How can workers ensure that our labor protects the climate rather than destroying it? The previous chapter laid out the possible formation of a labor climate movement based on climate solidarity. network organization. and a challenge to authority utilizing both the institutional power of workers and a labor climate insurgency . What changes in society would such a movement need to make to realize its goals? This chapter presents a program for the emerging worker’s climate action movement.
Our challenge is to overcome climate alienation. This entails redirecting the activity of workers to eliminating the burning of fossil fuels. Abolishing climate alienation ultimately means eliminating CHG-producing labor.
In some ways, halting climate-destroying labor is simple . If all workers who produce and use fossil fuels simply refused to perform operations that produce or use them. GHG emissions would cease. But because GHG emissions are deeply enmeshed in a complex world order with many dependencies that militate against such an act ion . overcoming climate alienation requires a much more complex strategy.
Eliminating CHG-producing labor will cause some unintended consequences that will need to be overcome. It will eliminate most currently available energy, which will need to be replaced with a new energy system . It will lead to job loss for many fossil fuel producing and using workers and potentially to economic devastation of their communities. Forestalling such devastation will require a just transition that provides for the livelihoods of affected workers and communities. Both the energy and labor transitions hold the potential for broad economic disruption that could aggravate the economic problems already faced by workers and others. That possibility must be forestalled by macroeconomic policies that ensure prosperity. A strategy for overcoming climate alienation must both eliminate the burning of fossil fuels and provide solutions to the problems that their elimination may cause.
Halting climate alienation will require transforming not only the energy system. but also labor markets, workers’ roles. social control of the economy, and global coordination. Our worker climate action program includes five key elements.
First is a transition to an economy that does not produce GHGs. That requires a rapid phased elimination of fossil fuels and the labor that produces and uses them . It also requires their replacement by fossil fuel-free energy and energy efficiency.
All workers have a common long-term interest in climate protection. But many also have immediate or short-term interests that climate protection may threaten . The second element of a worker program is to design climate protection strategies so that they create a unified working class interest in climate protection . This means creating large numbers of jobs that are secure. well paid . and in line with labor and other human rights. It means protecting the well-being of workers and communities who may be threatened by climate protection measures. It means guaranteeing economic security and jobs for all who want them. And it means ensuring that climate protection strategies reduce inequality and injustice so that those who have been marginalized and discriminated against in the past are not excluded from the short-term benefits of climate protection measures.
Because workers have been largely excluded from power in the economy and the political system, our ability to combat climate destruction and implement alternatives has been limited. A third element of our program is to empower workers to protect Earth’s climate. This requires the workers’ climate movement to develop and fight for climate action plans that represent workers’ short- and long-term climate interests in every sphere of society. Workers must both pressure and cooperate with employers to impose worker-friendly climate action plans in their workplaces. We must cooperate with and help lead other groups in climate protection in our local communities. We must negotiate with and pressure the corporations we work for. We must help redesign entire industries such as electricity. transportation. and finance to function on a climate-safe basis. Finally, we must work with other climate protection advocates to reshape public policy at every level. This will require both utilizing organized labor’s clout within the political system and a worker climate insurgency that uses direct action and people power to force change.
Global warming has rightly been called history’s greatest market failure. Correcting it cannot be left to the market. Thus, a fourth element of our program is to expand the power of public policy to protect the climate in ways that are in accord with workers’ interests. It requires government institutions specifically designed to implement the transition to climate protection. It will need bold economic planning, industrial policies and public investment to guide and facilitate the process. It will need full-employment macroeconomic policies that prevent unemployment. assure prosperity. and encourage full use of economic resources during the transition. And it will need public mobilization and redirection of human and material resources that are required for the transition.
Finally, global warming requires global cooperation. Governments must work together to create a global framework that supports climate-friendly jobs and development – what has been called a “Global Green New Deal.” Workers must cooperate globally to pressure their own and each others· governments and corporations to make the transition to climate safety. A global climate protection investment fund is necessary on a scale that mobilizes all under-utilized human and material resources worldwide. Rather than fighting each other for climate-protecting jobs. unions in different countries should support national policies and international agreements that encourage countries to cooperate in sharing green technologies and expanding production for climate protection. Legally binding international agreements must phase out and ban the use of fossil fuels world wide.
There is precedent for such a rapid economic transformation in labor’s response to the threat of World War II. As Nazi armies spread devastation across Europe in 1940. United Automobile Workers Union president Walter Reuther proposed a startling plan to retool the Depression-ravaged auto industry to build 500 warplanes a year. The auto magnates scoffed, but soon a massive mobilization put tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers to work producing what the war effort required while shutting down wasteful and unnecessary production that would impede it. While there are many differences, climate protection is an emergency that can call forth a comparable effort today.65
Overcoming climate alienation is only one small part of creating a healthy and sustainable life for all. But it can be a critical starting point. The impact of climate change is universally devastating, creating an urgent global common interest to take action now. How ever. the dependence of the working class on fossil fuel energy and on gaining a livelihood through employment is a critical deterrent to effective climate act ion . Therefore this chapter proposes a program to overcome climate alienation by eliminating CHG emissions in a way that also significantly reduces worker’s dependence on employers and fossil fuels.
Transition to 100% fossil-free energy
Burning fossil fuel is currently disrupting the Earth’s climate system and if continued will eliminate the conditions that have been essential for human civilization. Fossil fuel energy, however, is an intrinsic feature of the modern world order on which nearly all aspects of modern life depend. It is also essential for most of the jobs on which workers depend.
For these reasons, the American labor movement has accepted and implicitly advocated the continuation of fossil fuel burning. perhaps modestly reduced by cautious climate policies guaranteed not to interfere with jobs and economic growth. A program to end climate alienation and save humanity st art s. in contrast. from the commitment to rapidly reduce and ultimately eliminate the burning of fossil fuels while protecting against possible adverse consequences of doing so.
Rapidly eliminate fossil fuels
Climate scientists have identified the CHG reductions necessary for the survival of human civilization. The IPCC famously calls for a minimum reduction of 80 percent by 2050 in order to keep global warming below a 2° Celsius increase. Climate scientist James Hansen has identified any level of atmospheric GHGs over 350 ppm as incompatible with human life as we have known it. According to Hansen, to reach 350 ppm by the end of the century. starting from 2012 as a baseline. will require a global reduction of 6 percent per year in fossil fuel emissions combined with the extraction of 100 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.66 Global carbon emissions will need to be near zero by around 2050. 67 The fair share of GHG reduction would be substantially higher for wealthy countries like the United States which have contributed large amounts of GHGs in the past.
Most climate action plans are not designed to reach these scientific targets. They may list various desirable (and often politically expedient) policies or short-term goals but put off the heavy lifting to the future. The U.S. federal climate action plan. for example. does not even purport to lay out a pathway to reducing GHG emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
A worker climate action plan for a fossil-free economy should include frequent interim targets that require steady year-on-year reductions rather than postponing more difficult reductions to the future.68 It should provide for a phased development that takes advantage of early opportunities but also lays the groundwork for later program s. And it should provide for course correction along the way. This labor climate action plan is based on a phase-out of fossil fuel energy rapid enough to meet scientific goals with a comparably rapid expansion of clean energy.
Rapidly expand energy efficiency and fossil-free energy
Simply halting the burning of fossil fuels would lead to immediate national and global catastrophe . The dependence of modern civilization on fossil fuel energy means that the proverbial “freezing to death in the dark” would be the immediate fate of millions or perhaps billions of people. The fossil fuel industry takes advantage of this basic dependence, as well as its own immense wealth and power to discourage the implementation of alternative energy sources. Government climate action plans so far do not lay out a program for a transition to a fossil-free energy system . Markets have significantly failed to invest adequately in energy efficiency and renewable energy , even where it would have been profitable to do so.69
The American labor movement argues that abundant and cheap energy is economically essential. and it endorses an “all of the above” energy policy that is based largely on nuclear energy, hypothetical “clean coal” technology, and expansion of natural gas. It does not have a plan to compensate for a reduction of fossil fuel use and it has done little to develop one or to encourage others to do so.
Studies show that replacement of fossil fuel energy by renewable energy and energy efficiency is technically feasible and suggest various pathways to achieve it.70 It can be accomplished based on commercially available technologies, but rapid expansion of research and markets will likely lead to very rapid improvement in technology along the way. The transition can be based on renewable energy technologies that cut the GHGs released by production, and energy efficiency measures that reduce the amount of energy needed. It will not require nuclear energy, large-scale modifications of earth systems through geo-engineering or carbon capture and storage, each of which is likely to be far slower, more costly, and more environmentally dangerous than rapid conversion to renewable energies and energy efficiency. There will be only a small need for natural gas as a transitional fuel.
The most important areas for transition are electricity, transportation and buildings. Electricity produced by fossil fuels, the largest single emitter of GHGs, can be replaced by wind, solar and hydro energy sources, smart grids, new energy storage technologies, and increased efficiency. Petroleum-based private transportation can be replaced with cars, trucks, trains and public transit powered by renewable electricity. Freight transportation can be converted to rail transport and electric vehicles. Virtually all buildings can be made much more efficient through insulation. weatherization, co-generation and solar and geothermal heating, cooling, and hot water. Many other strategies. ranging from industrial redesign to “smart growth ” integration of urban and transportation planning, and from expanding forests to reducing fossil fuel use and applying carbon-sequestering techniques in farming, will also contribute. Every workplace, industry and community will have a role in building a climate-safe economy.
Numerous studies have detailed how this transition can be mad e. The Labor Network for Sustainability’s report. “The Clean Energy Future: Protecting the Climate, Creating Jobs, and Saving Money.” for example, shows that the United States can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 while adding half a million jobs per year and saving Americans billions of dollars on their electrical, heating, and transportation costs.71
Ensure that climate protection benefits all workers
Working people have complex and contradictory interests in relation to climate protection. All workers, like everyone, have a common interest in climate protection . Many workers will find jobs helping protect the climate. If climate policy produces enough jobs to reduce unemployment. it will benefit nearly all workers. But if fossil fuel use is eliminated. specific groups of workers who extract. process. transport. and use fossil fuels are likely to lose their jobs. If eliminating fossil fuels leads to unemployment and economic disruption, all workers are likely to suffer. If established patterns of unequal access to good jobs remain unchanged, workers who are subject to discrimination and exclusion will receive little benefit from climate protection measures. If the new climate-safe economy replaces good jobs with poor ones. workers who get those jobs will receive little benefit and the conditions of other workers will be subject to downward pressures as well. Therefore, a worker program for climate protection must integrate common needs and the needs of specific groups into a unifying strategy that realizes them all.
World War II mobilization provides one model, though an imperfect one, for transforming the labor market to meet the needs of climate transition. The government recruited workers previously outside the workforce, led the training effort, steered the location of employers and workers. and created labor rights and standards that led to what well may have been the greatest gains in wages, job security and union representation in American history. The number of Americans employed outside the military rose by 7.7 million between 1939 and 1944, even while millions more left the civilian labor force for the military. Government boards redirected workers to military production, sometimes by threatening to draft them otherwise. Women entered the industrial workforce on an unprecedented scale and government provided training for millions of workers. The National War Labor Board set wages and required employers to bargain collectively with their employees’ unions. Government built housing and provided healthcare and childcare for war workers.72 War labor policies were often biased toward business and were frequently challenged by organized labor and wildcat strikes,73 but there is little question that overall they provided a historic improvement in the power and living standards of American workers.
A worker climate action plan requires changes on the scale of World War II economic
mobilization, but rather different specific policies. These policies are in line with traditional labor movement objectives such as full employment, high minimum standards for wages and