The Defend Our Coast rally in Victoria, October 22, 2012. (Photo: LeadNow)

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Can workers and their unions lead the struggle to slow global warming?

That was the question pondered by environmental and labour advocates at a panel held last week at York University with the title “Green Work, Brown World.”

The panel, presented by the Work in a Warming World Research Programme, came on the heels of a conference about labour and the climate crisis held in New York earlier this month.

 Labour involvement in the climate movement isn’t new; many of Canada’s biggest labour groups have been speaking out about the need to slash greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for years, and were vocal supporters of Canada’s Kyoto commitments.

The Green Economy Network, formed in 2008, counts eleven large Canadian labour groups among its membership. They’re promoting federal policies that include a tax on greenhouse gas emissions and aggressive investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transit.

Similar measures are promoted by Blue Green Canada, an alliance of labour, environmental and civil society groups. Its recent report “More Bang for our Buck” finds thatif the $1.3 billion in government subsidies now given to the oil and gas sector were instead invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, Canada would create more jobs: 18,000 more.”

Green jobs, green jobs, green jobs

 When labour groups talk about climate change, they almost always talk about green jobs. They point repeatedly to the growth in jobs and wealth that could be created by investing heavily in energy efficiency, renewable energy development and other GHG-reduction strategies.

It’s a media strategy that makes a lot of sense, given the oil companies’ and oil-financed politicians’ incessant chanting of the ‘a carbon tax/cap will kill the economy’ mantra. Blue Green Canada and similar groups pull the rug right out from under that fear-mongering refrain by pointing to the hefty job-creation potential of low-carbon energy development that is being passed up by the government. Harper’s inaction on climate change becomes the job killer in this counter-narrative.

And, without a doubt, investment in labour-intensive activity like energy efficiency retrofitting of buildings and development of renewable energy is a crucial part of any adequate climate change strategy. 

But with all the focus on green jobs, the question of how and how quickly governments must act to reverse the growth of fossil fuel extraction tends to fade into the background. And the only way to avert catastrophic climate change is to massively scale back the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Between now and 2050, we must leave at least 80 per cent of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

Governments in Canada and abroad could very well fall in line with the green jobs chorus, investing aggressively in wind, solar and other low-carbon energy industries, while also driving ahead expanded coal, oil and gas consumption (much like China is doing.) We’d have our green jobs, and the climate would still be toast.

It also won’t do any good to cut fossil fuel use domestically if we are simultaneously ramping up the export of carbon, oil and gas to be burned abroad. (I’m looking at you, British Columbia).

So here’s the thorny question that emerges for labour groups involved in the climate change debate: in addition to embracing green jobs, are they prepared to support measures that would halt job growth in fossil fuel industries and extremely energy-intensive industries that rely on fossil fuels?

A quick recap on where we stand

Before addressing that question, let’s have a quick recap of where we’re at on climate change, and what is at stake:

-The best guess we have from scientists is that keeping the planet within a temperature range “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted” requires keeping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million (ppm). We’re now at 391 ppm.

-Despite decades of political posturing and promises from politicians, global greenhouse gas emissions have only continued to rise. The International Energy Agency hazards a guess that, if current trends continue, we’ll be at 450 ppm by 2017.

-A recent World-Bank-commissioned report finds that, even if all existing GHG-reduction commitments made by states are met, “there is roughly a 20 per cent likelihood of exceeding [a global average temperature rise of] 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s.” The report outlines the nightmarish scale of death, disease and displacement due to ecosystem breakdown that we’d likely see in a 4-degrees-warmer world.

What’s at stake: the extinction of 20 to 50 per cent of all species by the end of this century if we continue with business as usual; an estimated 300,000 people already being killed by climate change every year, with hundreds of millions more being affected though hunger, disease, displacement and so on.

Unions taking sides on fossil-fuelled job growth

Some North American unions are taking vocal stands against industrial projects that would further expand fossil fuel burning, while others are proudly lining up in support for the job opportunities those projects would create.

This pattern was seen in the U.S. in last year’s battle over the Keystone XL pipeline — one of several proposed pipelines that would facilitate further rapid expansion of tar sands projects in Alberta by increasing the capacity for moving extracted bitumen to upgraders and refineries.

The Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) led a campaign in support of Keystone, even running attack ads against Obama for withholding approval of the project. They were joined by the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department. Meanwhile, the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union came out strongly in opposition, calling on the State Department “not to approve the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline or to take any actions that lead to the further extraction of Tar Sands oil.”

For this, they earned the following rebuke from LIUNA: “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.”

We’re seeing that pattern in Canada too (minus the animosity, so far).

Several large Canadian unions — the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP), the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union — have joined environmentalists and West Coast residents in their strong opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C.

But others are grabbing at the dangling carrot of jobs. The project “will provide jobs to members in Eastern Canada as well as the West,” said the Canadian head of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters at public hearings on the project held in Vancouver earlier this month. “The regulation of the oil and gas industry as a whole ensures that the impact to the environment and native peoples will be minimal and the benefits should far exceed any possible drawbacks.”

The Building & Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO agrees, and it understands exactly what is being proposed: not merely a pipeline, but also a ticket to further stepping up the extraction of bitumen in Alberta. “Canadian construction workers will benefit not only from the initial build but also from oil and gas infrastructure expansion in Alberta of Canada’s reserve of petroleum products,” the union stated in a recent press release. “There are an estimated 315 billion barrels of oil available in the oil sands — the continued expansion of this resource will contribute to Canada’s energy super power status.”

CEP wants tar sands slow-down

One of the more complex examples of Canadian unions speaking out about climate change is the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union (CEP). Among Canada’s largest unions, it represents workers in the forestry, media, telecommunication and energy sectors. Roughly a quarter of its members work in fossil fuel industries — that includes oil, gas, bitumen and coal exploration, extraction, upgrading and refining.

On questions of crucial importance to greenhouse gas emissions, the CEP has taken positions in its formal Energy Policy that include:

-Calling upon all industrialized countries to reduce their emissions to 25 to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 85-90 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

-Support for a price on carbon (with tax credits to ease the burden on low-income earners)

-Calling on the government to require that all existing and new tar sands projects become carbon neutral (“through a combination of on-site emissions reductions, carbon capture and storage and genuine emissions offsets”) by 2020.

“Our main objective is to drastically reduce the consumption of carbon,” says Dave Coles, president of the CEP. “We think that the rapid expansion in the tar sands is unsustainable. There should be no more new projects licenced until a whole number of issues — the environment, First Nations rights, skills, training — [are addressed].”

It’s pretty impressive to see a union calling for a pause on growth in an industry that, if expanded, could bring new workers into its own ranks.

But while the CEP has joined environmental groups in opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, it finds itself on the opposite side of the fence on the issue of Enbridge’s plan to reverse the direction of its Line 9 pipeline between southwestern Ontario and Montreal and use it to transport diluted bitumen. (Important to note here is that the pipeline is not currently licenced to transport diluted tar-sands bitumen, but only conventional crude oil.)

“We support it,” says Coles. “Those that are in opposition to it don’t understand it. What it will do is lessen the reliance on foreign oil and assist in Canada being able to control its own energy … Some environmentalists think it’s a gateway to export bitumen; that’s certainly not its intent now.”

There is no guarantee, though, that the bitumen Enbridge wants to move to Montreal would be refined in Canada. The company’s talking about the possibility of further transporting it to provinces on the East Coast, but it appears equally likely that some or all of it could end up in Portland, Maine.

And, regardless of what country the stuff ends up getting refined in, adding onto the network of pipelines capable of carrying bitumen seems likely to open the door to increased tar sands extraction.

Asian unions say “leave it in the ground”

Globally, one of the strongest recent collective statements in support of climate change action was made by dozens of groups — unions very prominent among them — who participated in the Asia Social Movements Assembly at the World Social Forum on Migration, held in Manila last November.

“All developed countries called Annex 1 parties in the UN climate negotiations should urgently make drastically deep cuts, until 2020, at least 40 to 50 per cent of their emissions based on 1990 levels,” says the statement.

“These commitments should be translated into concrete targets in coal, oil and gas usage per year,” it continues, “without using loopholes, offsets or carbon markets … we have to leave 80 per cent of these oil, gas and coal reserves under the soil.”

The signatories include, naturally, groups representing people whose livelihoods are directly threatened by climate change, like the Indonesia Fisherfolk Union and the South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers Movements.

But they also include trade unions, some in industries heavily reliant on fossil fuels: the Building and Wood Workers’ International, Confederation of Indonesia Trade Unions, National Confederation of Transportworkers’ Union, Philippine Airline Employees’ Association, Philippine Metalworkers’ Alliance, and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions.

The kind of dramatic scale back in use of fossil fuels they endorse, even coupled with aggressive investments in green energy, would almost certainly restrict job growth in some of the sectors those unions represent. Despite this, and despite being far poorer than developed-nation workers, they say “leave it in the ground.”

Perhaps the fact that poor people in developing regions stand to be the most devastated by global warming has given Asian workers a very sharp, very personal appreciation of what’s at stake in the climate change debate.


Lori Theresa Waller is‘s labour reporter.  

Photo: LeadNow 

Lori Theresa Waller

Lori Theresa Waller

Lori Theresa Waller is rabble’s new labour beat reporter, a co-op position supported by the Canadian Auto Workers union. As a freelance writer, Lori has written about environmental and social justice...