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Making "Build Back Better" Better: Aligning Climate, Jobs, and Justice

By Jeremy Brecher - Common Dreams, June 1, 2021

At the end of March 2021, President Joe Biden laid out his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan–part of his "Build Back Better" infrastructure program–to "reimagine and rebuild a new economy." Congress is expected to spend months debating and revising the plan. The public and many special interests will play a significant role in that process. President Biden has promised to follow up with additional proposals to further address climate policy and social needs.

Many particular interests will seek to benefit from the overall Build Back Better program–and that's good. But as Congress and the public work to shape the ultimate form of that program, we also need to keep our eyes on the ultimate prize: combining climate, jobs, and justice. What policies can integrate the needs of working people, the most oppressed, and our threatened climate and environment?

The Green New Deal reconfigured American politics with its core proposition: fix joblessness and inequality by putting people to work at good jobs fixing the climate. The Biden administration's Build Back Better (BBB) plan has put that idea front and center in American politics. Now we need to specify strategies that will actually achieve all three objectives at once.

There are many valuable plans that have been proposed in addition to Biden's Build Back Better plan. They include 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.

There are six essential elements that must be integrated in order to realize the Build Back Better we need for climate, jobs, and justice:

  • 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

These strategies can serve as criteria for developing, evaluating, and selecting policies to make Build Back Better all that it could be.

Job creation potential of nature-based solutions to climate change

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 10, 2021

U.K. think tank Green Alliance commissioned research to measure the economic impact of nature-based investments for a green recovery, and released the results on May 4. The full report, Green Renewal – The Economics of Enhancing the Natural Environment, was written by WPI Economics, and states: “Looking at just three types of enhancement (woodland creation, peatland restoration and urban green infrastructure) we find that an expanded programme of nature restoration could create at least 16,050 jobs in the 20% of constituencies likely to face the most significant employment challenges. We present place-based analysis of the labour market and nature based solutions, which can also be found on an interactive webpage here.” The report emphasizes that nature-based interventions can create jobs in areas that need them the most – stating that two thirds of the most suitable land for planting trees is in constituencies with worse than average labour market challenges.

Jobs for a Green Recovery is a summary report written by Green Alliance, based on the economic WPI report. It emphasizes the impact of Covid on youth employment, stating that 63% of those newly unemployed in 2020-21 are under 25, argues that nature-based jobs are long-term, skilled and productive, and makes specific recommendations for the British government so that such jobs can become part of the U.K. green recovery. Green Alliance estimates that investments in nature-related jobs have a high cost-benefit ratio, with £4.60 back for every £1 invested in peatland, £2.80 back in woodland, and £1.30 back for salt marsh creation.

Jobs for a Green Recovery includes brief U.K. case studies. An interesting a related Canadian example can be found in the new Seed the North initiative, described in The Tyee here . Seed the North is a small start-up company in Northern B.C., with big ambition to scale up. Currently, the project collects wild seed from Canadian trees, uses innovative technology to encase the seed in bio-char, and then uses drone technology to plant seeds in remote forest areas. The result: increased regeneration of disturbed land, restored soil health, a statistically significant contribution to carbon sequestration, and economic benefits flowing through co-ownership to the local First Nations communities who participate.

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. 

Climate Justice, Jobs, and Freedom to Thrive

Take the Plant, Save the Planet: Workers and Communities in the Struggle for Economic Conversion

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.

Only 18% of global Recovery spending in 2020 was green

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, March 10, 2021

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released Are We Building Back Better? Evidence from 2020 and Pathways for Inclusive Green Recovery Spending, on March 10. It estimates that in 2020, the world’s fifty largest economies announced USD14.6tn in fiscal measures to address the pandemic economic crisis, and states: …. “Excluding currently uncertain packages from the European Commission, 18.0% of recovery spending, and only 2.5% of total spending, is expected to enhance sustainability. The vast majority of green spending has come from a small set of high-income nations” with France, Germany and South Korea highlighted for their relatively high percentage of green recovery spending. Canada’s spending is small, with only brief references which state that we have focused on “cleaning dirty energy assets”, and have made fossil fuel investment. (no details or examples given). It is notable that the report covers 2020, so that U.S. spending is also low, though hope is expressed for the Biden/Harris administration. Notably, the report looks to the future: “….. the largest window for green spending is only now opening, as nations shift attention from short-term rescue measures to recovery. Using examples from 2020 spending, we highlight five major green investment opportunities to be prioritised in 2021: green energy, green transport, green building upgrades & energy efficiency, natural capital, and green research and development.”

Each of those topics is analyzed, with some exemplary policies highlighted. Some overarching issues: “Of particular note, despite continuing high global unemployment and widespread damage to human capital, spending on worker retraining in 2020 was small and almost exclusively non-green. Nations transitioning to a low-carbon economy must invest in human capital to enable and match future growth priorities. Structural changes in major sectors, including energy, agriculture, transport, and construction, require shifts in the structure and capabilities of the domestic labour force.”

Also, regarding “green strings”: “Although some dirty rescue-type expenditure may have been necessary to ensure that lives and livelihoods were saved, many of the largest of these policies could have included positive green attributes. For instance, airline bailouts in nations all over the world, including South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States could have included green conditions. Green conditions tied to liquidity support, like requirements to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or mandates to increase sustainable fuel use, can ensure short term relief while also promoting investment in long-term technological development and acting as a strong guide in national efforts to meet climate targets.”

The report is supported by the United Nations UNEP, the International Monetary Fund and GIZ through the Green Fiscal Policy Network (GFPN). The data was collected by the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project and is now available through the Global Recovery Observatory, a new database which will be updated regularly (most recently at the end of February).

The report cites many other studies and reports, notably: “Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?” by Cameron Hepburn, Brian O’Callaghan, Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, and Dimitri Zenghelis, which appeared in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy in May 2020.

How to “Build Back Better”

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2021

Anyone interested in how to address the concerns of both labor and environmentalists in upcoming legislation should take a look at the new Sierra Club report “How to Build Back Better: A 10-year Plan for Economic Renewal.” Although the Sierra Club is an environmental organization – in fact, the country’s largest–this “blueprint for economic renewal” has been designed with the needs of workers and discriminated-against groups front and center.

The plan is based on the THRIVE Agenda, which has been endorsed by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, American Federation of Teachers, American Postal Workers Union, Amalgamated Transit Union, Communications Workers of America, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and Service Employees International Union.

  • By investing $1 trillion per year, an economic renewal plan based on the THRIVE Agenda would create over 15 million good jobs–enough to end the unemployment crisis–while countering systemic racism, supporting public health, and cutting climate pollution nearly in half by 2030.
  • These investments must come with ironclad labor and equity standards to curb racial, economic, and gender inequity instead of reinforcing the unjust status quo.

Frontline Organizations Demand a Just Recovery After Millions are Left to Freeze in the Face of Another Climate Catastrophe in Texas & the Southeast

By Diana Lopez and Juan Parras - Climate Justice Alliance, February 18, 2021

As our neighbors burn furniture to stay warm amidst widespread power outages in below freezing temperatures, this arctic weather event, fueled by the climate crisis, has exposed the vulnerability of the Texas power grid and its failure to effectively serve its people. It is clear how much we need a just recovery: an all-encompassing, community-based, solutions oriented approach putting community needs and equity above profit in these times of climate chaos. We must prioritize a Just Transition to a modern, regenerative and renewable energy system, one that is clean and safe for us all.

The current reliance on the fossil fuel industry and the historic stranglehold its industry holds in Texas politics underlies the lack of comprehensive extreme weather planning, mitigation and preparedness. This has left the region, state and especially frontline communities, in a state of continuous crises. While the oil and gas industries have tried to blame what is happening on alternative energy models, the reality is they did not build resilient infrastructure that can adapt to increasingly extreme weather.

An outdated, overly fossil fuel reliant, heavily privatized electricity grid has failed, leaving 3 to 4 million households without power for days not only in Texas, but throughout the region that is the cradle of this industry. Far too many people have died and hundreds more have been hospitalized, as Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian and other frontline communities once again remain the hardest hit. Thousands more are also facing contaminated water and massive damages from broken pipes. The privatization of the Texas energy grid is the seed of this crisis, where the profits of fossil fuel industries have been prioritized over the needs of the people.

The climate crisis is risking lives and it is impacting all communities, those at the margins are the hardest hit. Individuals with disabilities that rely on medical respirators, families having to break quarantine to keep eachother safe, and all the while the cost of energy increases during a time where the economy is a long way from stabilizing.The true cost of ignoring climate change is sadly yet to come, as those affected by this most recent extreme weather in the region are seeing the aftermath of burst water pipes, non weatherized homes and outdated infrastructure ill-equipped to handle the reality of climate change.

While our communities work to recover from Covid-19, massive job loss and the current climate crises, now is the time for investments to move toward a Just Transition to rebuild clean water and energy infrastructure for our future. We can put millions of people to work by creating locally controlled clean energy jobs, building new stable systems of power without pollution, and energy without exploitation. This is the time to Build Back Fossil Free.

Water and energy are not commodities — they are basic human rights. We need emergency response right now to distribute solar power, clean water and basic emergency needs for vulnerable communities as well as long term changes toward a healthy and sustainable future. We recognize that other communities in neighboring states are also impacted by the devastating winter vortex, power outages and water shortages. We support their efforts to self organize and will act in coordination and solidarity with all of those on the frontlines of climate catastrophes.

As our communities continue to care for each other through local mutual aid networks long established to deal with crises like these, we call on local and state officials to immediately begin a just recovery by:

Organizers & Organizations, Foundations & Philanthropists

Zero Waste and Economic Recovery: The Job Creation Potential of Zero Waste Solutions

By John Ribeiro-Broomhead and Neil Tangri - Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, February 16, 2021

Employment opportunities are important in any economy, and especially in times of economic downturn. As governments and the private sector invest in economic recovery strategies, particularly “green” or climateneutral approaches, it is important to evaluate their employment potential. C40 estimates that the waste management sector has the potential to create 2.9 million jobs in its 97 member cities alone. Zero waste—a comprehensive approach to waste management that prioritizes waste prevention, re-use, composting, and recycling—is a widely-adopted strategy proven to minimize environmental impacts and contribute to a just society. In this study, we evaluate its job generation potential.

The data for this study came from a wide range of sources spanning 16 countries. Despite the diversity in geographic and economic conditions, the results are clear: zero waste approaches create orders of magnitude more jobs than disposal-based systems that primarily burn or bury waste. Indeed, waste interventions can be ranked according to their job generation potential, and this ranking exactly matches the traditional waste hierarchy based on environmental impacts (Figure 1). These results demonstrate the compatibility of environmental and economic goals and position zero waste as an opportune social infrastructure in which investments can strengthen local and global economic resilience.

This study also finds evidence for good job quality in zero waste systems. Multiple studies of zero waste systems cite higher wages and better working conditions than in comparable fields, and opportunities to develop and use varied skills, from equipment repair to public outreach.

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