Written by CJ Lapointe and first published at Socialist Resurgence
The overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists agree, highlighted in the UN IPCC reports, that global warming/climate change is an urgent threat to the environment, which needs emergency action to cut greenhouse emissions in half by the end of the decade.
However, the failure of the 2021 UN climate summit, COP26, to take real leadership in addressing the crisis shows capitalism’s inability to put the planet and human life before profit. In fact, countries like the U.S. and China are ramping up the use of fossil fuels, as competition between the two imperialist nations for markets and resources drives extractive industries for coal, petroleum, and rare minerals.
Competition over markets by competing imperialist powers puts an undue burden on the global South, which faces the worst effects of climate change. Instead of reparations in the billions of dollars, countries in Africa, for example, will face deeper environmental racism through exploitation of their labor and resources, and the destruction of air, land, and water.
Daniel Tanuro, agronomist and eco-socialist author writes in his assessment of COP26, “The issue of loss and damage is even more explosive by far. Take the example of Somalia. It has contributed to 0.00026% of historical climate change … but is suffering repeated droughts, clearly attributable to warming. In 2020, 2.9 million people were severely food insecure. International aid is highly insufficient. Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda are experiencing the same drama.”
Tanuro continues, “Who will pay? And who will pay for future disasters? The NGO Christian Aid estimates that, with unchanged policies, climate change will cause the GDP of the poorest countries to fall by 19.6 per cent by 2050 and 63.9 per cent as an annual average by 2100.
If we limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C, these figures would be -13.1 percent and -33.1 percent respectively. The bill for losses and damages will quickly rise to several thousand billion. The principle of financing by rich countries is enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but imperialist governments plainly refuse to respect it. Period.”
People living in one third of the counties in the United States experienced climate change-driven billion-dollar catastrophes with high death tolls such as arctic temperatures in Texas, Hurricane Ida, and California wildfires. Most of them are working families with a disproportionate number from Black, Indigenous, Latino, and other oppressed communities.
One of the most recent climate-related tragedies occurred in the U.S. in December as tornadoes ripped through Kentucky and Illinois. A heartbreaking scene played out when six died at an Amazon facility and eight died at a candle-making factory in each of the respective states. Workers’ text messages reveal that the companies refused to allow their workers to leave for safety.
John Leslie, a retired union carpenter and writer for SR News reported, “According to the National Climate Assessment, ‘Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and new and stronger evidence confirms that some of these increases are related to human activities.’
The number and intensity of severe storms, which often spawn tornadoes, has increased. Tornadoes in December are a rarity, and one of the tornadoes on Friday reportedly broke a 100-year-old record for the length of time a tornado stays on the ground. Scientists also report that what is commonly referred to as “tornado alley” is shifting eastward from the Kansas-Oklahoma region and into the Mississippi Valley as the planet warms further.”
Working people in the U.S. and around the world have a central role to play in addressing, mitigating, and ending climate disasters. All too often workers’ needs are sidelined by corporate policy from governments everywhere. Unions can play an important role in mobilizing workers to fight climate change with a just transition from fossil fuel to 100 percent renewable energy.
New AFL-CIO president Liz Schuler said in a speech at a meeting on a “Just transition” during COP26, “We don’t want to repeat the bad policy choices of the past that left communities stranded. Free trade, deregulation, outsourcing, precarious work, the rise of the gig economy—you name it—working people have been short-changed. It can’t be like that in the fight against climate change—the stakes are too high.
The urgency of this moment demands we learn from that past. No, we haven’t seen a Just Transition before, but we can envision it! Each person, every place included! High road, good, union jobs for everyone! Environmental protection. Progress for racial justice. Gender equity. A Just Transition to a sustainable, equitable future means solidarity.”
Workers in the labor movement need to hold Schuler and all unions accountable for waging the struggle locally and even internationally. Every union should be passing resolutions that connect not only their contract fights with climate initiatives but also the daily work of the union. Trade unions must connect with the broader social movements already actively fighting climate change.
Maintaining a livable earth should be a key issue for all organized labor, as working people in our communities are already suffering the consequences of climate change. Workers in fossil fuel, military, manufacturing, and related industries should not be subjected to hardship or elimination of their jobs while companies who have made record profits destroying the environment simply make new investments.
A just transition to a renewable energy economy requires the equity that comes when unions play a leading role in helping lead the way in that transformation. There is an opportunity in the current crisis to generate millions of well-paying union jobs in developing, manufacturing, and installing renewable energy technology, and generating clean energy. This includes hiring of laborers and the trades to help retrofit housing and buildings to mitigate heat waves, floods, fires, and disruptions to public health.
We need new nurses, doctors, and health aids to cope with climate-induced public health crises. It also includes foresters, farmers and civil engineering forces to restore wetlands, forests, and agricultural carbon sinks and the development of a mass transit infrastructure that includes drivers, track workers, and all other associated jobs.
The fight to win the type of jobs program described above is only possible through a mass movement led by Indigenous people, workers, youth, farmers, and activists who have fought pipeline expansion, fracking, coal-fired plants, mining, and so on. More and more working people are participating in the movement, recognizing climate change as a real emergency and a threat to our quality of life, our livelihoods, and even our existence.
At the same time, the climate movement must oppose any disregard for millions of workers in the fossil fuel, military, or related industries, and that training, income replacement, and other resources necessary to prepare for the transition to a sustainable economy must be established.
Unions in particular can play a leading role by calling for the type of education and emergency public works programs needed to remake the country’s infrastructure such as housing, shortening the workday, mass transit and health care, both to lessen the catastrophic effects of climate change and to help withstand its effects.
We need rank-and-file workers to push union leadership like Liz Schuler, Flight Attendants-CWA union President Sara Nelson, newly elected Teamster President Sean O’Brien, and more to call an emergency congress of labor that partners with allies in the environmental movement, international unions, and especially Indigenous communities—which have played a leading role in fighting the destructive advance of climate change.
That meeting could lay the basis for a real mass fightback for a sustainable renewable energy economy that can benefit all working people.