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Labor Leaders Give Warm Reception to Climate Change Expert

January 22, 2013
Marc Bussanich

After listening to a fact-packed 25-minute presentation on climate change from NASA’s top climate scientist, 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa, who represents 120,000 property service workers, said he was “open” to Dr. James Hansen’s solution to the climate problem: a tax on carbon levied at the mine or port of entry, which could add $1 per gallon to the price of gasoline.

Hansen’s carbon tax would generate $600 billion – money that would go into a dividend fund to be shared equally among all American citizens. It would soften the blow of higher gas, oil, and coal prices for most, while the higher prices for fossil fuels would spur the development of renewable energy alternatives. He criticized “cap and trade” schemes that he said enrich banks while allowing hedges for companies to get away with polluting.

Figueroa, who also staked out a strong position against fracking, was one of four panelists at the January 17 forum on labor and climate change at CUNY’s Murphy Institute. The others included David Coles, who heads Canada’s Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (and who has come out against the Keystone XL Pipeline), Bhairavi Desai, head of the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance (who championed hybrid vehicles), and Dr. Hansen. 

They were introduced by Sean Sweeney, the Director of Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, and Greg Mantsios, Director of the Murphy Institute. Sweeney was forthright in naming the enemy. “We can’t continue to collaborate with the fossil fuel companies as if they were our friends,” he said. “We can’t support projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline to get a few jobs and let the planet burn as a consequence.”

Sweeney is the author of a report by Cornell, “Pipe Dreams? Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost by the Construction of Keystone XL,” that debunks the idea that the pipeline will create many jobs.

Figueroa pointed to energy savings being achieved by 32BJ members, saying that they can cut a building’s energy costs by between 5 and 20 percent via their “Green Supers” program, and also cited the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, which left many of his members hurting after their coastal communities were deluged.

Coles acknowledged that many of his members work in the fossil fuel industry, but said that his union nevertheless opposes the extraction of bitumen from the Canadian tar sands. Instead, he said he wants to see funds made available for transitions to other jobs, some in the renewable energy economy. “How do you transition the communities that have been built on those [fossil fuel] jobs to good paying sustainable jobs?,” he asked. There’s money available for the transition, he said, “but usually what happens is the banks get paid, the companies get paid, and the workers get the shaft.”

Hansen’s gripping presentation of the realities of climate change left no skeptics as he displayed graph after graph of constantly rising temperatures, shrinking ice cover at the poles, and described increasing instances of extreme weather around the world. With one and a half degrees of warming already taking place since the beginning of the industrial revolution, he pointed to current climate patterns, noting that another one and a half degree rise is already “in the pipeline” for the years ahead.

There’s no way to stop that doubling, he said. The only hope of stopping climate change that could result in a ten-meter rise in sea levels, he said, is to put in place some mechanism to push the cost of fossil fuel extraction up, like a carbon tax. Implementing that tax, he said, would result in a 30% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, bringing a cooler and more livable world.