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Just Transition for the coal industry is expensive – but cheaper than failure to address the needs

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 5, 2017

July 2017 saw the release of  Lessons from Previous Coal Transitions:  High-level Summary for Decision-makers , a synthesis report of case studies of past coal mining transitions in Spain, U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, U.S., and the Czech Republic – some as far back as the 1970’s.  Some key take-aways from the report:  “Because of the large scale and complexity of the challenges to be addressed, the earlier that actors (i.e. workers, companies and regions) anticipated, accepted and began to implement steps to prepare and cushion the shock of the transition, the better the results”; “the aggregate social costs to the state of a failure to invest in the transition of workers and regions are often much higher that the costs of not investing from an overall societal perspective.” While the level of cost details varies in the case studies, it is clear that costs are significant.  For example, the case study of Limburg, Netherlands states that the national government spent approximately 11.6 billion Euros (in today’s prices) on national subsidies to support coal prices and regional reconversion, in addition to  several 100 million per year in EU funds. “One estimate also suggested that in the Dutch case, all told, regional reinvestment in new economic activities also cost about 300 to 400 000€/per long-term job created.”  Limburg is also cited as “remarkable for the relatively consensual nature of the transition between unions, company and government.”  (see page 10).

The Synthesis report and individual case study reports of the six countries are available here . These are the work of the Research and Dialogue on Coal Transitions project, a large-scale research project led by Climate Strategies and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) , which also sponsors the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  Future reports scheduled for 2018: a Global report, and a Round Table on the Future of Coal.

The Search for Trans Mountain’s 15,000 Construction Jobs

By Robyn Allan - DeSmog Canada, August 28, 2017

When Prime Minister Trudeau announced approval of the Trans Mountain project he said the expansion “will create 15,000 new, middle class jobs — the majority of them in the trades.” 

Natural Resources Minister, Jim Carr, repeatedly points to this figure to justify Ottawa’s approval. He says, “the project is expected to create 15,000 new jobs during construction.”

Alberta Premier Notley relies on it too. “Initially we’re looking at about 15,000 jobs…” Former Premier Christy Clark said, “And then there’s Kinder Morgan, 15,000 new jobs…”

When the figure of “15,000” for new construction jobs emerged, I was confused. Kinder Morgan told the National Energy Board (NEB) that construction employment for the project was an average of 2,500 workers a year, for two years. It was laid out in detail in Volume 5B of the proponent’s application. 

Why would elected officials promote a construction jobs figure six times Kinder Morgan’s actual number?

I contacted the Prime Minister’s office. I asked his staff to explain how the figure their boss relies on was developed. They did not do so. I even wrote the Prime Minister directly. I received no reply. Natural Resources Canada said, “The numbers are from the proponent” and “believed” they were based on Conference Board of Canada estimates, while Premier Notley’s office said it came from the industry and directed me to Trans Mountain’s website.

There it was. “During construction, the anticipated workforce will reach the equivalent of 15,000 jobs per year…” Kinder Morgan provided no insight as to how that figure was derived.

I inquired directly and was told, “the figures come from two Conference Board of Canada reports.” Links to those reports were provided. 

I read both reports. Neither included reference to 15,000 construction jobs as Kinder Morgan said they would. What they did provide was a figure of 58,037 person years of project development employment—over seven years beginning in 2012.

I knew the 58,037 figure to be the same as that provided in a Conference Board of Canada report authored in 2013 and filed by Kinder Morgan as part of the discredited NEB hearing. The Conference Board based its estimate on an Input Output model which — because of its many design flaws — delivers highly exaggerated results.

Methane regulations: a path to lower emissions and more jobs for Alberta

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, August 23, 2017

A July 2017  report by Blue Green Canada,   argues that the Alberta government should implement methane regulations immediately, rather than wait for the proposed federal regulations to take effect in 2023.    Speeding up regulations “could reduce air pollution, achieve our climate targets more cost-effectively, and create thousands of high-paying jobs in a single step”, according to Don’t Delay: Methane Emission Restrictions mean Immediate jobs in Alberta .  Blue Green estimates that Alberta’s oil and gas operations release $67.6 million worth of methane annually, and recovering it for energy use could create more than 1,500 new jobs in the province – well paid jobs,  including work in engineering, manufacturing, surveying, and administration.

The findings of the BlueGreen report are in line with a broader report released by  Environmental Defence in April, which demonstrated that methane emissions are higher than reported by industry: 60% higher in Alberta.  See  Canada’s Methane Gas Problem: Why strong regulations can reduce pollution, protect health and save money   at the Environmental Defence website. Research funded by the David Suzuki Foundation, and released in April,  found that methane emissions in B.C. are 250% higher than reported.   The Cost of Managing Methane Emissions,  a June blog from the Pembina Institute, also sheds light on the GHG savings to be had by instituting regulations. The political slant is covered in “ Trudeau must hold the line on Canada’s new methane rules”   by Ed Whittingham and   Diane Regas, in the Globe and Mail (June 11) .   A July article in Energy Mix summarizes the battle in the U.S., as the courts push back on the  Trump administration efforts to weaken the Obama-era methane regulations.

Rising from the ashes, a Buffalo suburb ends its dependence on coal

By Elizabeth McGowan - Grist, July 11, 2017

Sixteen months ago, the coal-fired Huntley Generating Station, which sits on the banks of the Niagara River, stopped producing power for first time since World War I.

Erie County lost its largest air and water polluter. But the town of Tonawanda, a working class Buffalo suburb 13 miles downstream of America’s most storied waterfalls, also lost its biggest taxpayer.

The impact of Huntley’s decade-long slowdown — and finally shutdown — hit this upstate New York community like a punch to the gut.

In just five years, between 2008 and 2012, Huntley’s pre-tax earnings tumbled by $113 million as it operated far below capacity, translating into a combined revenue hit of at least $6.2 million to the town, county, and local school district. That precipitous decline came when state education funds were also shrinking. Belt-tightening wasn’t enough; 140 teachers lost their jobs. Three elementary schools and one middle school closed their doors.

Rebecca Newberry, a 35-year-old former bartender and LGBT-rights activist, saw her home town facing the same fate that has befallen so many other Rust Belt communities that fell on hard times following an industrial exodus. She was determined not to let it happen to the place where she grew up. And she was fortunate enough to find a diverse group of allies who were willing to fight for their survival.

By combining the resources of her nonprofit, the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, with area labor unions and other community groups, Newberry helped to hatch a plan for Tonawanda’s next chapter — and provide an inclusive, equitable template for other blue-collar towns facing the loss of dirty energy jobs and other polluting industries. (The jargony term for this in advocacy circles is “just transitions.”)

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The Fortress World of Capitalism vs. the Beautiful Possibilities of Cooperation

By Cynthia Kaufman - Common Dreams, July 7, 2017

Our beloved world is entering an increasingly unstable period, full of dangers and also full of possibilities. In many countries, old political parties are crumbling faster and anyone thought imaginable. Old geopolitical alliances have come unglued as the US comes to exercise its role as world hegemon in new and unpredictable ways. The development of the internet, of mobile phones and of apps has led to incredible disruption of many aspects of many societies: from how we pay for and listen to music, to how we consume and propagate information and news, to how we shop for almost anything. All that is solid is melting into air.

At this crossroads it is possible that the global community will move in the direction that the dominant social forces seem to be pushing us towards. That possibility has been called “fortress world.” It is a world where we continue to burn fossil fuels and destroy the atmosphere; where climate refugees desperate to leave Africa are forced by military means to stay in a continent with a decreasing ability to produce food; where finance capital fashions a “market” that continue to squeeze working class people to into extreme poverty; where xenophobia rises in the wealthier countries and keeps masses of people voting for politicians who serve the masters of an extractive and unequal economy. That fortress world is a real possibility and the election of Donald Trump is certainly a sign that this worse future may be on the way.

But it is also possible to build a future where fossil fuels are phased out very quickly, where the political forces that oppose the domination of finance capital come to win elections, and where we work hard to create an economy where no one needs to work very hard.

The technical solutions to the climate crisis are already well at hand. Renewable energy is now economically competitive with fossil fuels, and alternatives to dirty technologies have emerged in virtually every sector of production. The problem of poverty and wealth is also an easy one to solve on a technical level. The world produces enough food to feed everyone, and our technology has developed to the point where we can meet our needs with very little work.

To give one simple illustration of how within reach a better life for all is: take the total personal income in the United States. Divide it by the number of people, and multiply by four. It turns out that the average family of four could have $220,000 per year to live on if we had income equality.  Imagine raising minimum wages, taxing the wealthy, and providing a guaranteed minimum income as ways of distributing that income. Imagine reducing work hours so that, as productivity when up, work time could go down, and work could be shared among those who needed an income. One of the main arguments against this approach is that without the profit incentive our technology would not develop. Imagine worker owner cooperatives developing better ways of doing things and sharing the wealth that comes from those developments with the people who work on them.

A new wave of automation is about to hit the world’s economies so hard that millions of service jobs will be lost in the coming period. People are starting to talk about the need for a guaranteed minimum income to deal with that displacement. If that wave hits the US with the current political consensus in place, it will mean another giant step toward the fortress world, as some people profit enormously while others have no access of the means to survive.

Why Union Workers and Environmentalists Need to Work Together with Smart Protests

By Les Leopold - Alternet, June 21, 2017

As Trump slashes and burns his way through environmental regulations, including the Paris Accord, he continues to bet that political polarization will work in his favor. Not only are his anti-scientific, anti-environmentalist positions firing up some within his base, but those positions are driving a deep wedge within organized labor.  And unbeknownst to many environmental activists, they are being counted on to help drive that wedge even deeper.

Trump already has in his pocket most of the construction trades union leaders whose members are likely to benefit from infrastructure projects – whether fossil fuel pipelines or new airports or ...... paving over the Atlantic. His ballyhooed support of coal extraction  has considerable support from miners and many utility workers as well.

But the real coup will come if Trump can tear apart alliances between the more progressive unions and the environmental community. Trump hopes to neutralize the larger Democratic-leaning unions, including those representing oil refinery workers and other industrial workers.  That includes the United Steelworkers, a union that has supported environmental policies like the federal Clean Air Act and California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, and has a long history of fighting with the oil industry – not just over wages and benefits but also over health, safety and the environment.  

To get from here to there, Trump is hoping that environmental activists will play their part -- that they will become so frustrated by his Neanderthal policies, that activists will stage more and more protests at fossil fuel-related facilities, demanding that they be shut down in order to halt global climate crisis.  

Oil refineries present a target-rich arena for protest. On the West Coast they are near progressive enclaves and big media markets in California and Washington.  Yet many who live in fence line communities would like the refineries gone, fearing for their own health and safety. Most importantly, they are gigantic symbols of the oil plutocracy that has profiteered at the expense of people all over the world.

But from Trump's point of view, nothing could be finer than for thousands of environmentalists to clash at the plant gates with highly paid refinery workers. Such demonstrations, even if peaceful and respectful, set a dangerous trap for environmental progress. Here's why: 

Gutting Climate Protections Won’t Bring Back Coal Jobs

By Jill Richardson - CounterPunch, March 30, 2017

When Barack Obama announced the Clean Power Plan, Scientific American used his own words to criticize it for not going far enough.

“There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change,” Obama said. “The science tells us we have to do more.”

Scientific American analyzed the Clean Power Plan and agreed, concluding that Obama’s plan didn’t go far enough, and would fail to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Now, Trump is dismantling even that. Obama’s insufficient effort to address climate change is gone with a stroke of Trump’s pen.

The plan was to go into effect in 2022, reducing pollution in three ways. First, by improving the efficiency of coal-fired power plants. Second, by swapping coal for cleaner natural gas. And third, by replacing fossil fuel energy with clean, renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Trump claims the plan puts coal miners out of work. But it hadn’t even been implemented yet. In reality, cheap natural gas and the use of machines instead of people to mine coal are responsible for putting far more miners out of work.

In other words, Trump is using sympathetic out-of-work miners as a cover for what is really just a handout to dirty industry.

Meanwhile, Trump is cutting job training programs for coal country. Given that, it’s hard to believe he cares at all about jobs for coal miners.

And, with a surge in cases of fatal black lung disease among miners in Appalachia, anyone who truly cared about miners would preserve the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which helps coal miners get black lung benefits.

In short, Trump’s killing of the Clean Power Plan is a handout to dirty industry with no regard for the well-being of coal miners. And it’s putting us even further behind in our efforts to leave the next generation a habitable planet.

A better leader would find a way to promote clean forms of energy while simultaneously creating good jobs for Americans. Of course, that’s exactly what Obama’s one-time “green jobs” czar Van Jones called for, and the Republicans hated him.

But the fact of the matter is that climate-smart policies create jobs. They create jobs retrofitting buildings, manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines, innovating to create more efficient batteries, and discovering the best way to upgrade our power grid.

It seems that, if we installed a wind turbine near the White House, Trump could single handedly provide the nation with clean energy from all of the bluster coming out of his mouth.

In the meantime, catastrophic climate change is as much of a crisis as ever, and the clock is ticking.

Why We Need a Federal Job Guarantee

By Mark Paul, William Darity Jr, & Darrick Hamilton - Jacobin, February 4, 2017

Universal basic income (UBI), an annual government-sponsored payment to all citizens, has been gaining traction across the American political landscape. Andy Stern, former Service Employees International Union president, believes the program will counteract the “acceleration of technology” that he thinks will likely create “work but not reliable jobs or incomes.” On the Right, the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray argues that we should replace the “entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers” with a UBI.

Other heavy-hitters agree it’s worth discussing. Robert Reich’s recent video calls on the government to provide a minimum payment for every citizen. President Obama told Wired that the United States will have to debate UBI and similar programs “over the next ten or twenty years.”

The renewed attention makes sense: UBI would cover workers who, thanks to technological progress, have lost their jobs. One often-cited report tells us that 47 percent of all jobs are at risk of being automated. Yet existing social insurance programs are insufficient. The current array of programs — such as unemployment insurance, the earned income tax credit, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — help many Americans, but over forty-three million people still live below the poverty line. Children are among the most vulnerable, with nearly half living at or near poverty.

The UBI represents one way to fight increasing deprivation. But another potential intervention — the federal job guarantee (FJG) — might be a far more promising demand.

A job guarantee is not a new idea. It has been part of the American conversation at least since populist governor Huey Long put forth his Share Our Wealth Plan. In 1934, he argued that the United States should use public works to ensure “everybody [is] employed.” These calls were echoed by politicians from Roosevelt in his Economic Bill of Rights to George McGovern during his 1972 presidential bid. Martin Luther King also stumped for a job guarantee, demanding immediate “employment for everyone in need of a job.” He saw “a guaranteed annual income at levels that sustain life and decent circumstances” as the second-best option.

Here are five reasons to agree with him.

Trade unions and the climate change fight

By Julie Douglas and Peter McGhee - Briefing Papers, July 5, 2016

We [unions] have to stop running away from the climate crisis, stop leaving it to the environmentalist, and look at it. Let ourselves absorb the fact that the industrial revolution that led to our society’s prosperity is now destabilizing the natural systems on which all of life dependsNaomi Klein

Climate change is perhaps the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. Indeed, this year is predicted to be the hottest on record since pre-industrial levels. The signing of the Paris COP21 agreement in March in 2016 behoves all countries to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. New Zealand is a signatory to the agreement, which clearly accepts that climate action is not the responsibility of governments alone and that all affected parties have a role in developing a response to climate change. Aside from environmental impacts from climate change there will be significant social, economic and political impacts as well. Work and workplaces, at the centre of the economy and social life, are important sites for responding to climate change. Employment is core to providing a livelihood and prospects on an individual level, and contributing to society as a whole.

There needs to be a tripartite approach to climate action in the workplace. Of the key direct stakeholders (state, employers and unions), unions represent around 18.6 percent of all workers (359,782 members) in New Zealand and therefore also constitutes our largest democratic body. A body of this size which has the structure in place to educate and organise through both the peak union body, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU), and individual unions, must logically become an important partner in strategic discussions at both a government, industry and firm level.

The union movement in New Zealand has a long history of leading debate and resistance around issues of social justice, from taking a stand against Spain’s fascist Franco to refusing to assist in the loading of ships carrying New Zealand police officers to Samoa in 1929 who went on to kill many Samoans in the Mau movement. With this pedigree of social conscience and history of taking action it should follow that the union movement and its members would again rise and offer leadership to the latest challenge to social order and justice, and indeed potential catastrophic change to the planet.

Not only will jobs, occupations and industries disappear or change but the health and safety of workers will be threatened and more broadly, food and water security compromised. The initial challenge to unions then, is to see these threats as core to union work and why action is imperative to ensure their unions are ready to respond, educate members, and also to work with firms to develop strategies which allow for a just transition to a more sustainable workplace and world.  Unfortunately, such transformation does not appear to be forthcoming.

A recent study we conducted interviewed leaders from eleven of the affiliated unions to the NZCTU (representing 75 percent of all members in affiliated unions). These interviews sought information on what actions, if any, the unions had put in place to respond to climate change, and also the role they saw unions having in climate action and just transition. All of the interviewees articulated a strong personal position of concern about impending climate change and need for action. They all saw the union movement and the NZCTU as important stakeholders and leaders in the action required. However, when looking at the unions themselves the results were sobering. None were in a well-prepared position to face the future regarding climate change. Two had begun to develop some basic policies and plans but did not consider themselves in anyway ready; seven respondents indicated that they personally saw the issue as important but that their unions had done nothing in this area yet and that there were no conversations within the formal structure of their organisation about this issue; and the remaining two union respondents clearly articulated that climate change was not on their union’s radar and there was no indication this was likely to change. Across these unions only two respondents indicated that there had been interest raised by their membership.

This is a fairly bleak outlook for society especially if it places its hope of action on the largest democratic body in the country. Why are unions so unprepared? There are some identifiable reasons, but not excuses, for this. Firstly, we must look at the current socio-political environment unions operate under in New Zealand. As a result of the neo liberal paradigm shift in the 1980s and consequent legislation changes (such as the Employment Contracts Act 1991), union membership dramatically fell, and since 2008 unions have sustained a consistent undermining of rights such as workplace access. The role that unions play in the lives of workers – including their members – has narrowed as a result.

Secondly, unions’ core work is the preservation and enhancement of workers’ wages and conditions. It is for this reason that workers join unions and many of the union leaders we interviewed indicated they were concerned that a shift towards long-term social issues such as climate change could affect membership numbers. The irony being that the continued focus on the short gains of wages and conditions will be pointless if in the middle to long term members’ jobs ceased to exist. That said though, research from the US indicated that union members were more likely to be concerned with environment issues and therefore may well embrace their union engaging with climate change strategies[1]. Despite this finding, it is perhaps unsurprising that none of the unions interviewed had actively surveyed or begun widespread conversations about climate change within their unions and therefore were unaware of their members’ position or wishes on the issue. While it was true that some unions had improved sustainability measures in specific firms and, in one instance, got an organisation to divest in fossil fuel investment, this still stopped well short of a unified approach.

System justification theory postulates that human’s tend to view the wider systems on which they depend in a favourable light. As Johnson notes, upholding the status quo encourages feelings of security, purpose and relatedness through a shared reality. Unions, and their members are no different. They advocate for improved employment outcomes within a capitalist system that rewards self-interest and promotes economic growth as central to human well-being (usually at the expense of the environment). Unfortunately, climate change is a consequence of that same system. Perhaps this explains unions’ reluctance to engage in any meaningful way. To embrace climate change shifts the focus from short-term economic benefits for workers to that of uniting ‘all labouring men and women for a truly different order of things’.[2] Such a move could help unions become truly social democratic movements contributing to the flourishing of all.

[1] Vachon, T., & Brecher, J. (2016). Are union members more or less likely to be environmentalists? Labor Studies Journal. Doi:10.1177/0160449×16643323

[2] Leeson, R. (1971). United We Stand: British Trade Union Emblems (p. 32). London: Adams and Dart.

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