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energy democracy

How to Socialize America’s Energy

By Kate Arnoff, Dissent, Spring 2016

To hear Lyndon Rive tell it, there is a war brewing between the private-sector innovators building the clean energy economy and the utility bureaucrats standing in its way. Rive is the cofounder and CEO of SolarCity, one of the country’s largest solar providers. In late December, the company came under sudden assault from Nevada regulators when the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) unanimously passed a law allowing it to raise the monthly fees charged to solar panel owners by 40 percent. The measure also reduced the amount customers could be paid for excess electricity they sell back to the state’s energy grid. PUC staffers say the move was a defense against an existential threat posed by private solar to the traditional utility model. If solar customers could take advantage of utility grids without paying for it, who would pay for upkeep on power lines and generators? Homeowners installing solar panels on their roofs, generating their own electricity, and selling the excess back to the utility at a profit, the PUC argued, were leading into a “death spiral.”

Solar companies saw the move in life-and-death terms, too. SolarCity retaliated against the PUC’s decision by announcing that it would withdraw from Nevada entirely, laying off 550 staff in the process. Another major solar company, Sunrun Inc., followed suit, cutting hundreds of jobs statewide. The PUC’s decision, SolarCity’s Rive warned Fortune, would “damage the state’s economy, and jeopardize thousands of jobs.” Similarly, he told ThinkProgress, “These jobs can be lost if you have a person [read: regulator] who doesn’t look at the future and only looks at supporting the monopolies of the utilities.”

Whose side to take in Nevada is far from clear. The state’s primary utility company, NV Energy, is owned by Warren Buffett. Two of the governor’s advisers work as lobbyists for the company, and their involvement in the December law’s passage remains unclear. Monopolistic, fossil fuel–based utility companies (which provide about two-thirds of the country’s power) are no friend of the people.

What about the solar companies? Rive is joined on the SolarCity’s management team by Silicon Valley icon Elon Musk, whose vision of the renewable energy future carries a strong libertarian streak. Entrusting the market to achieve the “best solution,” Musk has advocated swapping environmental regulations for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and sees the disruptive power of private green innovation as the key to averting climate catastrophe. No doubt net metering—what allows solar customers to sell surplus power back to utilities at retail price—is a necessary step for a transition to renewables. But the coverage of the fight in Nevada, stacked unanimously against the PUC, would suggest there’s only one option for a low-carbon future: a free-market paradise for corporate solar.

What other possibilities are there? Beyond Big Solar are a range of ownership and profit structures that complicate the renewables landscape, and could ensure that an economy powered by something other than fossil fuels will be more equitable and democratic than today’s. Energy cooperatives and publicly owned utilities are two promising models that allow for stripping dirty energy from our power grids without doubling down on profit-hungry development. The alternative to a corporate-controlled fuel transition is simple: socialize America’s energy economy.

Just Transition, System Change, and Revolutionary Green Transformation

By Steve Ongerth - Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 21, 2016

The term “Just Transition” is becoming increasingly prevalent in discussions involving workers, climate change, and post carbon energy economics.

Wikipedia describes Just Transition as, “a framework that has been developed by the trade union movement to encompass a range of social interventions needed to secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods when economies are shifting to sustainable production, including avoiding climate change, protecting biodiversity, among other challenges.”

This is particularly timely given the fact that humanity faces a deepening crises due to global warming, brought on by capitalist economic activity centered on a fossil-fuel based economy. In order to prevent the absolute worst case scenarios of what will almost undoubtedly a warming world, at least 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves will need to remain unextracted, and humanity will need to transition to a renewable energy based post-carbon economy. Such a shift will inevitably require a massive transformation of the means of production, likely affecting much of the working class.

Already we’re witnessing the beginnings of major upheaval simply due to the innate characteristics of chaotic capitalist market activity, as 100,000s of workers jobs are imperiled by collapsing coal, oil, and commodities markets worldwide, combined with just the beginnings of a major shift as disruptive technologies such as wind and solar achieve greater and greater share of the mix of energy sources now available.

Furthermore, climate justice and/or environmental activists know—at least intuitively—that the fossil fuel based economy, including all parts of its supply chain must be shut down as rapidly as possible and replaced by ecologically sustainable alternatives, and all attempts at expansion of the fossil fuel based activity must be opposed, by any means necessary, including (but limited to) direct action. 

In this context, the issue of jobs and just transition has become a major topic. Obviously, shutting down any project cold (even if possible) would result in the loss of jobs performed by the workers, who’re not responsible for the activities of their employers (and quite likely do not entirely agree with their employers’ motives). Even limiting such projects can potentially negatively affect the workers’ livelihoods. Given such a threat, it’s understandable that these workers would oppose efforts by climate justice and environmental activists to disrupt fossil fuel supply chains.

It’s not a new concept...

(Read the entire document here in PDF Form)

Labor in the Age of Climate Change: Any just transition to a green economy must take place on labor’s terms — not capital’s.

By Stefania Barca - Jacobin, March 18, 2016

Climate change must be stopped. But who will do the stopping? Who, in other words, could be the political subject of an anticapitalist climate revolution?

I am convinced this social agent could be, and indeed must be, the global working class. Yet to play this role, the working class must develop an emancipatory ecological class consciousness.

Fortunately, history is rife with examples of this kind of green-red synthesis — labor environmentalism is as old as the trade union movement.

For much of its existence, labor environmentalism focused on the workplace and the living environment of working-class communities, linking occupational health and safety with the protection of public and environmental health.

In the 1990s, labor environmentalism began embracing the concepts of “sustainable development” and the “green economy.” More recently, as climate change has intensified, “just transition” (JT) has become the idea du jour. JT is based on the notion that workers shouldn’t bear the brunt of the shift to a low-carbon economy, whether in the form of job losses or destabilized local communities.

To this end, blue-collar unions — particularly those in heavy industry, transport, and energy — have forged so-called blue-green alliances with environmental groups across the globe. These convergences demonstrate a growing consensus around the need to tackle climate change, advancing union involvement and sustainability as the means to that end.

Yet important cleavages exist within this consensus, especially when it comes to the just transition. Some groups simply push for job creation in a greened economy. Others, refusing to abide market solutions, have adopted a radical critique of capitalism.

How this schism shakes out will decide whether labor unwittingly bolsters capital — or confronts capital and climate change.

Jobs, justice, climate: The struggle continues

By Martin Empson - International Socialism, January 6, 2016

A review of Paul Hampton, Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity: Tackling Climate Change in a Neoliberal World (Routledge Studies in Climate, Work and Society, 2015), £90

The complete and utter failure of the world’s governments to take meaningful action on climate change was once again apparent at the COP21 talks in Paris in December 2015. In Britain, the Conservative government was barely into its new term before it announced policies that undermined even the minimal commitments its predecessors had made. Their policies favoured fracking and other fossil fuels over renewable energy, airport and road expansion over public transport, and introduced reductions in funding that should have helped insulate homes.

Discussions about how we get a sustainable society—reduce emissions and force action upon unwilling governments—are ever more important. For socialists one key aspect of this debate in recent years has been the question of climate jobs and the role of trade unions.

Paul Hampton is head of research and policy for the Fire Brigades Union. His new book begins by locating the source of the climate crisis with capitalism. While noting that capitalism is a system based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation, with inevitable environmental impacts, he also points out that the increased use of machinery to increase relative surplus value in the exploitative ­relationship between capital and worker also has an environmental aspect. Thus, the ­“technological revolution”, powered by the burning of fossil fuels for energy, is part of what Hampton calls the “subsumption of climate to capital”. The importance of fossil fuels lies in their “flexibility, fitting capitalist society’s particular relationship to nature” and their centrality to the capitalist economy is the outcome of the development of capitalism, rather than “market forces or pluralistic decision-making”. Thus Hampton argues climate change cannot be seen as a result of “market failure”, as mainstream economists like Nicolas Stern argue, but as a result of how capitalism works. To avoid runaway climate change a “critique of capitalism…is the logical starting point”.

How does this fit in with the role of trade unions—which tend not to be revolutionary anti-capitalist organisations? The first point that Hampton makes is that unions, and by extension, workers have mostly been overlooked in “mainstream social science”. Bosses are often discussed as “climate actors”, those with the potential to enact changes such as reduction of emissions. But the people they employ are often ignored.

This is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that, as Hampton points out, workers have a vested interest in dealing with climate change because they are not only “likely to be among those most vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change and to have fewer resources to adapt” but they are “also likely to be the victims of government policies designed to tackle climate change, especially those that shift the costs of mitigation and adaption from capital onto labour” (p39). It is for the latter reason that socialists and environmental activists must argue for a “just transition”, so that those who face losing jobs because of action on climate change, such as the closure of a highly polluting factory or the transition from fossil fuel generation to renewable energy, do not lose out.

One Million Climate Jobs: A Challenge for Canadians

By Jonathan Neale - One Million Climate Jobs, January 5, 2016

In Canada, an alliance of unions, with environment, youth, public interest, faith-based organizations and First Nations are working together through the Green Economy Network to put these principles to practice, by calling for “one million climate jobs” in Canada within the next five years.

The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) has recently adopted its COP21 Statement, emphasizing that climate change is already affecting production and consumption patterns in many sectors of our economy.

The warnings by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the current pace of emissions is already consuming the entire global carbon budget is a clear indication that market forces on their own are not in a position to provide the kind of transition that will prevent catastrophic climate change.

Governments must step up to the plate by working and providing leadership for the common good and public interest. With a new government in Ottawa, Canada is now in a position to commit ambitious, achievable, science-based targets to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

At the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen, Canada pledged with other G8 countries to cut its carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Such a target implies emission cuts by 2030 of no less than 38 percent of 2005 levels. Now, at COP21, we urge the federal government to recommit to at least this target.

As have Germany and Australia with their coal industries, there is a need to be proactive in regulating the petroleum industry in Canada and curbing expansion of the oil sands, which remains the fastest growing sector of the economy for greenhouse gas emissions, despite the falling oil prices.

This calls for significant industrial transformation toward a new low-to-zero carbon economy. A transformation that will eliminate or transform existing jobs, likely bringing about resistance to change, which could undermine a much needed social consensus in Canada for a way forward.

To address this resistance, a just transition strategy that is supported by workers, employers and governments is needed, with a focus on creating new jobs and incorporating training and education for displaced workers. The strategy must embody social support, re-employment and compensation measures, and be devised with the participation of workers and their representatives.

These measures must also go hand in hand with efforts to deal with unemployment overall, as rising CO2 levels and job losses are the products of the same economic model. A commitment to Decent Work, as understood by the International Labour Organization (ILO), can pave the way to an economic model that addresses social injustice, poverty and inequality at the same time. In 2013, the Canadian government, employers and unions agreed, along with those of other countries, to a set of guiding principles that can do just that. Now is the time to apply these principles for dealing with climate change in Canada.

In Canada, an alliance of unions, with environment, youth, public interest, faith-based organizations and First Nations are working together through the Green Economy Network to put these principles to practice, by calling for “one million climate jobs” in Canada within the next five years.[1] Similarly, the Blue Green Canada also brings together unions and environmental groups to tackle these issues.

At COP21, unions sow the seeds of labor to yield green jobs

By Blake Deppe - People's World, December 3, 2015

Photo: Left to right - Clara Paillard, Tony Clark, Andreas Ytterstad. | Blake Deppe/PW

PARIS: As the UN Climate Conference (COP 21) continues, the Trade Union Forum on Climate and Jobs debuted today at Climate Generations. Trade unions gathered with their allies and with one another to discuss the ever-looming dark cloud that is climate change, and how to find a silver lining within it, by creating clean jobs that sustain the labor movement and reduce or eliminate harm to the environment. While that's no easy task and there's a long road ahead for workers and activists, labor leaders presented real plans and logical solutions.

The key word today was "transition," and the ensuing question was, how do workers prepare for the adjustments that will have to be made as the world moves away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy? It was a question that had to be asked, and the Trade Union Forum, an event that began today and which will last through Dec. 7, did just that. First posing that query were members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who shared an assessment report based on their research to reaffirm, once again, that climate change is a real and portentous threat.

Sustainable future a prerequisite for progress

"Climate change is real. The consensus on this is stronger than the consensus that smoking causes cancer," said Jonathan Lynn, head of communications and media relations for the IPCC. "World public opinion has shifted and there is now a greater understanding of this. So a pathway for a sustainable future is a prerequisite for progress. We have to have greener jobs, but at the same time, they have to be unionized and made available to those who become displaced from other work. But we've pissed away a lot of the time we had, and now our window to do this is closing. Unfortunately, there's a lot of money to be made in destroying the planet. Companies like Exxon or people like the Koch Brothers will not deliver a sustainable future."

On the other hand, those who possibly can bring about such a future took center stage as the next phase of the forum, Climate Jobs Now, began. Here, union leaders spoke about the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign, organized by the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union group and supported by eight national unions. Its goal is to create one million green jobs, which would help shift the energy industry to one based on renewables and clean alternatives and which could kick-start the economy.

Secret documents reveal trade deal could limit Canadian climate-change fight

Press Release - Canadian Union of Public Employees, December 3, 2015

As world leaders are gathered in Paris for the COP21 climate talks, 23 government negotiators including Canada are in Geneva negotiating a secretive trade deal that will give oil and gas companies new powers.

Wikileaks has released a section of the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) draft text that, if adopted, would prevent governments from favouring clean energy - such as solar - over more polluting sources - like the tar sands.

The leak reveals TiSA would also make it difficult, or even impossible, to ban fracking or phase out hazardous and polluting energy extraction. This poses enormous barriers to government action, like Alberta’s recent climate change strategy.

“It’s urgent that we collectively phase out – not expand – our fossil fuel use,” says Mark Hancock, CUPE National President. “TiSA keeps our planet on the path to climate disaster, by allowing corporations to continue exploiting dirty energy sources, and preventing governments from favouring renewable alternatives.”

A CUPE delegation to the COP21 climate talks, including National Secretary-Treasurer Charles Fleury, is calling on international leaders to reject any trade deal that hinders the fight against climate change.

“In Paris, we’re pushing for public ownership of renewables. It’s the best way to transition away from fossil fuels and meet ambitious emissions targets,” says Fleury. If Canada wants to show leadership on climate change, it’s time to walk the talk. Our government must reject TiSA.”

Global trade union federation Public Services International has analyzed the leaked text: 

CUPE is committed to stopping trade deals like the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and TiSA, which put corporate profits ahead of the public interest and the environment.

CUPE is calling for fair trade deals that work for people and the planet – not just a global corporate elite.

Learn more in the Trade section of our website.

To stop climate change and move to a renewable future, we must take the profit motive out of our energy strategy. CUPE supports public ownership of the energy sector and works with allies like Trade Unions for Energy Democracy to find solutions to the climate crisis that can strengthen worker and community power while advancing social and environmental justice.

From Climate Crisis to Solar Communism

By David Schwartzman - Jacobin, December 1, 2015

IWW EUC Note: readers should be aware that the term "communism" here does not mean "bureaucratic state capitalism", and can be inclusive of ecosocialism, post-scarcity-anarchism, and/or green syndicalism (depending on one's implementation of the ideas discussed here):

The proposals elites are offering at COP21 wouldn’t halt climate change. What would a socialist solution look like?

Jacobin Editor's Note: Leaders from 147 countries have assembled in Paris for COP 21, the most important climate summit since the 2009 Copenhagen meeting. But climate justice activists worry the result will be the same: platitudes and handwringing, with no firm commitment from Global North countries to drastically curb carbon emissions.

What, then, would a just solution look like?

David Schwartzman, a biogeochemist and professor emeritus at Howard University, has been thinking and writing about climate and energy issues for many years. He recently spoke with Jacobin about the state of the climate crisis, the connection between global warming and the military-industrial complex, and why “the communist horizon in the twenty-first century, if there is to be one, will be solar communist.”

What is the current consensus on the climate crisis?

According to Climate Interactive — a major monitor of climate change — based on public commitments from the major carbon-emitting countries, projected warming by 2100 will be 3.5°C (6.3°F), or 1.5°C above the 2°C warming limit (above the pre-industrial global temperature) agreed upon at the 2010 Cancun Climate Change Conference. The United Nations now gives a somewhat lower projected warming of 2.7°C (4.9°F).

Moreover, some leading climate scientists now think that even the 2 degree limit is too high. For example, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen describes the 2 degree limit as a “prescription for disaster” because of projected impacts such as sea level rise and acidification of the ocean. His assessment is reinforced by a newly published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This evidence reinforces the long-term demand of many poor countries for a 1.5 degree limit.

What about fossil-fuel reduction? Is that making an impact?

Roughly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from fossil-fuel use, with coal, natural gas (due to methane leakage into the atmosphere), and tar sands oil having the highest carbon footprint. Conventional liquid oil has the lowest carbon footprint, about three-fourths that of coal. (The other greenhouse gases derived from human activity include nitrous oxide, the breakdown product of nitrate fertilizer, with methane also coming from agriculture.)

China is the world’s leading carbon emitter, almost double that of the second-place United States.

The big three — China, the US, and the European Union —produce 55 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. China has committed to leveling off its emissions by 2030 (using carbon emission trading), while the US promises to reduce its greenhouse emissions 26–28 percent by 2025 relative to 2005 emissions.

As Naomi Klein has recently argued — citing the assessment of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research — the US goal falls far short of what is required for even the 2-degree goal, which would require reductions of at least 8 to 10 percent per year.

Projected warming, in combination with lackluster efforts to cut emissions, has created an imminent crisis. This is the reality check for serious activists. Any remaining possibility of keeping warming below 2°C will require rapid and radical cuts in global carbon emissions — starting with the fossil fuels with the highest carbon footprint — and the simultaneous creation of a viable global wind and solar power infrastructure.

What kind of "just transition"?

By Michael Ware - Socialist Worker, December 1, 2015

The climate justice movement knows what it is against, but what are we fighting for? Michael Ware, of System Change Not Climate Change, has some answers:

EVERYONE BUT a few Republican crackpots now acknowledge that the planet faces a climate emergency. But the bosses at ExxonMobil had a bit of a head start.

A company memo was unearthed this year showing that the oil giant knew since 1977 from its own scientists that burning fossil fuels contributed to global warming. But the findings were hidden, and Exxon continued to be climate change deniers for decades to come.

This revelation speaks volumes about how short-term profits trump everything under capitalism, even human survival. Exxon's research pointed toward what we are living through today: increased temperatures globally, drought, mass flooding, more intense hurricanes, crop failures, extinctions, melting polar regions, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, water scarcity, and on and on.

Already, climate change causes 300,000 to 400,000 deaths per year, mostly in the Global South, according to a study conducted on behalf of the UN several years ago.

In order to keep the increase in global temperatures under 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century and avoid catastrophic environmental changes, greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 5-10 percent each year. Already, the global temperature increase has been almost 1 degree Celsius.

The emergence of a green capitalism sector, increased energy efficiencies and limited expansion of renewable energy have done little to bring down the estimates of average temperature increases. Without a radical change of course, the increase will be between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Clearly, just educating politicians and business leaders about the threat isn't enough. We need movements and protests strong enough to force big changes in the way humans produce and consume energy.

The urgency around halting climate change creates a unique political dynamic. The need for social change is always urgently felt by the oppressed, but for the first time, we have an environmental timer showing that the huge task of transitioning to a sustainable world must take place in this century, or humanity will face the consequences of an inhospitable planet.

Fighting for this kind of change will necessarily threaten capitalism. Yet it's hard for most people to envision a world without corporations, car culture, oil wars, oppression and a market for everything, including pollution.

Unions to lobby for "energy democracy" at Paris climate talks

By Teresa Albano - People's World, November 27, 2015

Everybody likes to talk about the weather but nobody can do a damn thing about it. Or can they?

Severe weather events that have caused deaths and destruction are linked to climate change - like 2012's Hurricane Sandy that pummeled New York and New Jersey, or the drought in Syria that forced people off their lands and into the cities, helping to create, according to reports, conditions that caused the devastating civil war.

And there is something people can do about climate change.

Despite the billions that Big Oil companies like Exxon Mobil have poured into spreading all kinds of climate change denial narratives, the world's scientists agree overwhelmingly that the planet is warming and it's due to the unprecedented release of human-created greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

And this warming has a cascading effect that even scientists cannot forecast. For one thing, glaciers and gigantic ice floes are melting into the oceans causing sea levels to rise, which in turn, threatens island nations like Fiji or low-lying regions of the United States, like the Florida Everglades. It's changing ocean currents and atmospheric patterns, leading to extreme weather events of all kinds - yes, including more severe blizzards too.

And who are the biggest victims of climate change? Working people around the world - the poor, the underpaid, the jobless, the exploited.

Now, unions worldwide are preparing to make sure the voices and needs of working people are included in the final United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris, Nov. 30 - Dec. 11. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) plans to lobby negotiators and leaders of some 190 countries during the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference on three issues:

Raise the level of "ambition" in the emission targets and by doing so "realize" job creation potential in the greening of economies;

Guarantee the most vulnerable people and nations get the maximum financial help;

Commit to a "just transition" for workers and their communities involved in industries that rely on fossil fuels.

Among the U.S. union delegates will be Sean Sweeney, PhD, who is the coordinator of a global network called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. He is also the director of the International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment, which is part of the City University of New York's Murphy Institute. Sweeney told People's World that there will be official union participation that focuses on the formal talks in Paris, but unions will also collaborate with other social movements in hosting discussions, debates and networking events outside of the official UN summit.

On Dec. 8, TUED and other union groups will host Naomi Klein, author of "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate," and British Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in a conversation entitled, "Now Is Not the Time for Small Steps: Solutions to the Climate Crisis and the Role of Trade Unions."

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