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Robert Pollin

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).

A framework of six essential policies for the U.S. to THRIVE

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, June 3, 2021

A new report by Jeremy Brecher of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) was released in May. Making “Build Back Better” Better: Aligning Climate, Jobs, and Justice is a cast as a “living document” to provide a framework for discussion by the labour and environmental movements. Common Dreams summarizes it here. Brecher begins by identifying the range of climate-related policy proposals in the U.S.: “There are many valuable plans that have been proposed in addition to Build Back Better. The original Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the THRIVE (Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy) Agenda ; the Evergreen Action Plan; the Sierra Club’s “How to Build Back Better” economic renewal plan; the AFL-CIO’s “Energy Transitions”proposals; the BlueGreen Alliance’s “Solidarity for Climate Action,” and a variety of others. All offer contributions for overall vision and for policy details.” 

The contribution of this report from LNS is to frame these policy proposals around “six essential elements” : • Managed decline of fossil fuel burning • Full-spectrum job creation • Fair access to good jobs • Labor rights and standards • Urgent and effective climate protection • No worker or community left behind. The new report links to many of the previous LNS reports which have discussed these elements in more detail.

Labor Network for Sustainability has endorsed the THRIVE Agenda, with its strong emphasis on climate justice. At the end of April, The THRIVE Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress, spearheaded by Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and supported by progressive Democrats, environmentalists, and unions. The Rolling Stone summarized the provisions here , stating: “Bold” may be an understatement. While President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan calls for spending $2 trillion over the next 10 years, the THRIVE Act green-lights the investment of $1 trillion annually. The money would go toward creating an estimated 15 million “family-sustaining” union jobs, rebuilding the nation’s physical and social infrastructure, and cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030.”

The Green New Deal Network has compiled extensive documentation of the economic studies behind the THRIVE Agenda here , based heavily on the work of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), led by Robert Pollin.

Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin: Green New Deal Is Essential for Human Survival

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, April 22, 2021

Earth Day has been celebrated since 1970, an era which marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement, with concerns built primarily around air and water pollution. Of course, the state of the environment has shifted dramatically since then, and while environmental policy has changed a lot in the United States over the past 50 years, biodiversity is in great danger and the climate crisis threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

On the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, world-renowned scholar and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, laureate professor of linguistics and also the Agnese Nelms Haury chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona; and leading progressive economist Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, share their thoughts on the state of planet Earth in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: The theme of Earth Day 2021, which first took place in 1970 with the emergence of environmental consciousness in the U.S. during the late 1960s, is “Restore Our Earth.” Noam, how would you assess the rate of progress to save the environment since the first Earth Day?

Noam Chomsky: There is some progress, but by no means enough, almost anywhere. Evidence unfortunately abounds. The drift toward disaster proceeds on its inexorable course, more rapidly than rise in general awareness of the severity of the crisis.

To pick an example of the drift toward disaster almost at random from the scientific literature, a study that appeared a few days ago reports that, “Marine life is fleeing the equator to cooler waters — this could trigger a mass extinction event,” an eventuality with potentially horrendous consequences.

It’s all too easy to document the lack of awareness. One striking illustration, too little noticed, is the dog that didn’t bark. There is no end to the denunciations of Trump’s misdeeds, but virtual silence about the worst crime in human history: his dedicated race to the abyss of environmental catastrophe, with his party in tow.

They couldn’t refrain from administering a last blow just before being driven from office (barely, and perhaps not for long). The final act in August 2020 was to roll back the last of the far-too-limited Obama-era regulations to have escaped the wrecking ball, “effectively freeing oil and gas companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks — even as new research shows that far more of the potent greenhouse gas is seeping into the atmosphere than previously known … a gift to many beleaguered oil and gas companies.” It is imperative to serve the prime constituency, great wealth and corporate power, damn the consequences.

Indications are that with the rise of oil prices, fracking is reviving, adhering to Trump’s deregulation so as to improve profit margins, while again placing a foot on the accelerator to drive humanity over the cliff. An instructive contribution to impending crisis, minor in context.

Sierra Club green recovery plan calls for “ironclad labor and equity standards”

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, April 19, 2021

The Sierra Club U.S. report How to Build Back Better: A 10-year Plan for Economic Renewal is a blueprint for economic renewal – in which the environmental advocacy group continues to demonstrate clear support for the needs of workers. Released in March, this report includes a call for public investments which “must come with ironclad labor and equity standards to curb racial, economic, and gender inequity instead of reinforcing the unjust status quo.” To support the job quality theme, the Sierra Club also released a 1-pager titled Cross-cutting environmental, labor and equity standards and a 3-page summary titled Why Standards Matter, an overview of job quality issues .

Briefly, the Sierra Club recommends a pandemic recovery plan which would create over 15 million good jobs, based on public investment of $1 trillion per year for ten years. Investments would go to many sectors including infrastructure and clean manufacturing, but also the care sector and the public sector. In addition to job creation, the plan addresses systemic racism, supports public health, and cuts climate pollution nearly in half by 2030. The economic renewal plan is based on the THRIVE Agenda, which is itself based on job projections and modelling by academics at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), led by Robert Pollin. Their latest analysis was published by PERI as Employment Impacts of Proposed U.S. Economic Stimulus Programs (March 2021). Sierra Club released a 3-page summary of job projections; an interactive Jobs Calculator ; and Fact Sheets for each of the sectors considered: regenerative agriculture, clean energy, care and public sector, transportation, manufacturing, buildings, and clean water for all, and pollution-free communities. All these accompanying documents, along with the full report, are available here.

THRIVE stands for “Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy” and is summarized in the Sierra Club press release of March 25. The coalition has grown out of the Green New Deal Network, itself a coalition of 15 U.S. organizations that are focused on combating social inequity and environmental destruction through political action. 

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.

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.

The Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal

Just Transition for Pennsylvania estimated to cost $115,000 per worker in latest report from PERI

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 8, 2021

In the latest of a series of reports titled Green Growth Programs for U.S. States, researchers provide analysis and proposals for economic recovery for Pennsylvania, considering both the impacts of Covid-19 and a necessary transition to a cleaner economy. In Impacts of the Reimagine Appalachia & Clean Energy Transition Programs for Pennsylvania: Job Creation, Economic Recovery, and Long-Term Sustainability, Robert Pollin and co-authors estimate that clean energy investments scaled at about $23 billion per year from 2021 to 2030 will generate roughly 162,000 jobs per year in Pennsylvania. They detail those investment programs for sectors including public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration and agriculture, and including plugging orphaned oil and gas wells.

The report estimates that 64,000 people are currently employed in Pennsylvania in fossil fuel-based industries – including in fracking for natural gas from the Marcellus Shale regions, as well as other oil and gas projects, coal mining, and fossil fuel-based power generation. As the state transitions away from fossil-fuel industries, the authors estimate that about 1,800 workers will be displaced each year between 2021 – 2030, and another 1,000 will voluntarily retire each year. The authors estimate that the average costs of supporting these workers will amount to about $115,000 per worker, with an overall cost of about $210 million per year over the duration of the just transition program. The report emphasizes: “It is critical that all of these workers receive pension guarantees, health care coverage, re-employment guarantees, wage insurance, and retraining support, as needed”.

The full series of reports, Green Growth Programs for U.S. States, includes similar analysis and proposals for Ohio, Maine, Colorado, New York, and the state of Washington. They are co-written by experts including Robert Pollin, Shouvik Chakraborty, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, Tyler Hansen, Gregor Semieniuk, and Jeannette Wicks-Lim. The series is published by the Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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