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Sean Sweeney

(Working Paper #9) Are We Moving Away From Fossil Fuels? Separating Facts from Fantasies

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, January 31, 2017

Is the World Really Moving Away from Fossil Fuels? Examining the Evidence.

PDF available for download now.

During 2015 and 2016, a number of significant public and political figures have made statements suggesting that the world is “moving away from fossil fuels,” and that the battle against greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and climate change is therefore being won. Such statements are frequently accompanied by assurances that the transition to renewable energy and a low-carbon economy is both “inevitable” and already well underway, and that economic growth will soon be “decoupled” from dangerously high annual emissions levels. This optimism has also been accepted by a section of the environmental movement, and even by some unions.

Renewables and Reality 

If the “green growth” optimists are correct, the political implications for trade unions and social movements are profound. For unions, it would mean focusing aggressively on the need to protect the livelihoods of the tens of millions of workers around the world who currently work in fossil fuels and rallying around the principle of “just transition” encoded in the preface to the Paris Agreement. But it would also mean that the need to wage a determined and protracted political struggle against fossil fuel expansion and “extractivism” would immediately become less urgent. In this scenario, trade union efforts would rightly focus on working to shape the next energy system as it rises from the ashes of the old.

But what if proclamations of fossil fuels’ demise are wrong? What if the “momentum” has not shifted, and the transition to renewables-based power is neither inevitable nor well underway? In that case, the struggle against the current model of ownership that drives the growth of fossil fuels and extractivism—that is, the struggle for democratic control and social ownership of energy—remains vital. This would demand redoubled effort and commitment across all sections of our movement. It would mean the level of urgency in the struggle for energy democracy must be increased, activism stepped up, and fresh approaches embraced, encouraged, and endorsed.

Their Optimism, and Ours

In this ninth TUED working paper, authors Sean Sweeney and John Treat document the recent claims of the optimistic, “green growth” narrative; examine the evidence frequently used to legitimize and sustain it; and then consider this evidence in context of the broader trends in the global energy system, drawing on a range of major recent data sources.

What the paper’s analysis shows is that, unfortunately, the world is not “moving away from fossil fuels”; far from it. The recent “we are winning” optimism is misplaced, misleading, and disarming. It must therefore be rejected, and replaced with a more sober perspective that draws hope and confidence not from a selective and self-deceiving interpretation of the data, but from the rising global movement for climate justice and energy democracy, armed with clear programmatic goals and a firm commitment to achieve them.

Unions are urged to circulate the paper and use its contents to stimulate debates on energy policy and political action. Please send comments, additional data, and requests for more information to Irene Shen (ireneTUED@gmail.com).

Download the full paper here.

Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers: Are the Trades Putting Labor’s Head in the Gas Oven?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 14, 2016

This article first appeared in New Labor Forum. It has been updated to reflect the rising level of union opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.

In a recent video interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[i] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that a growing number of unions have opposed the DAPL, among them the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. Union locals (branches or chapters) have also opposed the DAPL, among them, GEU UAW Local 6950 and Steelworkers Local 8751.

These unions have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents well established AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[ii]

Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There?

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 12, 2016

In the months leading to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, representatives of global institutional investors and multinational corporations made headlines after they demanded that world leaders adopt radical emissions reduction targets, among them “net zero” emissions by 2050. Examples include the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, which was signed by 409 investors representing more than $24 trillion in assets, and the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (which includes the likes of Shell Global and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited). Following the Statement’s adoption in Paris, a cluster of corporate heads led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson (calling itself the “B Team”) demanded that all governments turn the Paris net zero emissions target into national-level laws.

What are we to make of this? The practical implications of the net zero target adopted in Paris—if it is seriously pursued—are nothing short of revolutionary, opening up a “system crunch” scenario when the forces of growth, profit, and accumulation that presently propel capitalism collide with the political imperatives required to reach virtually total “decarbonization” in little more than a generation.

Paradoxically, the corporate push to adopt net zero by 2050—a target that is unprecedented in terms of its ambition—merely draws attention to the fact that the corporate elite has no clear or convincing idea about how it might be achieved. The capitalist spirit is progressively willing, but the flesh grows all the time steadily weaker.

Thus, the Paris Agreement can be a clarifying moment for labor, the climate movement, and the broader left in that, more than ever before, it exposes the gulf between what needs to be done from a scientific standpoint and what the global corporate and political elite are actually able to deliver.

(Working Paper #6) Carbon Markets After Paris: Trading in Trouble

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, March 11, 2016

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement enshrines emissions trading schemes (ETSs) as a key mechanism for reducing emissions. But are ETSs effective?

Since the early 1990s, “putting a price on carbon” has been, perhaps, the primary policy proposal for fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Whether through carbon taxes or “cap-and-trade” ETSs, proponents of carbon pricing see it as a way to guide investment toward green solutions without the need for more decisive government interventions. ETSs, in particular, have been favored by businesses and neoliberal policy makers seeking to limit emissions without disrupting business-as-usual.

It has been a decade since the European Union established the world’s largest ETS. In the long aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, the price on carbon has been too low to incentivize investors to move away from fossil fuels.

Union Approaches

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)—a supporter of the EU ETS—has called for policies that would raise the price on carbon while also expressing concern about “carbon leakage” —where companies move polluting activities (and associated jobs) to jurisdictions without price constraints on pollution. Such a position threads the needle of trade union debates around the EU ETS without resolving the underlying tensions—nor, it should be noted, shifting EU policy in any appreciable way. With the Paris Agreement giving an even more prominent role to carbon pricing, unions around the world are likely to face similar debates.

In the TUED Working Paper Carbon Markets After Paris, TUED Coordinator  Sean Sweeney argues that it is time for unions to reevaluate their stance on emissions trading. Market-based solutions may be appealing to business interests and their political allies, but it’s going to take direct governmental action to guide a transition to a just, democratic, and sustainable energy system and a low-carbon economy.  The now battered neoliberal consensus finds public and democratic ownership and control of a key economic sector to be anathema, but it is precisely what is needed if we are serious about combating climate change.

TUED Disclaimer: This paper represents the views of its author.  The opinions expressed here may or may not be consistent with the policies and positions of unions participating in TUED. The paper is offered for discussion and debate.

"Liberté Is Not Just A Word": Klein, Corbyn Call for Mass Protest at COP21

By Nadia Prupis - Common Dreams, December 8, 2015

"By taking to the streets, we will be clearly and unequivocally rejecting the Hollande government's draconian and opportunistic bans on marches, protests, and demonstrations."

Video: At a packed meeting in Paris, Naomi Klein, supported by UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, calls for mass civil disobedience to break the ban on demonstrations on December 12. Trade unionists and others discuss the real solutions to climate change: an end to fossil fuels, energy democracy, and a just transition to millions of cllimate jobs.

Additional Speakers: Sean Sweeney (Trade Unions for Energy Democracy), Lyda Forero (Transnational Institute–TNI, Columbia), Josua Mata (Philippino Workers Central–SENTRO, Philippines), Clara Paillard (Public & Commercial Services Union–PCS, United Kingdom) and Judy Gonzalez (New York State Nurses Association, USA)

In Paris on Monday, a panel of activists, including author Naomi Klein and UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, spoke to a packed crowd on the role of the global labor sector in the climate justice movement and called for mass civil disobedience to break French President François Hollande's ban on demonstrations during the COP21 summit.

Klein spoke candidly about the global climate agreement being hammered out by world leaders this month, stating, "The deal that will be unveiled in less than a week will not be enough to keep us safe. In fact, it will be extraordinarily dangerous."

Wealthy nations have set up inadequate climate targets that could allow average global temperatures to rise by 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, Klein said—far higher than the agreed-on threshold of 2°C, which scientists say would cause catastrophic extreme weather events. The deal is going to "steamroll over crucial scientific red lines... it is going to steamroll over equity red lines... it is going to steamroll over legal red lines."

"Which is why on December the 12th, at 12 o'clock—that's 12-12-12—many activists will be peacefully demonstrating against the violation of these red lines," Klein said, prompting a round of applause from the audience of roughly 800 trade unionists and other workers and activists.

What kind of "just transition"?

By Michael Ware - Socialist Worker, December 1, 2015

The climate justice movement knows what it is against, but what are we fighting for? Michael Ware, of System Change Not Climate Change, has some answers:

EVERYONE BUT a few Republican crackpots now acknowledge that the planet faces a climate emergency. But the bosses at ExxonMobil had a bit of a head start.

A company memo was unearthed this year showing that the oil giant knew since 1977 from its own scientists that burning fossil fuels contributed to global warming. But the findings were hidden, and Exxon continued to be climate change deniers for decades to come.

This revelation speaks volumes about how short-term profits trump everything under capitalism, even human survival. Exxon's research pointed toward what we are living through today: increased temperatures globally, drought, mass flooding, more intense hurricanes, crop failures, extinctions, melting polar regions, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, water scarcity, and on and on.

Already, climate change causes 300,000 to 400,000 deaths per year, mostly in the Global South, according to a study conducted on behalf of the UN several years ago.

In order to keep the increase in global temperatures under 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century and avoid catastrophic environmental changes, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 5-10 percent each year. Already, the global temperature increase has been almost 1 degree Celsius.

The emergence of a green capitalism sector, increased energy efficiencies and limited expansion of renewable energy have done little to bring down the estimates of average temperature increases. Without a radical change of course, the increase will be between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Clearly, just educating politicians and business leaders about the threat isn't enough. We need movements and protests strong enough to force big changes in the way humans produce and consume energy.

The urgency around halting climate change creates a unique political dynamic. The need for social change is always urgently felt by the oppressed, but for the first time, we have an environmental timer showing that the huge task of transitioning to a sustainable world must take place in this century, or humanity will face the consequences of an inhospitable planet.

Fighting for this kind of change will necessarily threaten capitalism. Yet it's hard for most people to envision a world without corporations, car culture, oil wars, oppression and a market for everything, including pollution.

Unions to lobby for "energy democracy" at Paris climate talks

By Teresa Albano - People's World, November 27, 2015

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."

(Working Paper #5) The Hard Facts About Coal: Why Trade Unions Should Re-evaluate their Support for Carbon Capture and Storage

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 6, 2015

The Hard Facts About Coal – Unions and CCS - Coal use has grown dramatically in the past 25 years and is today responsible for 44% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions.  It also has a dramatic impact on health and life expectancy.

Much hope has been placed in carbon capture and storage (CCS) to help address the CO2 generated by burning coal. Its proponents have included trade unionists, climate scientists, environmentalists, and governments looking for a way to greatly reduce emissions. And indeed, this evolving technology promises to capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants and to permanently bury it in stable geological formations deep underground.

However, the promise of CCS has so far gone unfulfilled. In fact, the potential of deploying CCS—and the support it receives from unions and others—has been used as political cover for the development of new coal infrastructure. It seems increasingly unlikely that CCS will ever be deployed at an adequate level, leaving us with a locked-in carbon infrastructure without the promised mitigation.

Even if CCS is deployed at the levels needed to significantly reduce emissions, the environmental damage done by extracting, transporting, and burning coal will continue. Indeed, the “energy penalty” associated with CCS means that coal’s impact on human health and the environment may even be increased. In this context, trade union support for CCS risks alienating frontline communities and other allies who are taking the lead in building a movement for climate and environmental justice.

In this TUED Working Paper, Sean Sweeney, the director of the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment at CUNY’s Murphy Institute, looks at CCS in the context of coal-fired electricity generation. He argues that rather than supporting CCS within a market-dominated policy debate, the trade union movement should be exploring a “third scenario,” one that challenges the neoliberal policy framework and the “growth without end” assumptions that dominates policy discussions on energy use. CCS may have a place in the transition to a post-carbon world, but this place must be determined democratically, and by public need.

Green Capitalism Won’t Work

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, June 1, 2015

For the last twenty years, unions in the United States and internationally have generally accepted the dominant discourse on climate policy, one that is grounded in assumptions that private markets will lead the “green transition,” reduce emissions, and stabilize the climate over the longer term. Indeed, unions began attending the climate negotiations convened by the United Nations in the early 1990s, a time when the “triumph of the market” went unchallenged and the climate debate was awash with neoliberal ideas. Unions, therefore, focused on articulating the need for “Just Transition” policies to deal with the negative impacts on employment brought about by climate policies and to highlight the need for income protection, re-employment opportunities, education and re-training, and job creation.1

In keeping with the policy discourse of the time, unions talked and acted as if the transition to a low carbon economy was inevitable—the science was, after all, definitive and a broad consensus was emerging among business, governments, and civil society that emissions reductions were urgently needed and made good economic sense. Few unions openly expressed the view that capitalism might be incapable of addressing climate change and that radical restructuring of political economy is necessary in order to stay within planetary boundaries.

(Working Paper #3) Energy Democracy in Greece: SYRIZA’s Program and the Transition to Renewable Power

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, February 4, 2015

Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent “Great Recession,” governments have mostly scaled back or deemphasized their climate protection and “green” commitments. Lack of public funds and concerns about growth, competitiveness, and unemployment are frequently cited as explanations for this apparent loss of both ambition and urgency. The “green growth” narrative that colored various countercyclical “stimulus” spending packages from 2009-10 has been largely abandoned.

This has in turn slowed the deployment of renewable energy and thrown the UN climate negotiations into paralysis. During the recent talks in Lima (COP 20) it became clear that a global climate agreement seems very unlikely to emerge from the “deadline COP” in Paris in late 2015.

The goal of this paper is to show how economic crisis and austerity, which today serves as the perfect cover for inaction and reversals on climate protection and ecological sustainability, could actually spur a radical departure from the slow and stuttering progress of the recent past. The paper looks at the opportunities for such a departure in Greece, a country mired in debt, high unemployment, and on the receiving end of a full-blown austerity program. But Greece is also a country where the radical Left could soon be in power led by a party, SYRIZA, that’s committed to nothing less than the “ecological transformation of the economy.”

But how can such a transformation be carried out? How can a country like Greece—facing enormous challenges—be an ecological leader and perhaps an exemplar for a new course? Can a SYRIZA or SYRIZA-led government break new ground in terms of fusing a viable leftgreen project in the face of crushing odds?

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