Nearly every day at COP15 I have found myself surrounded by various government officials, clean tech CEOs, and energetic environmental youth. Last night was a pleasant change of pace and conversation when I attended a discussion among leaders from US labor unions and environmental groups. Rather than dwell on emissions targets or parts per million CO2, this discussion dug into the values of American workers and their implications for climate action support in the US.
These values turn out to be very simple: People want jobs they can be proud of, that support their communities, and that provide security into the future. Members of the Blue-Green Alliance gathered in Copenhagen to remind people that the impact of climate legislation on these factors is just as important as the environmental impact – and both must be considered in concert if we are to build broad-based support for an environmentally sustainable economy. The group also spoke to the positive global implications for an alliance between labor and environment groups. As Jerry Hudson, Vice President of SEIU (Service Employees International Union), put it, “jobs will be affected by the way we think about the planet [so] we all have skin in this game. Labor and environmental standards are important the world over.”
The Blue-Green Alliance stands as an important achievement in the US where regional, state, and non-governmental climate action fills the void left by an uncooperative federal government. The group hosts dialogues between its’ labor and environment member groups that include the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), SEIU, and Utility Workers Union of America (AFL-CIO) and sets joint positions on environmental issues. The group has proposed Copenhagen outcomes that it claims would benefit workers and the environment. The obvious points include support for clean energy and energy-efficiency technologies and support for job-transition training. Other demands are for financial support to adaptation and deforestation measures, as well as calls for “transparency, verification and accountability” for every country’s climate mitigating actions. The final request is extremely important for American businesses, the alliance said, so that U.S. and Canadian industries can adequately compare environmental responsibility against competitor businesses in foreign countries. These other countries have also caught on to the value of a blue-green alliance. A European leader at last night’s discussion declared, “this is one of the American experiences we would like to import to Europe.”
The greatest value I see in joining labor and environment groups is the way in which both movements inform the other so that they are more effective in communicating their messages. “Green jobs” are often communicated in vague terms by environmental groups. We imagine hard-hatted workers at solar plants and wind turbine factories. In fact, a massive variety of jobs can be turned Green. Worldwatch writer Michael Renner has proposed a more robust definition of Green jobs:
We define green jobs as positions in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, installation, and maintenance, as well as scientific and technical, administrative, and service-related activities, that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality. Specifically, but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect and restore ecosystems and biodiversity; reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high-efficiency and avoidance strategies; de-carbonize the economy; and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution. But green jobs also need to be good jobs that meet longstanding demands and goals of the labor movement, i.e., adequate wages, safe working conditions, and worker rights, including the right to organize labor unions. (You can read the Worldwatch report here)
Labor groups have also helped define concrete and practical ways in which currently non-green jobs can be easily transitioned to green. According to BGA Director Dave Foster, every job sector has reciprocal green opportunities. “Steel plants will make more wind turbine parts than car parts, the automotive industry will turn to smaller, more efficient, and fully electric vehicles, the nuclear industry will continue to play its role in generating carbon-free energy, and coal plants could potentially be converted for use with other fuel sources, although we all agree that carbon capture and sequestration technology needs additional research and funding.”
A representative from the American Federation of Teachers focused on green jobs outside of the service sector. “Training and retraining the workforce from early education to adulthood is a critical part of what our members do.”
Near-term action on climate change will surely require awareness of these opportunities and long-term action will require stronger and stronger links between labor and the environment.