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To Save America, Help West Virginia

By Liza Featherstone - Jacobin, March 30, 2021

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

Reclaiming Abandoned Mines: Turning Coal Country’s Toxic Legacy Into Assets

By Tara Lohan - The Revelator, March 29, 2021

Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region’s toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven’t been properly cleaned up.

The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.

Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry’s environmental degradation.

Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that’s plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.

Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.

Why major unions are wary of the move to wind and solar jobs

By Ella Nilsen - Vox, March 19, 2021

President Joe Biden wants to quickly move the United States toward clean energy jobs in wind and solar. But unions — some of Biden’s strongest allies — are skeptical about the transition to green energy.

Biden and congressional Democrats are poised to introduce a large infrastructure plan that is supposed to deliver on two promises: putting job creation into overdrive, and decarbonizing the economy, with an aggressive goal of powering 100 percent of America’s electricity sector with clean energy by 2035.

To achieve both goals, the administration is betting on a massive push toward wind and solar. Renewables already produced 20 percent of US electricity in 2020, and expanding them further to decarbonize the economy necessarily means phasing out fossil fuels. But even as wind and solar production has increased, wages and the rate of unionized jobs in renewables haven’t kept up with the industries they’d be replacing. In order to make more profits, many companies want to keep their costs low — which includes keeping wages low.

“The fossil fuel industries were unionized in long struggles that were classic labor stories,” said University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis. “Now, they’re in decline and you have these new industries. But a green capitalist is still a capitalist, and they don’t want a union.”

About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report. The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized. Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6.3 percent.

This is one of the big reasons there’s a real hesitancy on the part of many unions and workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable jobs: They are worried the jobs waiting for them in wind and solar won’t pay as well or have union protections. This has long been a tension point between environmental groups and labor, often exploited by the right wing. Even though alliances between the two are forming, those underlying tensions won’t vanish easily.

“Just” Transitions Are Possible, But They Require State Investment

By Leanna First-Arai - Truthout, March 17, 2021

In spite of overt efforts by some energy executives to convince consumers otherwise, the global economy is already in the throes of a transition away from the drilling, refining and burning of fossil fuels. For certain communities — such as the estimated one-quarter of counties in the U.S. with the greatest potential for wind and solar that are existing fossil fuel employment hubs — a reasonably smooth economic transition to a fossil-free economy may be well within reach.

But for many workers, the idea that an “energy transition” is upon us still sounds the alarm. The “zero emissions” of climate policy proposals bring with it the electrification of everything: ditching combustion engines for electric ones in cars, trucks and busses; and equipping houses with heat pumps to replace natural gas furnaces, for instance. And while an aggressive commitment to electrifying all aspects of the economy could create an estimated 25 million jobs in the U.S. by some estimates, it’s a process often understood as “automation,” the repercussions of which those working in industry are no stranger. In the past, automation in workplaces from oil rigs to rubber plants has meant layoffs, school and municipal budget deficits, and in many cases, the devastation of entire towns.

A new report released today by the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) details how working people in the United States have been abandoned by their employers and their elected officials during countless prior economic transitions, and suggests that failing to learn from past catastrophes in the shift away from fossil fuels could lead to significant further social unrest.

“We have rarely done a good job of supporting workers and their communities through these transitions,” Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of LNS, said in a statement. “If we are to move forward on the climate policies we need — we have to assure to the greatest extent possible that workers and their communities will not get left hanging.”

The report, called the Just Transition Listening Project, draws on qualitative data from 100 “listening sessions” with union and non-union manufacturing and industrial workers, including those in the fossil fuel industry, but also public sector workers, educators and other community members living in areas that have already experienced or anticipate some form of economic transition, like a factory sent overseas or the decommissioning of a power plant.

The research is the most comprehensive to date to gauge U.S. labor and community sentiment around the current energy transition, and offers labor, activist and broader community perspectives on how hyper-local challenges and community-envisioned solutions might be balanced with and supported by federal funds and a big picture policy blueprint.

In addition to labor groups, participants include members of environmental justice and other community organizations and span the U.S. geographically, though the West Coast is slightly overrepresented and the South underrepresented. Across each of these groups, 63 percent of participants identified as white, 19 percent as Latinx, 10 percent as Black and 5 percent as Indigenous. The co-authors identify the underrepresentation of Black participants as a “major weakness” in their data and encourage more research centering the experiences of Black workers and communities.

At its core, the report recognizes that current conversations about our energy transition are still rife with misconceptions. “The idea of the working class that we conjure up is the big burly white guy with a hard hat on who’s whistling at you when you’re 25,” one participant told the researchers. But the identities and commitments of those impacted by the transition from fossil fuels to renewables are much more complex. “To have a just transition in this country, to have it after we come out of the pandemic, to have it when we get off of fossil fuels, people who do all that work, caring for children, teaching children, caring for sick people, delivering food” — many who are women of color, the same participant noted — “those people need to be paid a living wage.”

To bring about a truly “just transition,” the report suggests, policy makers must consider innovating in ways that reach far beyond offering a 60-year-old refinery worker a spot in a coding bootcamp when his most pressing concern might be doing whatever it takes to stay on the job so he can keep his health insurance, for instance.

On the contrary, our responses must consider immediate and long-term needs, be holistic, ambitious and participatory.

Workers and Communities in Transition: Report of the Just Transition Listening Project

By J. Mijin Cha, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis, and Todd E. Vachon, et. al. - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 17, 2021

The idea of “just transition” has recently become more mainstream in climate discourse. More environmental and climate justice advocates are recognizing the need to protect fossil-fuel workers and communities as we transition away from fossil-fuel use. Yet, as detailed in our report, transition is hardly new or limited to the energy industry. Throughout the decades, workers and communities have experienced near constant economic transitions as industries have risen and declined. And, more often than not, transition has meant loss of jobs, identities, and communities with little to no support.

While transition has been constant, the scale of the transition away from fossil fuels will be on a level not yet experienced. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in our economy and society. Transition will not only affect the energy sector, but transportation (including passenger and freight), agriculture and others. Adding to the challenges of the energy transition, we are also transitioning to a post-COVID-19-pandemic world. As such, we cannot afford, economically or societally, to repeat the mistakes of the past that left so many workers and communities behind.

To better understand how transition impacts people, what lessons can be learned, and what practices and policies must be in place for a just transition, in the Spring of 2020 we launched the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP). The JTLP has captured the voices of workers and community members who have experienced, are currently experiencing, or anticipate experiencing some form of economic transition.

Those who have suffered from transitions are rarely the ones whose voices are heard. Yet, no one is more able to fully understand what workers and communities need than those who have lived that experience. The JTLP is the first major effort to center these voices. In turn, the recommendations provided can make communities and workers whole. In many ways, these recommendations are common sense and fundamental to creating a just society, regardless of transition. Yet, the failure of elected officials to deliver just transition policies points to the need for wide scale movement building and organizing.

This report summarizes lessons learned and policy recommendations in three overall concepts for decision-makers: Go Big, Go Wide, and Go Far.

Read the text (PDF).

Phasing Out Fossil Fuels Is Possible. These State-Level Plans Show How

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, March 15, 2021

When it comes to climate change, state governments across the United States have been way ahead of the federal government in providing leadership toward reducing carbon pollution and building a clean energy economy. For example, when Trump announced in 2017 his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the governors of California, Washington and New York pledged to support the international agreement, and by 2019, more than 20 other states ended up joining this alliance to combat global warming.

Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of Economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been a driving force behind several U.S. states’ efforts to curb carbon emissions and make a transition to a green economy. In this exclusive Truthout interview, Pollin talks about how states can take crucial, proactive steps to build a clean energy future.

C.J. Polychroniou: Bob, you are the lead author of commissioned studies, produced with some of your colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, to fight climate change for scores of U.S. states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, Colorado, Washington, New York and California. The purpose of those studies is to show the way for states to attain critical reductions in carbon emissions while also embarking on a path of economy recovery and a just transition toward an environmentally sustainable environment. In general terms, how is this to be done, and is there a common strategy that all states can follow?

Robert Pollin: The basic framework that we have developed is the same for all states. For all states, we develop a path through which the state can reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by roughly half as of 2030 and to transform into a zero emissions economy by 2050. These are the emissions reduction targets set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) that are meant to apply to the entire global economy. The IPCC — which is a UN agency that serves as a clearinghouse for climate change research — has concluded that these CO2 emissions reduction targets have to be met in order for we, the human race, to have a reasonable chance to stabilize the global average temperature at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial level, [the level of] about the year 1800.

The IPCC has concluded that stabilizing the global average temperature at no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels provides the only realistic chance for avoiding the most severe destructive impacts of climate change in terms of heat extremes, heavy precipitation, droughts, floods, sea level rise, biodiversity losses, and the corresponding impacts on health, livelihoods, food security, water supply and human security. Given that these emissions reduction targets must be met on a global scale, it follows that they also must be met in every state of the United States, with no exceptions, just like they must be met in every other country or region of the world with no exceptions.

By far the most important source of CO2 emissions entering the atmosphere is fossil fuel consumption — i.e., burning oil, coal and natural gas to produce energy. As such, the program we develop in all of the U.S. states centers on the state’s economy phasing out its entire fossil fuel industry — i.e., anything to do with producing or consuming oil, coal or natural gas — at a rate that will enable the state to hit the two IPCC emissions reduction targets: the 50 percent reduction by 2030 and zero emissions within the state by 2050.

Of course, meeting these emissions reduction targets raises a massive question right away: How can you phase out fossil fuels and still enable people to heat, light and cool their homes and workplaces; for cars, buses, trains and planes to keep running; and for industrial machinery of all types to keep operating?

It turns out that, in its basics, the answer is simple and achievable, in all the states we have studied (and everywhere else for that matter): to build a whole new clean energy infrastructure that will supplant the existing fossil fuel dominant infrastructure in each state. So the next major feature of our approach is to develop investment programs to dramatically raise energy efficiency standards in buildings, transportation systems and industrial equipment, and equally dramatically expand the supply of clean renewable energy sources, i.e. primarily solar and wind energy, but also geothermal, small-scale hydro, as well as low-emissions bioenergy.

Why the PRO Act Is Part of a Green New Deal

By Dharna Noor - Gizmodo, March 10, 2021

On Tuesday night, the U.S. House passed an essential piece of climate policy. But the legislation makes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, or extreme weather. Instead, it’s all about labor protections.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, known as the PRO Act, is the most comprehensive piece of labor legislation the U.S. has seen in decades. It would make it easier for workers to organize and could move us a step closer to ensure the future clean energy economy is one that works for everyone.

“When we push for a Green New Deal, we’re pushing for a reimagining and a redesign of the economy overall with a focus on care jobs which do not contribute to our carbon footprint and jobs that are not a part of the fossil fuel industry,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman said just hours after delivering an impassioned speech in support of the bill on the House floor. “We’re talking about millions of union jobs where workers are earning a family-sustaining wage and they have a right to organize and unionize without being threatened or bullied or intimidated by employers…so this is a huge step.”

Among the PRO Act’s provisions are fines for managers who retaliate against workers who organize and requirements for employers to bargain their workers’ first union contracts in good faith. It would also effectively end so-called right-to-work laws in the nearly 30 states that have passed them and stop employers from permanently replacing workers who go on strike.

All told, the bill would make it much easier for American workers to unionize and bargain for protections. A more organized workforce means workers will have better benefits on the job and more protection when they leave a position. That would be great news for the fight for a livable planet, because it would secure crucial rights for those leaving jobs in the waning fossil fuel industry and for those in the new clean economy, too. Boosting union density could bring many new people into the fold to push for that just transition. Joining unions could also help workers in job training programs or green industries to advocate for themselves.

The Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal

As coal dies, the US has no plan to help the communities left behind

By Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, March 3, 2021

Here are two tales of the energy transition unfolding in coal country, USA.

In late 2019, Pacificorp, an electric utility that operates in six Western states, told Wyoming regulators it wanted to shut down several of its coal-fired power plants early and replace them with wind and solar power and battery storage. It said this plan would save customers hundreds of millions of dollars on their electric bills and promised to work with local leaders on transition plans for workers and communities affected by the closures.

Wyoming, a state whose economy relies significantly on coal mining and coal power, went on the defensive. State lawmakers had already passed a law requiring coal plant owners to search for a buyer before being allowed to close a plant. Now, with support from the governor, regulators ordered an unprecedented investigation to scrutinize Pacificorp’s analysis and conclusions. Ultimately they determined the plan was deficient — that the company had not adequately considered allowing the coal plants to stay open or installing technology to capture the plants’ carbon emissions.

Climate Emergency: A 26-Week Transition Program for Canada

By Guy Dauncy - Canada 26 Weeks, March 2020

This is a work of imagination. But the urgency of the crisis is real, the need for the suggested programs is real, and the data included in these proposals is real.

What could the government of Canada do if its Ministers, MPs and civil servants really understood the severity of the climate emergency, and the urgency of the need? This paper shows how we could target a 65% reduction in emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2040. It proposes 164 new policies and programs, financed by $59 billion a year in new investments, without raising taxes or increasing public sector borrowing. The new programs and policies are announced every Monday morning between January and the end of June. To learn what they are, read on.

Read the text (PDF).

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