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Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy: an Organizing Proposal

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 29, 2017

The world faces a crises of enormous proportions. Global warming, caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels, threatens life on Earth as we know it, and yet, those most responsible for causing the crisis, the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, seems hell bent on doubling down on business as usual. In the United States of America, whose corporate overlords are among the worst offenders, they are led by the recently elected Donald Trump, whose cabinet is bursting at the seams with climate change denialists and fossil fuel capitalist industry representatives. Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy and decarbonizing society as quickly as possible, as climate scientists overwhelmingly recommend, Trump and his inner circle would seemingly rather not just maintain the status quo; they’ve signaled that they intend to make the worst choices imaginable, putting all of the US’s energy eggs into the oil, natural gas, and coal basket.

Worse still, Trump claims to enjoy a good deal of support for such moves from the Voters who elected him, which includes a good portion of the "White working class" who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, whose policies are just barely more favorable to addressing the problems of global warming (which is to say, still woefully inadequate). Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO, pushed principally by the Building Trades unions, have doubled down on their efforts to continue to serve as capital’s junior partners, even as the latter continues to liquidate them in their ongoing campaign of systemic union busting.  Just recently, science teachers across the country began to find packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming", a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to "read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom," courtesy of the climate change denialist Heartland Institute.

One might think, given all of these situations, that…well, to put it mildly…we’re doomed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in spite of the bleakness of these circumstances, a deeper look behind them reveals that fossil fuel capitalism is in terminal decline, that their hold over our lives hangs by a thread, so much that we the people, the workers and peasants of the world, have the ability to transform the human existence to one based not on plundering the Earth and exploiting the masses for the profit of a few, but one based on true grassroots democracy, free of suffering and want, and one that exists in harmony with the Earth. The key to making this transformation lies with clean energy, and the people who can make this transformation are the very people who helped elect Donald Trump themselves. One may justifiably ask, how is this even remotely possible?

This new organizing proposal, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy, offers a potential solution and practical steps to achieve it which can not only break the reactionary tide, perhaps once and for all, but also can greatly accelerate the very necessary process of abolishing capitalism and building a new, ecological sustainable world in the shell of the ecocidal old by building an intersectional movement championing "Clean Energy Democracy". Such a movement has the potential to unite workers, rural and rustbelt communities, climate justice activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and farmers of all backgrounds and revitalize a vibrant and grassroots democratic anti-capitalist left, and it offers goals that help address the intertwining crises of global warming, decadent capitalism, failing economies, and demoralized communities plagued by economic depression, racism, and reactionary nationalism.

While the burgeoning "resistance", loosely led by a coalition of groups and movements with a smorgasbord of goals and demands, many of which are reformist and defensive (though not undesirable if seen as steps along the way to more revolutionary and transformative demands) has so far successfully held back much of the worst intentions of Trump and the forces he represents, making the latter fight tooth and nail for every single inch (as well they should), such resistance still lacks the positive vision needed to truly meet the needs of most people, including especially the most oppressed and downtrodden. By contrast, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy offers one piece of a revolutionary and transformative vision that can truly help build a new world within the shell of the old, thus putting an end to capitalist economic oppression as well as the ongoing systematic destruction of the Earth's ability to sustain life.

Download the Proposal (PDF File).

Unions and the Climate Justice Movement

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, October 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Where does the union movement stand on the issue of climate justice? The answer to that question is not entirely simple. First of all, it's important to understand the differences between revolutionary unions (most of which are syndicalist--such as the CNT, FAI, SAC--or Marxist--such as NUMSA--in their orientation, or some hybrid inclusive of both and more--such as the IWW) and mainstream reformist unions, such as the AFL-CIO.  For most revolutionary unions, climate justice is an inherent part of the struggle to overthrow capitalism, abolish wage slavery, and create a new society within the shell of the old. For example, the IWW has organized an environmental unionism caucus that dedicates itself to climate justice and other ecological issues. The South African union, NUMSA, is a supporter of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)1 and has issued a statement calling for the end to the "Mineral Industrial Complex" (even though they represent mine workers) in favor of renewable energy.

Where the reformist unions (sometimes called "business unions" or "class collaborationist" unions by their detractors) stand varies widely, and to be accurate, some of these "reformist" unions have more (or less) "revolutionary" orientation within the spectrum of the mainstream labor movement. While many still believe that capitalism can be reformed, the evolving realities of capitalism--which is becoming extremely repressive as it imposes increasingly crushing austerity upon the working class--the ever heightening urgency of addressing capitalist induced global warming, and the increasingly impossible-to-ignore realities of police violence, movements like Black Lives Matter, and other social issues are driving many unions to question their adherence to it, beyond the mere rank and file militants within each of them.

One would expect the Building Trades and most heavy industry based unions in the United States, many of which are still largely dominated by white male workers, to be least supportive of climate justice (or even likely to swallow the rhetoric of climate denialism) and conversely expect the service unions, many of which are predominantly composed of women and People of Color to be most supportive of it, and in some cases that's true, but not always! The actual "geography" of where unions stand on climate justice is actually quite complex2, inconsistent, and in some instances contradictory.  Sorting it out completely is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is illustrative to cover some general ground and cite a few interesting examples.

Time to Pull the Plugs

By Andreas Malm - ROARMag, December 2017

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

A Transition to the Flow

How fast could a transition to the flow — all those sources of energy originating in the sun and flowing through the biosphere — be implemented? In the most comprehensive study to date, American researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi suggest that all new energy could come from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric installations by 2030. Reorienting manufacturing capabilities towards their needs, the world would not have to build one more coal-fired — or even nuclear — power plant, gasworks, internal combustion engine or petrol station. After another two decades, all old equipment based on the stock could be taken off-line, so that by 2050 the entire world economy — manufacturing, transportation, heating: everything — would run on renewable electricity, roughly 90 percent of which the sun and the wind would provide. The job could be done by technologies already developed.

In the real world, the flow does seem to be undergoing something of a boom, output of wind and solar growing exponentially year after year. Despite the financial crisis, global wind-power capacity increased by 32 percent in 2009; for photovoltaics — also known as solar panels — the figure reached 53 percent. In the eighteen months ending in April 2014, more solar power was adopted in the US than in the previous thirty years; in 2013, 100 percent of the fresh electricity in Massachusetts and Vermont came from the sun, while China installed more photovoltaics than any country had ever done before in a single year.

Yet the flow remained a drop in the fossil bucket, evidently doing nothing to dampen the emissions explosion. Between 1990 and 2008 — from the first to the fourth IPCC report — 57 times more fossil than renewable energy came online in the world economy; by 2008, wind represented a trifling 1.1 percent and photovoltaics a microscopic 0.06 percent of primary energy supply; excluding hydropower, renewable sources generated a mere 3 percent of the electricity. In 2013, more energy entered the world economy from coal than from any other fuel. How can this be? Why is humanity not running for life out of the fossil economy towards one based on the flow? What impediments block its way?

A prime suspect is price: fossil fuels simply remain cheaper. And indeed, one decade into the millennium, renewable sources still cost more on average than the conventional incumbents. But the gap narrowed fast. In many parts of the US, onshore wind was already neck and neck with fossil energy, the price of turbines having fallen by 5 percent per annum for thirty years. Photovoltaics crashed at double that speed. In 2014, after a fall of 60 percent in only three years, solar panels cost one-hundredth of what they did in 1975. In nineteen regional and national markets, they had attained “grid parity,” meaning that they matched or undercut conventional sources without the support of subsidies.

Had it not been for state subsidies to fossil energy — six times larger than those to renewables in 2013 and showing no signs of decreasing — sun and wind might have had significantly lower relative prices. Had the costs of climate change, air pollution, lethal accidents and other “externalities” been included in the market price of fossil fuels, they would not have stood a chance.

The ongoing collapse in the prices of the flow is, at bottom, a function of its profile: the fuel is already there, free for the taking, a “gift of nature” or Gratisnaturkraft, to speak with Marx. The only thing that has exchange value is the technology for capturing, converting and storing the energy of the fuel, and like all technologies, it is subject to economies of scale: mass production slashes the costs of panels and turbines. Every time the cumulative volume of photovoltaic installations has doubled, their market prices have declined by roughly 20 percent.

Moreover, there are numerous potentials for increasing performance and further cutting costs. In what is perhaps the only subfield of the climate debate bristling with optimism and near-utopian zeal, experts predict that both solar and wind will be generally cheaper than fossil fuels sometime before 2025. There is talk of approaching “peak fossil fuels,” beyond which coal, oil and gas will be left in the ground simply because they cost so much more than their clean alternatives.

Climate message to transport unions: mobilize in Paris, build alliances back home

By Asbjørn Wahl - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Climate change is going on. Extreme weather conditions, storms, floodings, landslides, droughts and ice melting are reported ever more regularly from many parts of the world. Millions of people are losing their livelihood, their homes, their jobs – and many also their lives. The successive reports of the United Nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have increasingly called for urgent action in order to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. However, after having negotiated for 20 years, our political leaders have failed to take necessary action. The result is that emissions are increasing rather than decreasing (61 percent increase from 1990 to 2013). Temperature increase is on course for 4-6oC rather than maximum 1,5-2.0oC, something which will mean climate catastrophe.

In Peru last December, a climate summit (COP20) once more ended without showing any ability to do what is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. COP20 in Lima therefore became FAILURE20. However, COP20 was not expected by anybody to bring a breakthrough. It was seen as an intermezzo, while we have been told that it is at the next summit, COP21 in Paris at the end of this year, that we will have an ambitious and binding global agreement. Given the track record of more than 20 years of government negotiations, we should not so easily count on that. Time is therefore ripe for a massive mobilisation of social forces from below to put pressure on our political leaders. Trade unions will have to play a decisive role in such a mobilization. It is a question on what kind of society we want to develop. It is a question of having a just transition to a society based on clean and renewable energy.

Mobilise up to and in Paris

This mobilisation is now being prepared, and important parts of the trade union movement are already strongly involved. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has taken a leading role in this. General Secretary Sharan Burrow is urging trade unions to get involved at all levels – local, national and international. In France, a broad coalition of almost 100 organisations, including trade unions, have collectively founded the platform Coalition Climat 21 to mobilise and organise for COP21. Since the Mexico Congress of 2010, the ITF has followed up its strong climate change programme, organised seminars, taken part in global summits and mobilisations and developed educational tools, which can be found on our web site.

The ITF has also joined the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) network, which coordinates policy development, advocacy work and mobilisations – based on the understanding that in order to be able to carry out the necessary transitions, the energy sector, as well as other strategic sectors in our societies, have to be brought under democratic control. A number of national and international trade union organisations have already joined this network, and others, which support such policies, should do so as well. An important document, “RESIST, RECLAIM, RESTRUCTURE: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy” has been developed, in addition to some interesting working papers and a short video.

Towards a Progressive Labor Vision for Climate Justice and Energy Transition

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, June 2, 2017

Discussion document submitted to Labor for Our Revolution (LFOR):

This memorandum proposes an analysis and provisional framework around which to construct an ambitious and effective agenda for progressive labor to respond to the converging environmental crises, and to pursue a rapid, inclusive approach to energy transition and social justice.

Such an agenda could serve to bring a much-needed independent union voice to policy and programmatic debates on climate change and energy within Our Revolution spaces and processes. Labor’s voice in these debates frequently echoes the large energy companies on one side, or the large mainstream environmental NGOs on the other.

Unions that supported Bernie, alongside other union locals and individual leaders and activists who participate in Labor for Our Revolution (LFOR), understand that we cannot afford to regard environmental issues and climate change as peripheral concerns situated outside of labor’s “core agenda.” This is not the place to review the science, but recent assessments from climate scientists, already sobering, have become increasingly grave. The health impacts of rising airborne pollution and warming temperatures already cut short the lives of millions on an annual basis, and will increasingly do so without a major change in direction.

Importantly, a global movement has emerged that today challenges the destructive trajectory of “business as usual.” This is a movement that progressive labor in the US can work with and should support.

Progressive labor can and should articulate a clear alternative to the anti-scientific, “energy superpower” agenda being advanced by Trump—an alternative that can help build and strengthen alliances with the climate and environmental justice movements. Progressive unions are already involved in Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) and / or Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED); both LNS and TUED bring significant experience and capacity, and can serve as platforms for expanded and accelerated collaboration and programmatic work.

Many would agree that progressive labor’s approach must be science-based and internationalist. It must aspire to be socially and economically transformative, and must be able simultaneously to inspire and mobilize union members, and provide a basis for durable, effective alliances with other social movements. This, then, is our starting point.

At the same time, progressive labor’s approach must recognize that incremental efforts to “move the needle” are no longer sufficient. For this reason, such an approach must also be built around clear programmatic commitments that are evidence-based, grounded in a realistic assessment of the urgency, and commensurate to the task.

How Canadian universities can confront climate change: moving from greenwashing to action

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, February 6, 2018

Confronting Climate Change on Campus  is a newly-released guide by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT/ACPPU), in response to growing awareness and concern amongst the professors and researchers who are members. It presents a three-step plan of practical action to be followed by academic staff associations and researchers across Canada:  To reduce the carbon footprint of campuses by improving building energy conservation and promoting low-carbon transportation;  to expand course offerings dedicated to climate change, and to encourage climate change research through grants and awards; and to advocate for the creation of association or institutional environment committees, or work with established committees, such as collective bargaining or workplace joint health and safety committees, to push climate change concerns.  The French version of the guide is here .

The growing awareness and concern amongst academics can be partly explained by the research efforts of the Sustainability and Education Policy Network (SEPN) at the University of Saskatchewan, which CAUT has highlighted, most recently  in  “The Politics of Climate Change” in the CAUT  Bulletin (June 2017).  The article summarizes results of a survey of Canadian colleges and universities by researchers at SEPN, and calls for exactly the kinds of actions addressed in the new CAUT guide.  The scholarly article on which the CAUT Bulletin article is based is “Climate Change and the Canadian Higher Education System: An Institutional Policy Analysis” , which  appeared in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education in June  2017.  The key findings are: “less than half (44 per cent) have climate change-specific policies in place; those policies focus most often upon the built-campus environment with “underdeveloped secondary responses” to research, curriculum, community outreach and governance policies; and the “overwhelming” response of modifying infrastructure and curbing energy consumption and pollution, while important, risks masking deeper social and cultural dynamics which require addressing.”   A 2-page summary is here ; an infographic is here.

Other relevant SEPN publications include “The State of Fossil Fuel Divestment in Canadian Post-secondary Institutions” (2016) ; “50 Shades of Green: An Examination of Sustainability Policy on Canadian Campuses” (2015) , and the related Research Brief Greenwashing in Education: How Neoliberalism and Policy Mobility May Undermine Environmental Sustainability  (2014),  and “Greening the Ivory Tower: A Review of Educational Research on Sustainability in Post-secondary Education” , which appeared in the journal  Sustainability in 2013.

And elsewhere in the world:  According to The Guardian, on February 5, the University of Edinburgh , which divested from coal and tar sands investments in 2015, announced that it will sell its final £6.3m of fossil fuel holdings.  Edinburgh has a  £1bn endowment fund,  (exceeded in the U.K. only by Cambridge and Oxford). Signalling the change to a more climate-friendly investment strategy, Edinburgh has invested £150m in low carbon technology, climate-related research,  and businesses that directly benefit the environment.

"Without a Popular Movement We Don’t Stand a Chance”: Andreas Malm on Climate Change

By Rasmus Landström - Verso Books, February 5, 2018

First published at ETC. Translated by Sam Carlshamre.

Andreas Malm sits in his office in his apartment in Malmö. He is looking uncomfortable. The question I asked — if he is active in any political organisation — seems to have opened the floodgates of his bad conscience. Well, of course, he is a member of Socialistiska Partiet (“The Socialist Party” — a Swedish left-wing organisation with its roots in the Trotskyist tradition) and Klimataktion (“Climate Action”), but the days when he went blocking airport runways seems to be over. Last year he missed the major actions against the coal plants in Germany due to a foot injury.

"Since I became a researcher I have turned into a kind of 'Armchair Activist,' and it’s something that I makes me feel incredibly embarrassed."

He scratches his head.

"But I do try to participate in as many demonstrations and manifestations as I can; and why not a riot every now and then? I guess you shouldn’t write that last bit though."

An internationally renowned researcher and authority in the field of Human ecology who participates in riots? For those of us who have followed Andreas Malm’s trajectory over the last decades that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. For many years he was a well-known character of the non-parliamentarian, far-left Sweden. He started out with Palestine activism in the 1990s, which led to the book Bulldozers Against a People — in which he chronicled his own work with activists in some of the most dangerous parts of Palestine’s. Later he wrote two books on the workers’ struggle in Iran together with his partner Shora Esmailian — which led to them both being banned from returning to the country. He has also been an activist in the struggle against Islamophobia and American imperialism, and has written books on these topics as well.

"Since I became a researcher I’ve been drawn into this academic bubble. I could say that that’s because I have a small child to take care of, but it still gives me a very bad conscience."

Malm sighs and looks quite unhappy. I figure its time to change the subject. After all, the reason I’m doing this interview isn’t his personal track record as an activist, but his contributions as a researcher and political commentator. I start by asking how he got engaged in the struggle against climate change.

"In the early 2000s I considered the whole issue of climate change a bit "petty bourgeois," as did most of us on the radical, non-parliamentarian left. Why should we care about polar bears or melting ice caps when there were more important issues, such as the workers’ struggle, right here? But then I came across Mark Lynas’ book High Tide; I read it and it got me thinking. At that time, I was active in issues concerning the Middle East, and suddenly it struck me that a democratic Iran would never come about if there was no potable water around. That made me write the book Det är vår bestämda uppfattning att om ingenting görs nu kommer det att vara för sent (“It is our Firm View that if Nothing is Done Now it will be too Late”). Since then I have kept working on these issues within the academy."

How to get new activists to stay engaged for the long haul

By Eileen Flanagan - Waging Nonviolence, January 15, 2018

After a year of working with people newly mobilized by the 2016 election, one organizing lesson feels particularly clear: People need to feel part of a community that is making change in order to stay engaged for the long haul. This realization may not be surprising, but it has practical implications for organizations and movements that want to grow — especially when outrage at the Trump presidency is still high, but the initial wave of protest has subsided.

The heightened need for community became immediately clear after Trump’s election. To help focus the many people desperate to do something useful, I decided to offer a month-long course through the online platform Zoom. Independent of any organization, and not knowing who would show up, I posted the idea on Facebook and soon had 180 people in the first round. I offered some basic social change theory, inspiring stories from the past, and a chance for participants to discuss their own concerns through the magic of Zoom’s small group function.

The first participants expressed huge relief at being part of a group, particularly one that included like-minded people from every region of the United States. Several asked how to find a group in their own area, and — in hindsight — I should have given more attention to this issue, which I had assumed would be easy to solve with a Google search. For many, it wasn’t that easy. After teaching six online courses (the next one on How to Build a Nonviolent Direct Action Campaign starts January 15) I’m convinced that finding a group where they felt both included and effective has been a key difference between the students who have engaged in meaningful, ongoing activist work and those who haven’t.

Why the Resistance can’t win without vision

By Jeremy Deaton - Waging Nonviolence, January 19, 2018

We’ve had our first year of tweets and leaks from the White House, complete with reactions and outrage in the United States and abroad. The tsunami of words and feelings about Trump has dominated the media and is likely to continue. The question is: Will reactivity to Trump continue among activists, or are we ready to channel our passion into more focused movement-building for change?

Not long ago organizers and activists were telling each other that “another world is possible.” It still is. Based on history, however, that other world can’t be reached through protesting what we don’t like. I can’t think of any countries that transformed simply because movements reacted against injustice.

Movements are successful when they fight for something. Like athletes who improve when they visualize a higher jump or more graceful dive, movements also improve their game by imagining a better world, one with alternatives to the current systems of injustice.

In 2015, 60 Canadian indigenous, labor, environmentalist and social justice leaders came to this realization. They spent two days outlining the major features of an alternative Canada that would put justice first. After a period of additional clarification, a subgroup jelled the agreements into “The Leap Manifesto.”

They called it a “leap” because Canadian political discourse had fallen into the death of creativity known as “next steps,” an incrementalism that rules the Democratic Party in the United States. The Canadian leaders knew that only an evolutionary leap would enable their country to face its gathering crisis and turn it into an opportunity for justice and environmental sanity.

By acknowledging the rightward drift of Canadian political parties and choosing to create an independent platform, the Leap Manifesto injected new energy and possibility into Canadian political life. The New Democratic Party, or NDP, a disappointment to Canadian progressives in recent years, was itself inspired to reconsider its retreat from its legacy.

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