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Labor Leader Sara Nelson Says Workers of Disrupted Industries Must Be Engaged in Green New Deal Solutions

"We have to be engaged in the conversation."

Labor should be involved in the conversation around the climate crisis, union leader Sara Nelson told Common Dreams in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

Labor should be involved in the conversation around the climate crisis, union leader Sara Nelson told Common Dreams in an exclusive interview Tuesday. (Photo: AFL-CIO)

"Our country, our economy doesn't work without aviation."

That's what the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, Sara Nelson, told Common Dreams in an interview Tuesday. Nelson believes that the airline industry needs to get on board with finding swift solutions to the climate crisis. 

"Let's have lawmakers, scientists, and innovators get together to keep planes in the air," said Nelson.

Nelson sees a prominent role for her union in figuring out how to balance the demands of aviation with the deepening reality of the climate catastrophe and President Donald Trump's policies. If the president won't lead, said Nelson, others need to step forward.

"We have to be engaged in the conversation about solutions," said Nelson. 

For the airlines, that means taking a hard look at what can be changed in the industry to meet the goals of the Green New Deal. Air travel and shipping is indispensable to the U.S. economy, shuttling people and product across the country and the world. 

Thus there's no time to waste, said Nelson, who believes that air travel will become unsustainable if nothing is done.

"There are solutions that cut emissions," said Nelson. "Airlines have already been doing that—we need to do it at a faster rate."

Among the solutions Nelson suggested are finding ways to power airplanes through less polluting fuels and using electric power, describing the push as both morally and financially incentivized.

She specifically brought up clear air turbulence—turbulence that comes out of nowhere and can cause serious injury or death—as one of the climate-related concerns for her union members that is likely not understood by people outside the industry.

A study from Reading University Professor Paul D. Williams succinctly lays out the danger:

Clear‐air turbulence is potentially hospitalizing in‐flight bumpiness experienced by aircraft. Often, pilots cannot avoid it, because it is invisible to the naked eye and undetectable by onboard sensors. Previous research suggests that climate change will increase instabilities in the North Atlantic jet stream in winter, generating more clear‐air turbulence. 

Nelson said that flight attendants, who are on their feet for most of the flight, are particularly in danger from the turbulence. They can be thrown across the plane and injured or killed by flying debris caused by the air currents.

"It's something we cannot prepare for," said Nelson. "It's a major occupational hazard."

With climate change worsening the issue, cutting down on emissions is one of the most important solutions. And she believes the industry can do it. 

"When you have that kind of leadership and focus and priorities set from the government, there's a natural exponential increase in implementing many of these innovations," said Nelson, "finding and implementing them."

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