New York City — September 21 (Laborpress) — Tonight, labor turned out in a big way to cheer envronmentalists’ message of urgent action in the face of global warming. The September 21 event at New York’s Ethical Culture Society on Central Park West in Manhattan brought labor’s biggest star — newly elected AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka — shoulder to shoulder with environmental campaigners.
The message of cooperation was clear: just as it had a decade ago on the issue of immigration, American labor would trim its sails and take a new tack. When the Kyoto accords were first proposed, Trumka said, “we in the labor movement were convinced they didn’t make sense. But now the science can’t be denied.”
Government mandates to cut carbon emissions, Trumka said, are an opportunity to create new jobs. Noting his roots in the mining industry, Trumka said that clean coal technology offers the promise of good jobs, and also raised the prospect of exporting that technology to other nations — notably China — with large coal reserves. He also kept the door open to nuclear power, noting that France obtains 80% of its power from that source. Wind, solar, and geothermal also figured in his presentation. He called for stiff tariffs to be imposed on imports from countries which do not meet emissions targets, as well as a tax on short-term financial transactions, presumably stock speculation.
The event’s primary message — that the need to cut emissions and conserve energy would be a jobs bonanza — was echoed by many other speakers, like International Trade Union Confederation President Sharan Burrow, who said: “Climate mandates will create a green jobs market. [The upcoming international climate conference at] Copenhagen can’t be on the road to further negotiation. There must be a deal. It must be fair, ambitious, and binding, based on good, sustainable jobs, and a just transition.”
Also on the dais, but more cautious in his mood that most of the activists, was President Obama’s point man on climate change, Jonathan Pershing, who serves as the US State Department’s Special Envoy on Climate Change. Referring to the presence of the President of the Maldive Islands at the event — a country so low it would be inundated by even a slight rise in sea level — Pershing said the Administration wants to stop the displacement of Pacific islanders from their countries, but cautioned that “the US electorate is not willing to take hard steps to address climate change.” He said the Administration wants to see technological solutions to the climate crisis, but didn’t elaborate on what those might be.
Coming out as the evening’s expert — representing the scientific community — was (speaking at right, with Juan Somovia, Director-General of the International Labour Organization) Kevin Knobloch, President of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Discussing the opposition to scientific findings on climate change by some members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he said that “those who are digging in for the status quo are deciding that questioning the science is still a useful tactic. Make no mistake — there is an overwhelming [scientific] consensus that global warming is well underway…and if we don’t take action, we are looking at the planet’s being unable to sustain life as we know it.” Knobloch said that the world has only a two to three year window in which to put in place plans for deep reductions in oil and gas usage. “The stronger the greenhouse gas reduction targets, the clearer the policies are,” he said, “the bolder we are, the more jobs will be created.” He said Americans need to change their behavior, noting that we are twice as wasteful when it comes to consumption and half as efficient when it comes to energy usage as the Europeans and the Japanese.
The focus again shifted to labor as TWU Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research Roger Toussaint gave a characteristically cogent analysis of the current situation. He recapped how “car culture and big oil won out,” making possible a society where 80 percent of transportation resources go into the automobile and only 20 percent into mass transit. Toussaint held up New York’s mass transit system — “one reason why New York is as great as it is” — as a signal solution to global warming. “[Putting resources into] public transport immediately provides a solution to greening the economy by taking private vehicles off the road,” he said. He added that public transport battles urban sprawl.
Striking a populist note which brought approval from the crowd, Toussaint scored Mayor Michael Bloomberg for taking stimulus money with one hand and laying off transit workers with the other. “People are using stimulus money to advance the ideological positions that they’ve always had,” he said. He added that labor must have a central role in shaping climate policy, saying that if this was left to government and business, it would fail. Taking a position that drew a nod from Knobloch, Toussaint added that “already there’s a push back against [climate] policy being driven by science. But there should be no retreat from the dictates that science presents to us.” He added that weak sectors of the American econmy — and poor nations — need support to ease into a low-carbon future.
Both labor and environmental representatives received frequent applause from the audience, which included large delegations of rank and file union members from LIUNA locals 78 and 79 — as well as the recently formed Local 10 — and TWU Local 100. Also present were workers from IBEW Local 3, SEIU, RWDSU, DC 37 locals 420, 371, and 375, and a group of protesting Stella D’oro workers, who are building labor support in an effort to stave off the planned closing of their factory in the Bronx.
Also on hand to give a personal dimension to the climate crisis were Constance Okollet, Chair of the Osukuru United Women Network of Uganda, and H. E. Mohamed Nasheed, President of the Maldive Islands. Okollet told of climactic alterations in Uganda, in which normal rainfall patterns have altered to produce long droughts puncuated by flooding. Mr. Nasheed made a plea for dramatic cuts in global carbon emissions, noting that his country has an average elevation of just three feet above sea level. “If you can’t defend the Maldives today,” he said, “you won’t be able to defend yourselves tomorrow. We want to live, please understand that,” he concluded.