Unions to lobby for “energy democracy” at Paris climate talks

Everybody likes to talk about the weather but nobody can do a damn thing about it. Or can they?

Severe weather events that have caused deaths and destruction are linked to climate change – like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy that pummeled New York and New Jersey, or the drought in Syria that forced people off their lands and into the cities, helping to create, according to reports, conditions that caused the devastating civil war.

And there is something people can do about climate change.

Despite the billions that Big Oil companies like Exxon Mobil have poured into spreading all kinds of climate change denial narratives, the world’s scientists agree overwhelmingly that the planet is warming and it’s due to the unprecedented release of human-created greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

And this warming has a cascading effect that even scientists cannot forecast. For one thing, glaciers and gigantic ice floes are melting into the oceans causing sea levels to rise, which in turn, threatens island nations like Fiji or low-lying regions of the United States, like the Florida Everglades. It’s changing ocean currents and atmospheric patterns, leading to extreme weather events of all kinds – yes, including more severe blizzards too.

And who are the biggest victims of climate change? Working people around the world – the poor, the underpaid, the jobless, the exploited.

Now, unions worldwide are preparing to make sure the voices and needs of working people are included in the final United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris, Nov. 30 – Dec. 11. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) plans to lobby negotiators and leaders of some 190 countries during the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference on three issues:

Raise the level of “ambition” in the emission targets and by doing so “realize” job creation potential in the greening of economies;

Guarantee the most vulnerable people and nations get the maximum financial help;

Commit to a “just transition” for workers and their communities involved in industries that rely on fossil fuels.

Among the U.S. union delegates will be Sean Sweeney, PhD, who is the coordinator of a global network called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. He is also the director of the International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment, which is part of the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute. Sweeney told People’s World that there will be official union participation that focuses on the formal talks in Paris, but unions will also collaborate with other social movements in hosting discussions, debates and networking events outside of the official UN summit.

On Dec. 8, TUED and other union groups will host Naomi Klein, author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” and British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in a conversation entitled, “Now Is Not the Time for Small Steps: Solutions to the Climate Crisis and the Role of Trade Unions.”

This session is shaping up to be the largest-ever union event at a climate meeting, Sweeney said in a Nov. 23 interview (to be featured in an upcoming People’s World podcast). There is not yet widespread activism on climate change among the world’s unions, nor is there unanimity on cutting carbon emissions, as jobs are often at stake. But there is a growing recognition among U.S. and other unions worldwide that action on climate change is an issue for working people and their communities.

The Paris summit presents “a great organizing opportunity,” Sweeney said. In addition to the Klein/Corbyn event, TUED will be “trying to get unions to support a trade union call for a global moratorium on fracking for shale gas and shale oil. And that has already gotten quite a lot of union support,” he said.

The other mission Sweeney will be focused on – reducing carbon emissions – is more complicated as it entails the science of climate change and the calculus of politics and social change in each country, but especially in the United States. Sweeney said the voluntary emission targets currently being proposed are “inadequate” to avoid climate catastrophe, according to the scientific data. In order to have an “adequate” agreement, he said, public control and democratization of energy, transportation, food and other systems would have to be “expanded dramatically.”

“The trade union movement needs a bolder narrative. We support the science and must take the solutions more seriously. And that means a bolder agenda,” he said.

Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said President Obama’s policies on climate change and the environment are shaping up to be a “major legacy” for Obama. But Sweeney pointed to the negative impact of the vociferous right wing in the U.S. that denies the existence of climate change and acts in Congress on behalf of Big Oil and Big Coal. It has limited what the White House has been able to do on the issue. Because of this, he said, he gives the Obama administration only a “B” or “B minus.”

“The answer to the deniers and the right wing is not Obama’s climate policy. The answer is a truthful assessment of U.S. emission trends and what’s really happening,” Sweeney said. If methane emissions were accurately reported, emissions would not look good at all, he said.

When the president says the United States is “reducing emissions more than any other country … It’s simply not true,” Sweeney said. The United States emits more carbon per capita than any other country except Canada.

Regardless of the frustrations, Sweeney sees a way forward in raising the stakes and pressing for systemic change. “The problem is not emissions, the problem is capitalism,” he said. But he cautions, that doesn’t mean the way forward is to declare, “It’s capitalism, stupid, and we’ve got to get rid of capitalism first, and then we’ll take care of the climate issue.”

On the contrary, Sweeney said, “The climate issue is like every other issue, it’s very important to working people, poor people, people around the world. It threatens their food, their water, their lives. Extending the political and economic influence of workers is crucial to solving the climate crisis. If workers extend their control and power over politics and economic decision-making, I very much doubt, if it goes to the full process and conclusion, that what’s left standing would be called capitalism.”

“But I’ve been wrong on many things in the past,” he said. “Maybe we can be surprised with what history comes up with.” In any case, he concluded, we may see “an eco-cidal scenario unless we do something about it.”

Photo: Murphy Institute, CUNY

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Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.