 2025 based on 2005 levels. The CPP was the basis of the US contribution to the Paris Climate talks in late 2015 and in the more recent bilateral climate talks with China.

In a June 2014 statement, Federation president Trumka expressed concern about the CPP’s impact on the US coal industry and warned that climate protection not “be another excuse to beat down working Americans.”[iii] But in the absence of both a coherent policy and a clear lead coming from the AFL-CIO, key affiliates have moved in to stake out their own space. Several energy and construction unions have signed onto a lawsuit to prevent the EPA’s implementation of the CPP regulations, with SEIU siding with a broad set of groups who seek to defeat the legal threat.[iv]  Led by West Virginia and more than 20 States, the challenge to the EPA would bar the agency from regulating GHGs from existing power plants altogether. If successful, this would essentially wipe out any federal climate policy because the Administration is relying almost exclusively on the EPA to comply with the commitments made in Paris.

Exporting Carbon

Meanwhile, in mid-2015 LiUNA and the Operating Engineers successfully linked arms with the likes of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the US Chamber of Commerce and the API in a call on Congress to lift the export ban on US crude oil that was introduced in 1975 during the Middle East oil crisis. The two unions stated that, “Lifting the ban will result in increased domestic crude production and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs across all sectors of the American economy.”[v]

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had publicly stated his opposition to lifting the ban in January 2014.[vi] Significantly, the reason for Trumka’s opposition had nothing to do with concerns about ‘carbon lock in’ or the need to support the US’ climate commitments. Rather, the main concern was the impact lifting the ban would have on US refineries, which have been well organized by the United Steelworkers (USW). In a July 2014 statement, the Federation said, “The surge in U.S. oil production should fuel a surge in U.S. refinery investment, creating highly paid construction and refinery jobs. American ingenuity and hard work have put the United States in the fortunate position of being the world’s top oil producer and given us more energy security than we have had in decades. The AFL-CIO believes the nation should build on this success to create prosperity and restore the middle class.”[vii] ­­­In lobbying against lifting the ban, the USW (joined by the Sierra Club) acknowledged that, aside from threatening the jobs of US refinery workers, exporting US crude would also lead to 22 million metric tons more CO2 emissions on an annual basis.[viii] Within six months of the ban being lifted (December 2015 to May 2016) US crude exports have risen 9% to 501,000 barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Agency.

Avoiding The F Word

With US oil exports rising, LiUNA and other unions have helped the US oil industry meet the growing global demand for US crude. Union concerns about climate change were blindingly absent in this campaign (as was the case in the effort to acquire a permit for Keystone XL). Instead, lifting the export ban would, we were told, help the US become “an energy superpower.”

More recently, LiUNA developed its own Clean Power Progress, an initiative apparently driven by a desire to “fuel a realistic, fact-based conversation” in order to “advance responsible policies that reduce GHGs and reach the climate change goals advanced by the Obama Administration.”

With Clean Power Progress, LiUNA is attempting to project a new and greener message. But the union’s plan is focused on helping the US meet its climate commitments—by promoting gas. According to Clean Power Progress, “Transitioning from higher-carbon energy sources (read: coal) towards abundant natural gas will help the United States meet its ambitious and responsible clean energy targets and our country’s growing electricity needs.”[ix] This is pretty much the gas industry line. It is also clear that the industry and LiUNA are united on the need to export more gas (maybe to help the world fight global warming?)[x]

Clean Power Progress deserves a more detailed critique, and will be the subject of a future column. But there are some obvious red flags. For example, nowhere in the proposal is there any mention of the word ‘fracking.’ Fracking for gas in shale rock is producing a higher proportion of US gas every year as yields from conventional gas drilling steadily decrease. This can hardly be explained as an innocent omission. It is as if, by not mentioning fracking at all, LiUNA hopes to sidestep rising concerns regarding the health-related and other impacts associated with fracturing. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has not taken an official stand on fracking, but in states where drilling has proceeded the Trades have moved several State AFL-CIO’s behind a pro-fracking stance.

Greenwashing with the union label?

Equally remarkable is that LiUNA is keeping alive the discredited idea that gas is a ‘bridge fuel’ that is good for the climate because, when compared to burning coal, gas generates only half the CO2 per unit of energy generated

But peer-reviewed studies over the past several years have shown that, when methane leakage associated with fracking is accurately measured, gas harvested from shale rock is worse than coal from the standpoint of generating greenhouse gas emissions.[xi] Respecting the science, most of the major environmental groups stopped talking about gas as bridge fuel some years ago. Globally, methane emissions levels are increasing, and scientists have estimated that 40 percent of the increase in the US is due to the growth of the oil and gas sector.[xii] The EPA’s ‘inventoried’ methane emissions levels are based on company’s reporting their own methane leakage rates. However, the actual atmospheric concentrations have been found to be much higher.[xiii] This gap suggests that gas companies have underreported the levels of methane being vented or leaking from drill sites, and have funded ‘studies’ that have been used to provide ‘scientific’ data suggesting the levels of methane being released are far lower than they actually are.[xiv]

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this issue. Even a modest level of methane leakage from drilling sites — between 1.5%-3% — would erase all of the climate-related benefits of burning gas instead of coal.[xv] Statistically, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel have fallen in the U.S. since 2007 due to the recession and switching to natural gas from coal to generate electricity. Leading climate scientist Robert Howarth told the White House recently, “Total greenhouse gas emissions – after dipping slightly in 2007 – have been rising since at their most rapid rate ever, due to shale gas development and large methane emissions…Reliable data from satellite and airplane surveys show much higher emissions and indicate that global increases in methane in the atmosphere over the last decade may well be the result of increased emissions from the United States.”[xvi] According to Howarth, “If the U.S. wants to meet the COP21 target – to which we have agreed – we need to recognize that natural gas – and shale gas, in particular – is not a bridge fuel” [xvii]

That LiUNA might be unaware of the data on methane is, frankly, inconceivable. Overall, Clean Power Progress looks like union greenwashing of the most irresponsible kind, a poor attempt to sanitize an industry that resists even the weakest of regulations and refuses to allow independent verification in the chemicals it uses during the fracturing process.

Progressive Labor’s Construction Project

The unions that opposed Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with those who have opposed fracking and coal and gas export terminals, are becoming ‘energy unions’ because energy fights will largely what type of future we can look forward to.

For NABTU, having unions in health care, public transport, and public services, etc. invade and trample on the sacred territory they call home is beyond infuriating.

Progressive labor must, however, develop its own vision of an energy future, one grounded in fully-unionized public renewable power systems, scaled up low-carbon mass transit, and radical energy conservation in the country’s housing stock and commercial buildings.  This is a political ‘construction’ project that, if implemented, could create millions of ‘climate jobs.’ But this will require consistent engagement. Many in the Trades can and will support such a progressive approach to climate and energy policy.

For now, having waged a successful putsch, NABTU is the voice of the AFL-CIO regarding a big chunk of labor’s energy policy. On environmental issues, the Federation’s reputation is now so low that it seems to be no longer concerned about ‘reputational damage.’ By linking arms with Standing Rock Sioux, progressive labor is keeping alive the best traditions of labor environmentalism pioneered by Tony Mazzocchi and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in the 1970s. If it is constructed, the DAPL will require union labor digging a ditch, and the only difference between a ditch and a grave is that one is normally a little deeper than the other.





[ii] Sean McGarvey NABTU, letter to Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO, Sept 15, 2016



[v] LiUNA and Operating Engineers, Letter to the Honorable John Boehner, Speaker and The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader, Sept 9, 2015;  See also:; Leadership Chairman: Sean McGarvey, President, Building-Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Secretary/Treasurer Jack Gerard, President and CEO, American Petroleum Institute






[xi] Scientific American, November 26, 2013

[xii] Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). “Oil and natural gas boom causes methane emissions to increase: Study reveals relationship between oil and natural gas production in the USA and increase in atmospheric methane.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 March 2016. <>.


[xiv]  See also:

[xv] Alvarez, Ramon A., Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, and William L. Chameides. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure.” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America. 109.17 (2012): 6435-6440. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Howarth, Robert, et al. Climatic Change, Volume 106, Issue 4, pp 679-690. 6/11. “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations;” Lovett, Richard A. Scientific American. 2013. “Study Revises Estimate of Methane Leaks from U.S. Fracking Fields Leaks are minimal during removal of fracking fluids but increase once gas is flowing.” Retrieved 1/15/14 from:; Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. Climatic Change. 1/10/12. “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al.” Retrieved 1/15/14 from:

[xvi] Howarth Alerts White House of the Growing Methane Danger, See also: Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). “Oil and natural gas boom causes methane emissions to increase: Study reveals relationship between oil and natural gas production in the USA and increase in atmospheric methane.” Science Daily. Science Daily, 15 March 2016.


On the Contrary

Earth to Labor: Economic Growth Is No Salvation

The notion that economic growth is, almost by definition, a good thing has been subjected to serious and well-informed criticism in recent years. Diverse organizationally, geographically, and ideologically, those challenging growth are united by one realization: the world’s ecosystems are in a state of extreme distress and the planet will be unlivable in just a few decades. Climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, desertification, ozone depletion, and alarming levels of water contamination and scarcity are part of a long list of crises that have their origins in one thing—economic activity that increasingly raids the world’s stores of “natural capital” and pollutes and degrades everything in its path.

The message emerging from the critique of growth is loud and clear—human civilization must quickly put a check on economic expansion and allow the ecosystems to repair themselves before it is too late.

Indisputably true, but what can unions do? Workers are, of course, part of the very economy that seems to be causing the environmental problems, both as producers and consumers. How can unions, even in theory, be against economic growth? And unions and workers do not feature much in the talk about an ecological post-growth society (the few eco-socialist writers being the exception). The overuse of insipid terms like “green jobs” cannot hide the fact that the ecological crisis is not on the agenda of the U.S. labor movement. And those who raise ecological issues are likely to be reminded that labor is too embroiled in a struggle for its own survival to have much time and energy to commit to planetary survival. However, labor has much to gain by addressing, rather than avoiding, the ecological crisis and its causes—many of the solutions would help, rather than harm, unions and workers.

Green Capitalism and Ecological Modernization
Thus far, unions that have been engaged in ecological issues (mostly outside the U.S.) have tried to repackage growth as part of a green economic agenda, looking at growth the way an internist would read a patient’s cholesterol levels. Just as there is good and bad cholesterol, there is good growth (the “real” economy, green investments, rebuilding infrastructure) and bad growth (financial speculation, asset bubbles, etc.).

But what is green growth, exactly? The world’s leading green growth theorist and spokesperson is probably former World Bank chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern. In 2006, Stern authored a major study on the economics of climate change, known as the Stern Review, which rejected the idea that growth must inevitably lead to more emissions and ecological stress. Human civilization does not have to learn to get by with less, he says, nor does capitalism itself need to be fundamentally restructured. Low carbon production and environmentally-friendly growth is technically possible. All we need to do now is make it a political reality. This perspective, known as “ecological modernization,” rests on the premise that technological and other efficiencies can “dematerialize” economic activity. We can get more output from fewer material inputs, thus decoupling economic growth from environmental damage. Perhaps the main policy plank in the platform of ecological modernization is the pricing of externalities like carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Once priced, the markets will work their magic and the economy can keep growing indefinitely. Government is important, but only as an enabler of green economic activity and not in any direct command-in-control sense. Unions, globally, have operated on the premise that the real-world historical options are essentially twofold. Either humanity will transition to some form of green capitalism, or we will face a “suicide capitalism” scenario where fossil-fuel corporations and major industrial, agricultural, transportation, and retail interests are successful in extending “business as usual” past the point of no return. The former allows space for unions; the latter does not. Unions have therefore generally accepted Stern’s green growth perspective and are, whether truly conscious of it or not, ecological modernizers. However, unions question whether private markets can drive green growth, and they have sought to move the debate toward a global Green New Deal (GND) through which governments—supported by labor—play a leading role, particularly in setting emissions targets and timetables. In a similar vein, many U.S. unions support Obama-initiated green investments and a green industrial policy as a means to restore both U.S. competitiveness and its manufacturing base. This was the message of the Apollo Alliance and it is now the main message of its successor organization, the Blue-Green Alliance. It is also the message of the mainstream environmental “Big Green” organizations. The green growth perspective therefore dominates the trade union discourse, both domestically and internationally.

Green Gone Wrong?
Today, however, ecological modernization faces a double crisis—a striking loss of political momentum coupled with an erosion of its main theoretical underpinnings. In fact, the two are deeply connected. Green business is not driving capitalism’s main agenda. In the U.S., the fanfare around the Climate Action Partnership (CAP) and other green corporate initiatives is now just a dim echo, stretching back to the more hopeful early days of the Obama presidency. The prospects for an effective economy-wide price on carbon through a cap-and-trade system have been dashed in the U.S. and in most of the developed world. The Koch brothers, rather than Google and Nike, are shaping both politics and policy. Meanwhile, the green economy has stalled. This is reflected in a recent Brookings Institution study which noted that “the clean economy grew more slowly in [the] aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010.”

In the U.S., environmentalists blame the woes of green business on Big Oil and Big Coal’s shoot- to-kill approach to carbon pricing, EPA regulations, and renewable electricity standards. Oil companies have made $1 trillion in profits in the past ten years, so spending $30 million on a lobbying campaign to defeat climate protection legislation is a smart business move. But the political power of fossil-fuel corporations is not simply determined by the number of lobbyists on the payroll. It derives from the availability of the fuels, the returns on investments, and the stability of demand. It also speaks to other large corporations’ weak and fleeting commitment to their stated environmental and climate protection goals. The Fortune 500 companies that formed the CAP could have easily matched the fossil-fuel lobby’s spending several times over if there was a sound business incentive to do so. The problem is that no such incentive exists. The entire theoretical framework of ecological modernization and green capitalism was developed around a presumed certainty—that natural resource scarcity would make more efficient use of those resources the key to competitiveness and, therefore, success. But that certainty has since been downgraded to a remote possibility as new sources of fossil-based power emerge. In North America, this entails the further exploitation of Canadian tar sands oil, the harvesting of apparently large stores of natural gas embedded in shale formations by a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” and the expansion of surface coal mining in states like Wyoming and Montana where the Wyodak coal bed—the U.S.’s leading source of coal—covers ten thousand square miles in the Powder River Basin. These new sources of fossil-based energy are in the process of changing the global political economy of energy and helping to strangle the global green growth agenda. But even if fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow, ecological modernization would still have to deal with what has been called “the rebound effect,” by which savings from increased efficiency get ploughed back into the economy in the form of greater investments, more growth, more consumption, and more environmental stress. This effect was observed during the time of the steam engine, when Victorian-era economists realized that a more efficient engine made the use of coal more cost effective, which led to an increase in the demand for coal. In short, the idea that capitalist accumulation—driven by profit, consumption, and growth—can become truly green has become as frail and unstable as Arctic ice in the summertime.

Ecological Unionism
Three years ago, a global climate agreement and an eco-Keynesian future seemed likely—today this is a fantasy. The resurgence of neoliberal policies since 2009 has politically uprooted green capitalism, and the way back will be difficult. Meanwhile, union resistance to the neoliberal attacks on workers and social protections appears to be growing, and other social movements are also mobilizing. Labor is now in a position to openly break with ecological modernization and craft its own Green New Deal as part of a new policy agenda. This agenda must be more ambitious than the standard “demand-side” Keynesian policy response to economic recession with a green tint. Unions can develop a GND that is green enough to slam the breaks on the present levels of ecological destruction, while providing a pathway toward more sustainable living standards and a deep restructuring of economic life—a truly transformational multi-decade project. How can it be done? Clearly, achieving economic security and environmental sustainability will require a series of bold policy interventions. Unions can be confident that the ecological case for the public ownership and democratic control of carbon- and pollution-intensive industries and services—beginning with power generation and energy-delivery systems—is cast iron. Given the impact of privatization on workers and communities, the social case is similarly strong. The goal should be to expand democratic control over major investment and production decisions, and over financial institutions and transactions, while asserting a new set of social and environmental conditions on private capital for the good of workers and the environment. This could put an end to “ruthless growth” and drastically slow the rate of ecological damage, while establishing a platform for an even deeper restructuring of economic life over the longer term. But without a qualitative increase in economic democracy, a transition to a truly sustainable economy is, at this point, inconceivable.

How would such a GND shape trade union politics and workplace demands? Work sharing, shorter hours, and more flexible work schedules can help achieve environmental goals and bring about an improved quality of life for working families. Unions can now use ecological arguments to push back against conditions of modern slavery (mind-breaking as well as back-breaking work).

Unions have done their best to defend the “social wage” as well as money wages. A new program to expand the social wage would involve using ecological arguments to promote policies to improve both the quantity and the quality of leisure. This would include investing in public mass transit, parks, sports facilities, and cultural institutions; making changes in land use policies to build communities and not megastores; and expanding opportunities for biking and walking. Fighting to shift taxes on income to taxes on carbon can also help redistribute wealth and reduce emissions.

A tricky issue for unions is the question of consumption. For labor-based economists, the fact that wages have not kept up with productivity increases is a key factor in creating and perpetuating the recession and high levels of unemployment, and unions link calls to restore labor’s share of the wealth to the need for more consumption to restore economic growth. But from an ecological perspective, the picture is more complicated. Real wages may be stagnant, and the real cost of housing, education, and health care has skyrocketed in the past thirty years. However, consumer and household goods have become much less expensive. Cheap wear-it-once clothing, electronics, and other goods create a pleasant illusion of wealth. Food costs half as much—in real dollars—as it did in 1966, and up to a third of all food purchased in the U.S. gets thrown away. The ecological impact of the skyrocketing consumption of these goods needs to be acknowledged. Unions can play their part in promoting lifestyles that eschew unsustainable and unnecessary spending. Living well and securely is not measured by trips to the mall, “bargain buying,” and rising credit-card debt.

As a guiding principle, ecological unionism can begin by acknowledging that workers are connected to and dependent upon the ecosystems that are being destroyed at an alarming rate. The same economic system that abuses and commodifies the environment also abuses people, animals, and all organic life. Today’s labor movement could benefit enormously from a fresh narrative, one that is deeply ecological and capable of connecting workers’ needs to a vision for a truly sustainable society. An ecological narrative conveys the urgent need for radical change and new relationships between production and consumption—a realignment of society’s relationship to the natural world. Let there be growth—in human development, social solidarity, and building an economy based on sufficiency and cooperation.