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Labor Unions Rally Behind California’s Zero-Emissions Climate Plan

Robert Pollin interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, June 10, 2021

Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been spearheading national and international efforts to tackle the climate crisis for more than a decade. Over the past few years, he and a group of his colleagues at PERI have produced green economy transition programs for numerous states. The latest such program is for California, and it is being released today.

The massive study — nearly 200 pages long — shows how California can become a zero emissions economy by 2045 while expanding good job opportunities throughout the state. Nineteen unions have already endorsed the green transition plan, making clear that they reject frameworks that falsely pit labor priorities and the environment against each other, and more are expected to do so in the days and weeks ahead.

In this interview for Truthout, Pollin, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso 2020), talks about the climate stabilization project for California and the national implications of union support for a green economy transition.

C.J. Polychroniou: California has been at the forefront of the climate fight for years now, but the truth of the matter is that its efforts have fallen short. Now, you and some colleagues of yours at PERI have just completed a commissioned climate stabilization project for California. How does the project envision the clean energy transition to take place in a manner consistent with the emission targets set out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, and how will it be financed?

Robert Pollin: This study presents a recovery program for California that will also build a durable foundation for an economically robust and ecologically sustainable longer-term growth trajectory. California has long been a national and global leader in implementing robust climate stabilization policies. This includes the 2018 Executive Order B-55-18 by then Gov. Jerry Brown. This measure committed the state to cut CO2 emissions by 50 percent as of 2030, to become carbon neutral no later than 2045, and to produce net negative emissions thereafter. These goals are somewhat more ambitious than those set out by the IPCC in 2018. Our study outlines a program through which the state can achieve its own established goals.

Our study shows how these 2030 and 2045 emissions reduction targets can be accomplished in California through phasing out the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas to generate energy in the state, since burning fossil fuels to produce energy is, by far, the primary source of CO2 emissions, and thereby, the single greatest factor causing climate change. The project we propose is to build a clean energy infrastructure to replace the existing fossil fuel-dominant infrastructure. The clean energy infrastructure will require large-scale investments to, first, dramatically raise energy efficiency standards in the state and, second, to equally dramatically expand the supply of clean renewable energy supplies, including solar and wind primarily, with supplemental supplies from low-emissions bioenergy, geothermal and small-scale hydro power. We show how this climate stabilization program for California can also serve as a major new engine of job creation and economic well-being throughout the state, both in the short- and longer run.

A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty,Caitlin Kline, and Gregor Semieniuk - Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI); University of Massachusetts-Amherst, June 10, 2021

This study presents a robust climate stabilization project for California. It demonstrates that achieving the state’s official CO2 emissions reduction targets—a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 and reaching zero emissions by 2045—is a realistic prospect. This climate stabilization project can also serve as a major engine of economic recovery and expanding economic opportunities throughout the state. This includes an increase of over 1 million jobs in the state through investment programs in energy efficiency, clean renewable energy, public infrastructure, land restoration and agriculture. The study also develops a detailed just transition program for workers and communities in California that are currently dependent on the state’s fossil fuel industries for their livelihoods. In particular, we focus here on condi­tions in Kern, Contra Costa, and Los Angeles counties.

The study is divided into nine sections:

  1. Pandemic, Economic Collapse, and Conditions for Recovery
  2. California’s Clean Energy Transition Project
  3. Clean Energy Investments and Job Creation
  4. Investment Programs for Manufacturing, Infrastructure, Land Restoration and Agri­culture
  5. Total Job Creation in California through Combined Investment Programs
  6. Contraction of California’s Fossil Fuel Industries and Just Transition for Fossil Fuel Workers
  7. County-level Job Creation, Job Displacement, and Just Transition
  8. Achieving a Zero Emissions California Economy by 2045
  9. Financing California’s Recovery and Sustainable Transition Programs

Nineteen labor unions throughout California have endorsed this study and its findings.

Read the text (PDF).

Victory for climate activists in the Dutch Courts and in Exxon and Chevron boardrooms

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 27, 2021

May 26 will go down in history as a very bad day for the fossil fuel industry for three reasons: in the Netherlands, the courts issued a landmark decision that requires Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon emissions – including Scope 3 emissions – by 45% by 2030. Also on May 26, activist shareholders won separate victories at the corporate annual meetings of ExxonMobil and Chevron. Bill McKibben reflects on all three events in “Big Oil’s Bad Bad Day” in The New Yorker , and Jamie Henn wrote “A Landmark Day in the fight against fossil fuels” in Fossil Free Media.

The case of Royal Dutch Shell is summarized by Friends of the Earth Canada in their press release , which also links to an English-language version of the Court’s decision.

“On May 26, as a result of legal action brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) together with 17,000 co-plaintiffs and six other organisations the court in The Hague ruled that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% within 10 years.

…..“This is a turning point in history. This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting company to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This ruling may also have major consequences for other big polluters,” says Roger Cox, lawyer for Friends of the Earth Netherlands.

The verdict requires Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its emissions by 45% by the end of 2030. Shell is also responsible for emission from customers and suppliers. There is a threat of human rights violations to the “right to life” and “undisturbed family life”.

German news organization Deutsche Welle offers an excellent, more thorough discussion in “Shell ordered to reduce CO2 emissions in watershed ruling”, which points out that the case was argued on human rights grounds – much like the precedent-setting Urgenda case and the recent German constitutional case. In those cases however, governments were called upon to defend the human right to a future safe from the dangers of climate change. The Shell case is the first time such an argument has been tried against a corporation – and is seen as a harbinger of future legal action.

Tesla Found Guilty of Unionbusting

By Kris LaGrange - UComm Blog, March 26, 2021

2018, Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote on Twitter “Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?” That tweet began an investigation into the company by the NLRB into union-busting at the company.

Now three years later, the board has found that Musk not only violated federal labor law with that tweet but that he also illegally fired an employee, Richard Ortiz for protected union activity. Ortiz was part of a campaign called “Fair Future at Tesla” which is an ongoing campaign by the UAW to organize the electric car company.

In their decision, the NLRB found that Musk’s tweet went above a typical statement that the company wants to stay union-free and was seen as threatening. This was exacerbated by the fact that Tesla considers communications from Musk, who founded the company, as official company communications. It is illegal to threaten to take away pay or benefits from workers if they are found to be organizing a union.

In their decision, the NLRB ordered Tesla to offer Ortiz his job back and compensate him for lost earnings, benefits, and any adverse tax consequences that resulted from his firing. Tesla is also required to revise their confidentiality agreements that are given to employees to take out a section that bars workers from speaking to the media without explicit written permission from the company. National labor law “protects employees when they speak with the media about working conditions, labor disputes, or other terms and conditions of employment,” the NLRB noted.

The NLRB is also requiring Tesla to post notices nationwide and hold meetings at their main US car plant in Fremont to inform workers of their protected rights. At these meetings, Musk or a “board agent” in the presence of Musk, will have to read the notice to workers, including security guards, managers, and supervisors.

The decision from the NLRB was largely in line with a similar decision against Tesla by an administrative judge in September of 2019. Tesla decided to fight the administrative judge’s decision and bring it all the way to the full board.

“This is a great victory for workers who have the courage to stand up and organize in a system that is currently stacked heavily in favor of employers like Tesla who have no qualms about violating the law,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, Director of the UAW Organizing Department. “While we celebrate the justice in today’s ruling, it nevertheless highlights the substantial flaws in US labor law. Here is a company that clearly broke the law and yet it is three years down the road before these workers achieved a modicum of justice.”

CalPERS: Finish Mandated Thermal Coal Divestment

By Staff - Fossil Free California, March 11, 2021

California Public Employees Retirement System still holds $8.5 million in thermal coal producers in violation of SB 185, a 2015 state law on thermal coal divestment. This act requires CalPERS to divest from companies that earn the majority of their revenue from thermal coal production.

When the fund divested from several coal companies in 2017, it stayed invested in three thermal coal companies that met the criteria—Exxaro, Adaro, and Banpu—because “they had indicated plans to transition their business models to adapt to clean energy generation (such as through a decrease in reliance on thermal coal mining as a revenue source).”

However, four years later, all three of these companies continue to make well over 50% of their revenue from thermal coal (according to data from the Global Coal Exit List at coalexit.org) and show few signs of transitioning their business models. In fact, all of these companies have documented expansion plans for their coal operations. Although South Africa-based Exxaro Resources recently announced that it will not acquire more thermal coal assets, it already owns more than 31 billion tons of recoverable coal, which is more than enough to create a “tipping point” for Earth’s climate.

All three coal companies have demonstrated contempt for the lives of communities displaced or impacted by their mining operations. Exxaro, in South Africa, displaces communities from mining sites in violation of the South African Constitution and with insignificant compensation leaving many communities to struggle to even find necessities like food while their air and water is irreparably poisoned.

Similarly, Adaro, an Indonesian company, strip mines forested land and continues to displace native people, threatening their lives and cultures. Adaro was also responsible for the deaths of 24 children working in mines and continues polluting surrounding areas such that water becomes undrinkable, and farmers have to abandon their land. Finally, Banpu, a Thai company, builds mines across Asia. They use open ponds to collect pollutants which inevitably enter the ground water and destroy crops. Farmers in Thailand reported being forcibly bought out and eventually forced to move because the added cost of purchasing clean water combined with the destruction of their livelihood was too much.

Join Fossil Free California and allies to call on CalPERS to finish its mandated thermal coal divestment by immediately adding Exxaro, Adaro, and Banpu to the thermal coal exclusion list.

Send Letter to CalPERS

Phasing Out Fossil Fuels: A Just Transition in the Oil & Gas Drilling and Refining Sectors

Refinery Communities Speak Out on Just Transition Reports

By Ann Alexander - Natural Resources Defense Council, February 9, 2021

Governor Newsom’s executive order mandating all-electric passenger cars and trucks by 2035 got quite a bit of deserved nationwide buzz last fall. What got less notice was that, buried toward the end of the order, were several mandates for action on the supply side of our fossil fuel problem—that is, California’s oil extraction and refining industry. 

We noted at the time that these mandates were not, unlike the pretty well thought out electric vehicles mandate, given much attention in the order. We expressed concern that the Governor was basically throwing a bone to people concerned about the human and environmental damage being wrought on an ongoing basis by the state’s oil production industry.

Two of those mandates, however, stood out from the beginning as critically important—both having to do with the issue of just transition for workers and communities to new economic opportunities as California phases out its oil industry. The first mandate was a directive to two California agencies—the Office of Planning and Research (OPR) and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency—to develop and implement a “Just Transition Roadmap” for the state, consistent with recommendations developed pursuant to Assembly Bill 398 in 2017. The second is a directive to two other California agencies—the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resources Agency—to “expedite regulatory processes to repurpose and transition . . . oil production facilities,” and produce an “action plan” reporting on their progress, in order “[t]o support the transition away from fossil fuels.” Both reports—the Roadmap and the action plan—are required to be completed by July of this year. 

Among the missing specifics is anything about how the public and key stakeholders are to be involved in the preparation of these reports; or any clear guidelines about the required scope and depth of the reports. But what we already know is that just transition is a critically important topic for the public as the oil industry continues its slide into eventual oblivion, and merits sustained and robust attention. Not only has oil extraction been in steady decline since the mid-1980s (plunging nearly 60 percent since 1985), but California’s oil refineries are now on the brink as well—two of them announced conversions to biofuel production over the summer, while refineries around the nation and the world are increasingly becoming unprofitable and shutting down

Over 400,000 Clean Energy jobs lost in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 18, 2021

U.S. government employment figures for December 2020 show that the U.S. clean energy sector added 16,900 jobs in December. However, analysis released on January 13 reveals that the recovery is slow, and the industry now has its lowest number of workers since 2015, having suffered a loss of over 400,000 jobs (12%) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clean Energy Employment Initial Impacts from the COVID-19 Economic Crisis, December 2020 was prepared by BW Research Partnership, commissioned by industry groups E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), E4TheFuture, and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) . The 17-page report provides data by state and by technology, with energy efficiency leading the losses with 302,164 total jobs lost nationally between February and December 2020. California was the hardest hit state. 

This is the latest in a monthly series of reports tracking the impact of Covid-19 on clean energy jobs – the series is available at the E2 website here. These reports document the dramatic shift in clean energy employment in the U.S; the E2 Clean Jobs America 2020 annual report outlines the industry’s policy recommendations for recovery as of April 2020.

Bay Area Transit Unions Join Forces to Win Safety Protections and Beat Back Layoffs

By Richard Marcantonio - Labor Notes, January 12, 2021

Transit workers have been hit hard by the pandemic. Last year at least 100 from the Amalgamated Transit Union and 131 from the Transport Workers lost their lives to Covid-19.

Before Covid, transit unions in the Bay Area—six ATU locals, and one local each of TWU and the Teamsters—often faced their individual struggles in isolation. But during the pandemic, these locals united across the region and came together with riders to demand protections for all.

That unity forced reluctant politicians to make Covid safety a priority. It also set the stage for the unions and riders to team up again to stave off layoffs. And there are more fights ahead.

PUBLIC TRANSIT STARVED

More than two dozen public transit agencies serve the Bay Area. They include MUNI in San Francisco, Bay Area Rapid Transit, AC Transit in Oakland, Valley Transportation Authority in San Jose, and Golden Gate Transit, which links San Francisco with counties to the north.

As a public service, transit depends on government funding. Yet federal support for operations—keeping the buses and trains running—was eliminated in 1998. Since then, federal funding has been restricted to capital projects, like buying buses or building light rail.

This austerity led many transit systems to cut service and raise fares. With each new round of cuts, union jobs were eliminated and vacancies left unfilled. A “death spiral” set in: cuts and fare hikes drove riders away; fewer riders meant less revenue.

With the onset of the pandemic, transit ridership plummeted, most dramatically on commuter systems that carry white-collar workers to downtown offices. But local service became more important than ever. Today over a third of transit riders are essential workers.

In March, the CARES Act earmarked $25 billion for emergency transit funding. Departing from past federal policy, this funding was eligible for operating expenses to keep workers on the payroll.

A new regional coalition called Voices for Public Transportation had been taking shape in 2019, bringing together unions and riders to push for more transit funding. When the pandemic hit, this coalition turned its attention to the urgent organizing for safety measures, and participation continued to grow.

Letter to Contra Costa County, California on Just Transition from Fossil Fuels

By staff - Sunflower Alliance, November 20, 2020

Just weeks after Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors declared a climate emergency, a diverse group of environmental, labor, and public health advocates sent a letter to the Board calling for a planned and equitable transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy, in what many are calling a “just transition” that supports refinery workers and frontline communities.

“We applaud your recent Declaration of a Climate Emergency in Contra Costa County, which underlines the need to ‘plan for a ‘just transition’ away from a fossil-fuel dependent economy.’  In furtherance of this goal, we seek your immediate action to ensure just transitions for workers and communities threatened with sudden abandonment by refineries located in the County.  We believe climate protection must go hand in hand with environmental and economic justice,”  reads the letter’s opening paragraph.  See the full letter here.

The letter highlights concerns over recent news regarding changes to traditional refinery operations in Contra Costa County—including Marathon’s announcement of a permanent end to crude oil processing at its Martinez refinery, and Phillips 66’s notice of an impending partial closure of its San Francisco Refinery facilities in Rodeo, Franklin Canyon, and Arroyo Grande.

Both companies have proposed changes that would significantly decrease the production of non-petroleum fuels, which will involve shuttering large portions of the refinery.  Neither company has identified plans for full cleanups of their industrial sites, nor have they made adequate commitments to support the wages, health care, or pensions of workers whose jobs are threatened by these changes.

“The large oil companies who have for so long made their profits in Contra Costa County’s local communities ought to be the ones to pay the steep cost associated with their departure,”  the letter states.

The letter also identifies how the communities facing shuttered refinery operations are ultimately at risk for future prospects for environmentally healthy and economically sustainable development.

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