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Labor Unions Rally Behind California’s Zero-Emissions Climate Plan

Robert Pollin interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, June 10, 2021

Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been spearheading national and international efforts to tackle the climate crisis for more than a decade. Over the past few years, he and a group of his colleagues at PERI have produced green economy transition programs for numerous states. The latest such program is for California, and it is being released today.

The massive study — nearly 200 pages long — shows how California can become a zero emissions economy by 2045 while expanding good job opportunities throughout the state. Nineteen unions have already endorsed the green transition plan, making clear that they reject frameworks that falsely pit labor priorities and the environment against each other, and more are expected to do so in the days and weeks ahead.

In this interview for Truthout, Pollin, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso 2020), talks about the climate stabilization project for California and the national implications of union support for a green economy transition.

C.J. Polychroniou: California has been at the forefront of the climate fight for years now, but the truth of the matter is that its efforts have fallen short. Now, you and some colleagues of yours at PERI have just completed a commissioned climate stabilization project for California. How does the project envision the clean energy transition to take place in a manner consistent with the emission targets set out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, and how will it be financed?

Robert Pollin: This study presents a recovery program for California that will also build a durable foundation for an economically robust and ecologically sustainable longer-term growth trajectory. California has long been a national and global leader in implementing robust climate stabilization policies. This includes the 2018 Executive Order B-55-18 by then Gov. Jerry Brown. This measure committed the state to cut CO2 emissions by 50 percent as of 2030, to become carbon neutral no later than 2045, and to produce net negative emissions thereafter. These goals are somewhat more ambitious than those set out by the IPCC in 2018. Our study outlines a program through which the state can achieve its own established goals.

Our study shows how these 2030 and 2045 emissions reduction targets can be accomplished in California through phasing out the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas to generate energy in the state, since burning fossil fuels to produce energy is, by far, the primary source of CO2 emissions, and thereby, the single greatest factor causing climate change. The project we propose is to build a clean energy infrastructure to replace the existing fossil fuel-dominant infrastructure. The clean energy infrastructure will require large-scale investments to, first, dramatically raise energy efficiency standards in the state and, second, to equally dramatically expand the supply of clean renewable energy supplies, including solar and wind primarily, with supplemental supplies from low-emissions bioenergy, geothermal and small-scale hydro power. We show how this climate stabilization program for California can also serve as a major new engine of job creation and economic well-being throughout the state, both in the short- and longer run.

A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty,Caitlin Kline, and Gregor Semieniuk - Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI); University of Massachusetts-Amherst, June 10, 2021

This study presents a robust climate stabilization project for California. It demonstrates that achieving the state’s official CO2 emissions reduction targets—a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 and reaching zero emissions by 2045—is a realistic prospect. This climate stabilization project can also serve as a major engine of economic recovery and expanding economic opportunities throughout the state. This includes an increase of over 1 million jobs in the state through investment programs in energy efficiency, clean renewable energy, public infrastructure, land restoration and agriculture. The study also develops a detailed just transition program for workers and communities in California that are currently dependent on the state’s fossil fuel industries for their livelihoods. In particular, we focus here on condi­tions in Kern, Contra Costa, and Los Angeles counties.

The study is divided into nine sections:

  1. Pandemic, Economic Collapse, and Conditions for Recovery
  2. California’s Clean Energy Transition Project
  3. Clean Energy Investments and Job Creation
  4. Investment Programs for Manufacturing, Infrastructure, Land Restoration and Agri­culture
  5. Total Job Creation in California through Combined Investment Programs
  6. Contraction of California’s Fossil Fuel Industries and Just Transition for Fossil Fuel Workers
  7. County-level Job Creation, Job Displacement, and Just Transition
  8. Achieving a Zero Emissions California Economy by 2045
  9. Financing California’s Recovery and Sustainable Transition Programs

Nineteen labor unions throughout California have endorsed this study and its findings.

Read the text (PDF).

The high health costs of climate change in Canada, focused on heat stress and air pollution

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

The Health Costs of Climate Change was released in June by the Institute for Climate Choices, the second in their series on the costs of climate change. This report attempts to quantify how air quality, increased cases of Lyme disease, and heat will impact people’s health, using two different GHG scenarios until the year 2100. The report also discusses broader issues such as the socio-economic factors which determine unequal health results, mental health impacts, impacts on Indigenous culture and food security, and the impacts on health infrastructure. Results show that Lyme disease will be the least costly of the projected impacts, but air pollution and heat threats will increase dramatically – even under the low-emissions scenario, heat-related hospitalization rates will increase by 21 per cent by mid-century and will double by the end of the century. The labour productivity impact of higher temperatures is projected as “a loss of 128 million work hours annually by the end of century—the equivalent of 62,000 full-time equivalent workers, at a cost of almost $15 billion.” Unlike most reports which focus on the impacts of heat on outdoor workers only, the report acknowledges the impact on indoor space too, and offers some analysis and cost analysis of the installation of green roofs and shading on manufacturing facilities. It concludes with recommendations for government policy, and includes a 10-page bibliography of Canadian health research. “Climate change is set to cost Canada’s health system billions”  (The National Observer, June 3) summarizes the report.

Get Fossil Fuels Out of Our Pension, Say Environmental Protection Workers

By Saurav Sarkar - Labor Notes, June 3, 2021

Not long ago, workers at the Environmental Protection Agency were battling the Trump Administration’s many attempts to interfere with both their agency’s mission and their rights on the job.

Under Trump, the EPA reduced union officials’ official time, restricted the ability to bring grievances, and took away office, meeting, and storage space. Now, with most of those changes undone and the Trump era behind them, EPA workers have begun to work towards a different goal: divesting their federal retirement investment program—the world’s largest defined-contribution plan—from fossil fuel stocks.

“For EPA employees, this is something that is near and dear to our hearts,” said Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer and president of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704.

EPA workers issue and enforce regulations, make grants, conduct research and education, and provide technical assistance for environmental cleanup. They’re probably more aware than most workers of the urgency of the climate crisis, given that they collect greenhouse gas data, regulate vehicle emissions, and educate the public about the issue.

Even limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement—will result, according to a landmark 2018 U.N. report, in heat waves, more droughts, more intense hurricanes and flooding, a rise in sea levels, harm to ecosystems, lower food crop yields, deforestation, and other damaging consequences.

An increase of 2 degrees or more will have far more devastating effects.

So it’s no wonder EPA workers aren’t happy, about, as Cantello put it, “being forced to invest in instruments that have fossil fuels and [greenhouse gas] emissions that are attached them.”

Gearing Up for Bargaining, Canadian Union Pushes for a Greener, Better Postal Service

By Derek Seidman - Labor Notes, June 2, 2021

With its contracts expiring in 2022, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers is stepping up the fight for its own vision of the post office of the future.

It’s a model for exactly the kind of Green New Deal campaign that U.S. unions should be launching now for a post-Covid economic recovery.

For several years, CUPW and its allies have proposed a visionary plan called Delivering Community Power. It advances a big but simple idea: take Canada Post, an institution that’s already publicly owned and embedded in communities, and reinvent it to drive a just transition into a post-carbon economy.

The post office would help to jump-start green vehicle production and infrastructure; it would provide free Internet access for all; it would create a nationwide system of public banking. And all these measures would help to shore up and expand the post office as a unionized, community-centered alternative to the proliferation of Amazon delivery vans.

Can Carbon Capture Save Our Climate— and Our Jobs?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, June 2021

As storms, heat waves, fires, floods, and other devastating effects of global warming have grown, more and more people have become convinced of the need to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted into the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement defined the goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. At the April Climate Summit President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will target reducing emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050. These goals indicate what the consensus of climate scientists says is necessary to ward off the most destructive possible effects of climate change. The question remains how to realize them.

There are two well established and proven means to reduce GHG emissions. The first is to replace the burning of fossil fuels with renewable energy from solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal sources. The other is to reduce the amount of energy we need through a myriad proven means ranging from switching from gasoline to electric vehicles to insulating houses. Numerous studies and thousands of implementations lay out the scientific and economic effectiveness of protecting the climate by reducing fossil fuel emissions.

There is a third means that is being promoted: continue burning fossil fuels but capture carbon–the principal greenhouse gas–either in the smokestack or by sucking it out of the air after it has been released. Various techniques for doing this have been developed with various names–carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon capture and utilization (CCU), bioenergy with CCS (BECCS), and direct air capture with CCS (DACCS). We will refer to them together as “carbon capture.”

There is a debate in the climate and labor movements about the use of carbon capture as a climate solution. Some maintain that carbon capture is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They argue as well that it can be a way to save the jobs of coal miners and fossil-fuel power plant workers and provide power needed for industry while still protecting the climate and that it will create large numbers of jobs. Others say that carbon capture is unproven, costly, problematic for health and the environment, more productive of jobs, and ineffective for climate protection. They argue that renewable energy and energy efficiency are superior both for climate and for workers and communities. They maintain that a transition to fossil-free energy is already underway and that organized labor and the climate movement should take the lead in ensuring that transition benefits rather than harms workers.

Read the text (PDF).

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.

They Wanted to Keep Working; Exxon-Mobil Locked Them Out: Facing deunionization efforts and the existential threat of climate change, oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, seek a fair contract

By Mindy Isser - In These Times, May 24, 2021

The lockout began May 1, known in most parts of the world as International Workers’ Day. In a matter of hours, the ExxonMobil Corporation escorted 650 oil refiners in Beaumont, Texas, off the job, replacing experienced members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13 – 243 with temporary workers in an effort to force a vote on Exxon’s latest contract proposal. USW maintains the proposal violates basic principles of seniority, and more than three weeks after the union members were marched out of their facility, they remain locked out.

“We would have rather kept everyone working until we reached an agreement,” Bryan Gross, a staff representative for USW, tells In These Times. ​“That was our goal.”

Because strikes and lockouts are often measures taken under more dire circumstances, either when bargaining has completely stalled or is being conducted in bad faith, USW proposed a one-year contract extension. But Exxon rejected the offer, holding out for huge changes to contractual language regarding seniority, safety and layoffs. ​“It’s a control issue,” Gross adds. ​“Exxon wants control.”

As the oil industry attempts to deskill (and ultimately deunionize) its labor force, refinery workers like those in Beaumont find themselves under siege. Not only is their industry buckling beneath the weight of a global health crisis, but climate change has come to threaten their very livelihoods. Many workers remain skeptical of existing plans for a just transition.

Growth of ZEV’s impacts trucks, buses – and their drivers too

By Elizbeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 17, 2021

The International Energy Agency released its annual Global Electric Vehicle Outlook report for 2021 in April, providing data, historical trends and future projections. Despite the pandemic, there was a 41% increase in electric vehicle registrations in 2020 – compared to a 16% contraction of the overall global automobile market. There are now more than 10 million electric cars on the world’s roads, and for the first time, Europe overtook China as the centre of the global electric car market. In addition, there are roughly 1 million electric vans, heavy trucks and buses globally. A separate forecast by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, as summarized by The Guardian, projects that electric vehicles will reach price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2027. Another April report from Boston Consulting Group forecasts that zero-emission vehicles will replace ICE vehicles as the dominant powertrain for new light-vehicle sales globally just after 2035.

Most policy discussions of the electrification of transportation focus on the potential for GHG emissions reductions, consumer preferences, and the economic impacts for the automotive industry. There has been a lack of attention on operational workers – with a few exceptions. A 2020 report from the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Jobs in green and healthy transport: Making the green shift , offers modelling of employment impacts in a broad definition of transportation, including personal vehicles, trucks and public transport. It focuses on Europe, and discusses the employment impacts in both manufacturing and operation.

Utility Workers Union and UCS estimate costs to transition U.S. coal miners and power plant workers in joint report

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 12, 2021

Hard on the heels of the April statement by the United Mine Workers Union, Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) jointly released a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists on May 4: Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape. This report is described as “a call to action for thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support for coal-dependent workers and communities across the nation.” The report estimates that in 2019, there were 52,804 workers in coal mining and 37,071 people employed at coal-fired power plants – and that eventually all will lose their jobs as coal gives way to cleaner energy sources. Like the United Mine Workers, the report acknowledges that the energy shift is already underway, and “rather than offer false hope for reinvigorated coal markets, we must acknowledge that thoughtful and intentional planning and comprehensive support are critical to honoring the workers and communities that have sacrificed so much to build this country.”

Specifically, the report calls for a minimum level of support for workers of five years of wage replacement, health coverage, continued employer contributions to retirement funds or pension plans, and tuition and job placement assistance. The cost estimates of such supports are pegged at $33 billion over 25 years and $83 billion over 15 years —and do not factor in additional costs such as health benefits for workers suffering black lung disease, or mine clean-up costs. The report states: “we must ensure that coal companies and utilities are held liable for the costs to the greatest extent possible before saddling taxpayers with the bill.” Neither do the cost estimates include the recognized needs for community supports such as programs to diversify the economies, or support to ensure that essential services such as fire, police and education are supported, despite the diminished tax base. 

The report points to the precedents set by Canada’s Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities ( 2018), the German Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment (2019), as well as the New Mexico Energy Transition Act 2019 and the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan in 2020. The 12-page report, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape was accompanied by a Technical Report, and summarized in a UCS Blog which highlights the situation in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota. A 2018 report from UCS Soot to Solar also examined Illinois.

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