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Building a Democratic Energy Future: Lithium Extractivism and North-South Inequalities

The “Electrify Everything” Movement’s Consumption Problem

By Amy Westervelt - The Intercept, May 8, 2023

In 2019, Thea Riofrancos was splitting her time between researching the social and environmental impacts of lithium mining in Chile and organizing for a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels in the United States. A political science professor at Providence College and member of the Climate and Community Project, Riofrancos was struck by the contrast: Lithium is essential to the batteries that make electric vehicles and renewable energy work, but mining inflicts its own environmental damage. “Here I am in Chile, in the Atacama Desert, seeing these mining-related harms, and then there I go in the U.S. advocating for a rapid transition. How do I align these two goals?” Riofrancos said. “And is there a way to have a less extractive energy transition?”

When she went looking for research that would help answer that question, she found none, at least not for the transportation sector, which was her area of focus. “I saw forecast after forecast that assumed basically a binary of the future,” she said. “Either we stay with the fossil fuel status quo and the existential crisis that that is causing for the planet and all of its people. Or we transition to an electrified, renewably powered future, but that doesn’t really change anything about how these sectors or economic activities are organized.”

Riofrancos wanted to look at multiple ways to design an electrified future and understand what the costs and impacts of different scenarios might be. So she linked up with other Climate and Community Project researchers and put together a report mapping out four potential pathways to electrification for the transportation sector. Titled “Achieving Zero Emissions With More Mobility and Less Mining,” the report concluded that even relatively small, easy-to-achieve shifts like reducing the size of cars and their batteries could deliver big returns: a 42 percent reduction in the amount of lithium needed in the U.S., even if the number of cars on the road and the frequency with which people drive stayed the same.

It’s the sort of thing politicians and electrification advocates need to think through now, when decisions can be made to guide the energy transition in one direction or another. It’s also critical to an underdiscussed component of climate action: demand for products and services and the role energy plays in fulfilling those demands. Which connects right up to another topic that American politicians don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole: consumption.

Work Won’t Love You Back: We Were Warned

By Sarah Jaffe - The Progressive, May 5 2023

It was the workers’ nightmare come true.

The Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 sent a toxic barrage of hazardous chemicals into the air, soil, and water and caused untold damage to waterways, wildlife, air quality, and people’s health. It was a grim confirmation of what rail workers have been saying would happen for years. And it could have been worse.

No one was killed or badly injured in the derailment itself, and most of the 149-car train’s cargo was nontoxic. Fears of a massive explosion, which led to the evacuation of nearby residents, did not happen. But it’s hard to say there’s a silver lining to a disaster that prompted a “controlled burn” of toxic chemicals producing a cloud visible from passing airplanes, says Ross Grooters, a longtime railroad worker and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a caucus of rail workers that spans multiple unions. Still, they add, after an attempt by rail workers to strike over working conditions—including ongoing safety concerns—was squelched by members of Congress and President Joe Biden late last year, at least there is renewed attention on the rails.

But if the politicians and the rail companies had listened to the workers, this accident, and others, might have been prevented. In the weeks following the disaster, three more Norfolk Southern trains derailed—in OhioMichigan, and Alabama—the latter occurring just before the company’s CEO, Alan Shaw, appeared before Congress to answer questions about the Ohio disaster.

I first spoke to Grooters in late January for a story about the rail workers’ fight for paid sick leave. At the time, they described a constant pressure to do more with less, exemplified by a system known as precision scheduled railroading, or PSR.

“The ‘precision’ part of ‘precision scheduled railroading’ is how precisely can we cut the operation to the bone and still have it walk around as a full skeleton,” Grooters told me. “They’ve cut so deep that it just doesn’t function and they don’t have people to fill the jobs.”

There had been cutbacks to track and equipment maintenance, and more equipment fatigue and derailments. “It just feels really unsafe when you’re in the workplace. It’s like we’re rolling the dice with all these things.”

In 2020, for example, The Washington Post reported that more than 20,000 rail workers had lost their jobs in the previous year, of which more than 3,500 had been at Norfolk Southern. Simultaneously, train lengths were increasing, adding more cars to the workload of the same tiny train crew. A rail engineer told the Post at the time, “They found they can hook two trains together and cut a crew.”

Rail workers were stressed, but railroad stock prices jumped. The following year, two rail workers’ unions filed suit, alleging that Norfolk Southern had sliced rail crews so deeply because of PSR that engineers were having to do the work of conductors and brakemen. “[Norfolk Southern] cannot lawfully lay off roughly 4,000 conductors and brakemen, and then give their work to another craft,” the two union presidents said in a statement at the time.

REPORT: Freight Rails Named One of DIRTY DOZEN Employers Endangering Workers

THE ROAD TO TRANSIT EQUITY: The Case for Universal Fareless Transit in Los Angeles

By Chelsea Kirk, et. al. - Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) and Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles (ACT-LA), May 2023

Los Angeles is a place like no other, and that is especially true when it comes to public transportation. Its primary public transit agency, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LA Metro), is one of the largest in the nation, with nearly one-fourth of California residents living in the agency’s 1,433-square-mile service area.

But LA Metro currently serves very few Angelenos—just 78 out of every 1,000 Los Angeles– area residents ride the bus or train. The majority of public transit riders in Los Angeles are low-income people of color who are financially burdened by the region’s high housing and transportation costs. Seventy-six percent of LA Metro ridership identifies as Latinx or Black, and approximately 63% of riders earn household incomes of less than $25,000 annually, with 40% subsisting on household incomes under $15,000 per year.

Additionally, LA Metro, unlike most public transit agencies in large U.S. cities, nets very little revenue from fares. Government grants and sales taxes mostly fund the agency’s operations and capital expenses, with fares projected to make up just 4.8% of the agency’s operations budget in fiscal year 2023. LA Metro has attempted to solve the financial burden of fares on their riders through fare capping and means-tested discount programs. These initiatives are not only expensive to run, but they also have low enrollment rates. And, ironically, if LA Metro successfully enrolled all those eligible for discounts, their earnings from fares would be even more negligible than they are now. In effect, the agency is spending millions of dollars to get the majority of its riders to pay less in fares. Why not just go fareless?

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

The Richmond Coal Dust Study: Coal Trains Pollute!

Here's How the 'Jet-Owning Oligarchy' Harms Both Planet and Workers

By Kenny Stancil - Common Dreams, May 1, 2023

A new analysis catalogs alarming facts about the destructive private jet industry, which is emblematic of runaway economic and carbon inequality.

Research published Monday details how the working class is paying the price, in more ways than one, for the "jet-owning oligarchy" to hop around the globe in their personal luxury planes.

It's well-established that private jet travel by the super-rich is worsening the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis. Adding insult to injury, this conspicuously carbon-intensive consumption is being subsidized by ordinary taxpayers, as the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and Patriotic Millionaires make clear in their new analysis.

Entitled High Flyers 2023: How Ultra-Rich Private Jet Travel Costs the Rest of Us and Burns Up Our Planet, the report catalogs alarming facts about the private jet industry and makes recommendations about how to rein in this potent symbol and manifestation of escalating inequality.

To begin with, "private jets emit at least 10 times more pollutants than commercial planes per passenger," the report notes. "Unsurprisingly, approximately 1% of people are believed to be responsible for about half of all aviation carbon emissions."

Amid a surge in wealth inequality since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, "private jet use has increased by about a fifth, and private jet emissions have increased more than 23%," the report points out. "The private jet sector set industry records with regards to transaction and dollar volume in 2021 and 2022."

While a coronavirus-era boom is evident, the industry has been growing steadily alongside wealth inequality since the turn of the century. As the report states: "The size of the global fleet has increased 133% in the last two decades from 9,895 in 2000 to 23,133 in mid-2022. This bonanza was accompanied by an unprecedented number of business jet operations, 5.3 million in 2022."

East Palestine Derailment Disaster Continues to Unfold with Amanda Kiger

LNS Transit Organizer Bakari Height in Panel on Public Ownership of the Railroads

By Staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 30, 2023

The Labor Network for Sustainability recently endorsed the call of Railroad Workers United for public ownership of American railroads. A video panel on railroad nationalization sponsored by Solutionary Rail included LNS Transit Organizer Bakari Height.

To view the panel:

US freight workers say it’s time to nationalize the railroads

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