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Climate Insurgency After Paris

By Jeremy Brecher - CounterPunch, January 11, 2016

In December of 2015 – the earth’s hottest year since recordkeeping began — 195 nations met in Paris to forge an agreement to combat global warming. The governments of the world acknowledged their individual and collective duty to protect the earth’s climate — and then willfully refused to perform that duty. What did they agree to, and how should the people they govern respond?

The 195 nations meeting in Paris unanimously agreed to the goal of keeping global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and to pursue efforts “to limit the increase in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Despite that goal, the Paris agreement also permits the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that cause global warming to continue rising.

Under the Paris agreement, governments put forward any targets they want – known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – with “no legal requirement dictating how, or how much, countries should cut emissions.”[1] These voluntary commitments don’t come into effect until 2020 and generally end in 2025-2030.

Today there are 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon in the atmosphere, far above the 350 ppm climate scientists regard as the safe upper limit. Even in the unlikely event that all nations fulfill their INDC pledges, carbon in the atmosphere is predicted to increase to 670 ppm by the end of this century.[2] The global temperature will rise an estimated 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.[3] For comparison, a 1-degree Celsius increase has been enough to cause all the effects of climate change we have seen so far, from Arctic melting to desertification. In short, the agreement authorizes the continued and even increased destruction of the earth’s climate.

US negotiators were adamant that the agreement must not include any binding restrictions on emissions. Secretary of State John Kerry told fellow negotiators that he “wished that we could include specific dates and figures for emissions cuts and financial aid” to developing countries, but “this could trigger a review by the US Senate that could scuttle the entire agreement.”[4] When US lawyers discovered a phrase declaring that wealthier countries “shall” set economy-wide targets for cutting their GHG pollution, Kerry said, “We cannot do this and we will not do this. And either it changes or President Obama and the United States will not be able to support this agreement.” “Shall” was changed to “should” without so much as a vote.[5]

The breathtaking gap between the Paris agreement’s aspiration to hold global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and the agreement’s actual commitments is indicated by an analysis by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan. The current US pledge to drop GHG emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, along with the pledges of other countries, will lead to a global temperature increase of 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. To reduce warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) will require the US to increase its INDC from 26 percent below 2005 levels to 45 percent by 2030, and for other countries to make comparable reductions.[6]

Under the Paris agreement countries will monitor their emissions and reconvene every five years starting in 2023 to report on the results and perhaps ratchet up their INDCs. This has been characterized as creating a “name-and-shame” system of global peer pressure, “in hopes that countries will not want to be seen as international laggards.”[7]

On the last day of the Paris summit, a panel of leading scientists evaluated what would be necessary to achieve its targets. Prof. Hans Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said that to reach the 2-degree target the world would have to get CO2 out of its system by 2070. To reach the 1.5-degree target it would have to eliminate CO2 emissions by 2050. Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center said that for any chance of reaching 1.5 degrees, the richest nations need to reach zero fossil fuel use by 2030.[8]

How Climate Protection Has Become Today’s Labor Solidarity

By Jeremy Brecher - The Nation, May 6, 2015

Under banners proclaiming “Healthy Planet & Good Jobs,” thousands of trade unionists from 75 local and national unions, highly visible in their red, blue, green, and white union uniforms, joined the People’s Climate March in New York City last September—a quantum leap from labor’s previous participation in climate actions.At the labor rally before the march, AFSCME District Council 37 executive director Henry Garrido recalled that during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, “Our workers were at the forefront manning shelters, evacuating people, preparing hospital beds, and rescuing people every day.” But Sandy was just a warning shot. “Labor must stand for more than working conditions,” Garrido continued. “We must stand for more than contracts. We must stand for environmental justice—otherwise, we will become irrelevant.” The issue of climate change, he concluded, is “the biggest threat to our humanity.” We can no longer afford to put our heads in the sand: “Today is the day that the human race stood together and said, ‘Enough!’”

The march’s organizers are now working to launch a People’s Climate Movement. They are planning a series of major mobilizations leading up to the Paris climate summit this December. According to Phil Aroneanu of 350.org, activists have started meeting with unions to plan labor-focused events along the way. “It is incumbent on the climate movement to lay out plans that leave nobody behind in the transition to a climate-safe economy,” Aroneanu says.

Meanwhile, labor action on climate change has proliferated. In New York, according to Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN (New York’s Jobs With Justice affiliate), “There is a growing surge of labor unions engaging and activating their members and their members’ communities around a climate, jobs, and justice agenda. I see it at CWA, SEIU, the Teamsters, New York State Nurses Association, and many others.”

A climate insurgency: building a Trump-free, fossil-free future

By Jeremy Brecher - The Ecologist, April 28, 2017

As the thousands of foot-weary protesters leave the April 29 Peoples Climate March in Washington, DC - and its scores of sister marches around the country - one question will no doubt be foremost on their minds:

How can a march, or indeed any other action they take, force a reversal in the world's hurtle to climate doom?

After all, a single march, no matter how large, is not going to force President Trump and his administration of fossil-fuel company executives and climate-change deniers to reverse course.

They have already cancelled the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, authorized drilling and mining on public lands, and gutted regulations that protect local people and environments against the extraction of fossil fuels.

He has cleared the way for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. His allies in Congress are whetting their knives to gut the Clean Air, Clean Water and Environmental Policy Acts. The fossil fuel industry is lining up for permits to build new infrastructure that will accelerate global warming and threaten local environments to boot.

Reversing Climate Change: What Will It Take?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, September 26, 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.

On the weekend of September 21, 2014, people in 162 countries joined 2,646 events to demand global reductions in the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are generating climate catastrophe. An estimated forty thousand marched in London; thirty thousand in Melbourne; and twenty-five thousand in Paris. Some four hundred thousand joined the People's Climate March through the center of New York City. The climate protection movement had come a long way since 2006, when a march of one thousand through Burlington, Vermont proved to be the largest climate protest in American history. Yet, despite its exponential growth, whether and how the climate protection movement could realize its goals remained an open question.

The Failures of Climate Protection

Climate change poses an existential threat to our species, to every individual, and to all that any of us hold dear. Protecting the earth's climate is in the long-term interest of all humanity. Yet, efforts to cut carbon and other GHGs to a climate-safe level have been defeated for a quarter-century in arenas ranging from the United Nations to the US Congress.

Those failures are not what most climate protection advocates expected. From the scientific confirmation of global warming in the 1980s, they had laboriously built institutions like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and had painstakingly constructed a consensus among scientists,government leaders, and UN officials around the policies defined as necessary by the IPCC. The UN "framework agreement" was followed by the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Road Map for the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. The world seemed to be proceeding on a rational, if tardy, course to address climate change.

With the collapse of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, it became evident that the entire process had been little more than a charade in which world leaders, governments, and businesses pretended to address climate change while pursuing policies that pour ever more GHGs into the atmosphere. Copenhagen revealed a collection of greedy, advantage- seeking institutions whose leaders were unable to cooperate even for their own survival. The charade goes on: last November's extravagantly hailed US–China climate agreement, in the unlikely event that it is actually adhered to, will result in an estimated temperature rise of 3.8 degrees Celsius—nearly twice the 2-degree increase scientists say is the maximum compatible with human civilization as we know it. It is a suicide pact by the world's two leading polluters with the rest of the world as collateral damage.

In response to the failures of the official climate protection process, an independent climate protection movement has emerged. It is not controlled by any national or special interest. Instead, it has been organized globally and has demonstrated the capacity to act globally, exemplified by the actions in 162 countries for last year's People's Climate March. This movement has broken out of the constraints of lobbying and demonstrating within a legal framework set by governments by instead adopting civil disobedience as an important and legitimate part of its strategy. It has challenged the governments that permit climate destruction, the fossil fuel producing and using industries that conduct it, and the corporations and other institutions around the world that collude with it. In spite of its growth and commitment, the movement's ability to sharply reduce GHG emissions and establish climate-safe levels of carbon in the atmosphere has so far proven minuscule.

Our Climate is a Public Trust

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, October 20, 2014

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.

Can an ancient legal principle with roots in Roman law serve as a tool for the climate protection movement?

On October 23, Alec Johnson, aka “Climate Hawk,” is scheduled to go on trial for locking himself to a construction excavator in Tushka, Oklahoma as part of the Tar Sands Blockade campaign to block the route of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He intends to argue that resisting the pipeline was necessary in order to protect the public trust – the common property right of the people to essential natural resources. Johnson will be the first defendant anywhere to make a necessity defense based on the duty of government to protect the climate under the public trust doctrine.

In a speech in Nacogdoches, TX on the day of the 2014 Peoples Climate March, Johnson said, “When it comes to our commons, to our public property, we the people have rights in a public trust.” The public trust doctrine means “we have rights when it comes to how our public commons are administered.” He will argue that his blockade of Keystone XL pipeline construction was necessary because the pipeline threatens our atmospheric public trust and state and national governments are failing to protect us against that threat.

Meanwhile, last week a petition was filed with the US Supreme Court by five youth plaintiffs seeking a decision that the Federal government is obligated to protect public trust assets like the atmosphere and the climate that under the public trust doctrine belong to the people. Behind this case lies a unique organizing effort by the group Our Children’s Trust, which has brought together young people and their legal supporters to file suits and petitions not only in Federal court but in every state in the US and several other countries. Then-sixteen-year-old Alec Loorz, founder of Kids v. Global Warming and lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, explained its public trust claim: “The government has a legal responsibility to protect the future for our children. So we are demanding that they recognize the atmosphere as a commons that needs to be preserved, and commit to a plan to reduce emissions to a safe level.”

And at a Climate Justice Tribunal across the street from the UN climate summit last month a judicial panel, after hearing evidence of devastating impacts of climate change around the world, declared that governments have a duty under the public trust doctrine to halt climate destruction. Organized by the Climate Justice Alliance and inspired in part by the International War Crimes Tribunal organized during the Vietnam War by renowned philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, the Tribunal’s judicial panel found that “Based on the evidence we have heard here today, the nations of our world are in violation of their most fundamental legal and constitutional obligations.” It called on governments to honor their duty to protect the atmosphere, which belongs in common to the world’s people, and halt their contribution to climate destruction.

Some courts are already starting to apply the public trust doctrine to protecting the atmospheric commons. Last December the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a law that prevented local communities from blocking fracking. The plurality opinion held that public natural resources are owned in common by the people, including future generations. Because the state is the trustee of these resources, it has a fiduciary duty to “conserve and maintain” them. The state has “a duty to refrain from permitting or encouraging the degradation, diminution, or depletion of public natural resources.”

Will courts force governments to fulfill that duty? So far several state courts have accepted important parts of the youth plaintiffs’ argument, but none have ordered a government to act. But in the meantime, thousands of people are sitting-in and blockading to halt climate-destroying activities. The judicial panel of the Climate Justice Tribunal declared that “those who blockade coal-fired power plants or block tar sands oil pipelines are committing no crime.” Rather, they are exercising their right and responsibility to protect the atmospheric commons they own along with all of present and future humankind. They are acting to prevent a far greater harm — indeed, “a harm that by virtue of the public trust doctrine is itself a violation of law on a historic scale.”

Alec Johnson says that “we the people” are “armed” by the public trust doctrine to demand that governments “recognize their responsibilities as trustees and exercise their fiduciary responsibility to act with the highest duty of care” to sustain the resources necessary for society to endure. “Enforcing our children’s rights to climate justice is no crime.”

Jeremy Brecher is a historian of social movements, a founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, and author of Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (Paradigm Publishers, January 2015).

Seattle Labor Unions Join Call Saying “Shell No”

By Tom Geiger - Labor Network for Sustainability, June 11, 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.

In a strong show of support for a better future, local labor unions have signed a letter to oppose the decision by the Port of Seattle Commission to permit the Shell Oil rig to have safe harbor in our Elliott Bay.

We recognize that other labor unions have a position of support for this Oil Rig here. We respect their decision, but we feel compelled to speak today given the stakes of climate change and the immediate and long term effects that this has on all people in the US and around the world. Shell brought this Rig to our shores; this has catapulted us to the frontlines of climate change and called to question the policies we make as a society to address the global crisis. Would we be taking this position at this moment without this Rig here in our local waters? Probably not. But we would be taking a position soon on Climate Change anyway and this has simply fast-forwarded that historic necessity.

Below is the statement and the list of labor organizations signed onto it:

Unions Say Shell No! 



The following labor unions, which represent over 60,000 workers in various industries across Washington State, declare our opposition to Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling in our Arctic waters and the use of our Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5 as their staging site. We stand alongside the many environmental, faith, social justice and retiree organizations, indigenous peoples and the thousands of individuals who oppose the drilling. We hope that adding our voice encourages others to join the Shell No! Movement. At the same time we declare our support for a strong climate policy at the state, regional and national level to reduce our global warming pollution and ensure that as we reduce this pollution we do so with equitable transition at its core.

This Is What Insurgency Looks Like

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, May 22, 2016

In a small church in the Albany, NY’s low-income, predominantly African-American South End, forty people were gathered for a community meeting. They were organizing a protest against trains carrying potentially explosive oil – dubbed by the residents “bomb trains” — that were running through their neighborhood. City Counselor Vivian Kornegay told the group that many municipalities had opposed the bomb trains and other dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure, but had little power to protect their residents; it was up to a “people’s movement” to do so. “What we want is for all of us to be free, healthy, and safe – and for our planet to be a better place to live.”

Maeve McBride, an organizer for 350.org, explained that the protest was part of a global campaign of direct action and civil disobedience aiming to keep 80% of all fossil fuels in the ground. Pastor Mark Johnson of the St. John’s Church of God in Christ said, “I heard at a meeting last night that we have a constitutional right to clean water and clean air.” Maeve McBride explained that the action was part of a “new wave” that was drawing on a “new paradigm” – “using civil disobedience to protect the public trust,” which included water, air, and the climate itself.

Organizers had met with officials from the police and sheriff’s offices and reported, “they abhor the trains – and are very supportive of us.” Then the group received direct action training. They read out loud the “action agreement” pledging nonviolent behavior and mutual support. Then they lined up to march and while police officers (played by the trainers) ordered them to move away, they scrambled onto an imaginary railroad track. Later that evening the steering committee for Albany Break Free planned outreach to supporting organizations, phone banks, canvassing, leafleting, and details of the action.

The Albany organizers had learned about the “new paradigm” when 350.org North American co-organizers of Break Free From Fossil Fuels had decided to use the “public trust” principle to frame US Break Free actions and formed a Break Free Public Trust Work Group to spread the idea. Some on the The Break Free Albany steering committee had participated in the working group’s webinar on using the public trust doctrine, and they decided to integrate the Public Trust Proclamation into their “topline message” and to hand out the Break Free Public Trust Proclamation to all participants. (The Proclamation appears at the end of this article.]

A week before the action the Albany Break Free steering committee defined their basic message. Potentially explosive crude oil “bomb trains” roll through Albany and surrounding communities, polluting the air and contributing to the climate crisis. Primarily low-income communities of color are put at risk. The urgent need to address climate change means that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground and a transition made to a “twenty-first century renewable energy economy.” They called for an end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, power plants, compressor stations, and storage tanks. And they called for a just transition away from fossil fuel energy with training and jobs for affected workers, so “no worker is left behind.”

Trump’s Energy Plan: A “Brighter Future” for American Workers?

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 28, 2017

Full PDF of the White Paper can be found HERE

The day he was inaugurated, President Donald Trump issued his “America First Energy Plan.”[1] It presented policies it said would “stimulate our economy, ensure our security, and protect our health” and thereby provide “a brighter future.” Trump has promised that his energy policy will create “many millions of high-paying jobs.”[2]

What do American workers need in an energy policy? Does President Trump’s energy plan provide it? Or does it threaten our future? Is it credible or deceptive? Does it put us on the road to good jobs in an affordable, reliable energy future? Or does it threaten to reverse a massive shift to a more secure, climate-safe, fossil-free energy system — a clean energy revolution that will benefit American workers, and that is already under way?

Some in organized labor have been attracted by President Trump’s energy plan, even echoing the claim that it will provide “a brighter future.” But one thing you learn when you negotiate a contract for a union is to take a hard look at proposals you are offered— however attractive they may appear, it is best to unwrap the package and see what’s really in it before you agree. Labor should conduct similar “due diligence” for Trump’s America First Energy Plan. Was it designed to meet the needs of American workers, or of the global oil, gas, and coal companies whose executives have been appointed to so many top positions in the Trump administration? Will it encourage or hold up the energy revolution that is making renewable energy and energy efficiency the way of the future?

How Labor and Climate United Can Trump Trump

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 2017

Donald Trump and his congressional Republican allies have taken control of the U.S. government. The result threatens to be devastating for both labor and the climate — not to mention immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others.

The Trump regime is potentially vulnerable because it only represents the interests of the top 1% of the top 1%. But it has a potentially winning strategy to rule nonetheless: keep those who might stand up in the interest of the 99.9 percent divided and therefore powerless. While Trump has played black against white, Latino against Anglo, women against men, gay against straight, and exploited many other divisions, his “trump card” may well be his ability to divide labor and climate advocates.

The Trump ascendancy creates a new context for addressing long-standing tensions between organized labor and the environmental movement, between workers’ job concerns and everyone’s need to protect the climate. Trump and his congressional Republican allies intend to exploit these tensions to the max. But their threat to workers, the earth’s climate, and society as a whole make cooperation against them imperative for both organized labor and the climate protection movement. Forging a force that can effectively counter Trumpism requires change that will involve tension within each movement as well as between them, but that may be necessary if either is to have a future. The alternative is most likely decimation of both movements and of everything they are fighting for.

Making the Promises Real: Labor and the Paris Climate Agreement

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 20, 2016

As nearly 200 nations gathered in Paris approved the UN Climate Change Agreement, the AFL-CIO issued a statement that broke new ground on climate. While the AFL-CIO opposed the Kyoto climate agreement and never supported the failed Copenhagen agreement, it “applauded the Paris climate change agreement as “a landmark achievement in international cooperation” and called on America “to make the promises real.”

Although it has frequently pointed out the harm that workers and communities might face from climate protection policies, the AFL-CIO has never proposed a “just transition” plan to protect them. Its Paris statement noted that “workers in certain sectors will bear the brunt of transitional job and income loss.” Recognizing that reality, it endorsed the Paris agreement’s recognition of “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.” It called for investment in the affected communities and “creating family-supporting jobs like those that will be lost.”

This statement lays the groundwork for organized labor to take a new approach to climate change. How can labor now move forward to implement that approach? What should labor’s post-Paris climate program be?

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