Jim Barrett, executive director of Redefining Progress, lays awake at night worrying about global warming's "nightmare scenario." He's concerned that poorly designed measures to cut greenhouse emissions might lead to an anti-environmental political revolt.
As Barrett recently explained to a group of trade unionists and environmentalists who came together for the "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" conference in Pittsburgh last month, the scenario goes something like this:
Lawmakers pass legislation in response to increasingly dire predictions of climate catastrophe from the scientific community and mounting political pressure from the public and abroad. Energy costs skyrocket because almost any action taken to curtail emissions will pressure prices upward. This, in turn, squeezes the pocketbooks of working and middle class families just as they are struggling under the twin burdens of recession and globalization. Meanwhile, the job losses from global competition are blamed on environmental legislation that imposes a cost on production that other countries are not--triggering yet another round of pollution-driven "race to the bottom".
According to Barrett: "Five to ten to years down the road if we have climate policy that is laying off workers and squeezing the middle class," politicians with strong environmentalist stands and a working class constituency (think Ted Kennedy) cannot go back to their constituents and say "we did the right thing."
Barrett's nightmare is a "scorched political earth followed shortly by a scorched actual earth," whereby poorly crafted climate policy spurs an ugly backlash amongst working and middle class voters in the Democratic Party -- voters who often do not self-identify themselves as environmentalists. The result is a "Battle Royale" between Democratic allies, while their political enemies sit on the sidelines and both workers and the planet suffer the consequences.
All of us concerned about the perilous plight of the planet need to start laying the groundwork to avoid this battle to the death. Some far-sighted groups like the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club have created the Blue Green Alliance to push for a "green jobs" -- the jobs that will be needed to rebuild our economy and drastically reduced greenhouse gasses -- as a way to transition workers into a new green economy. And organized labor worldwide has called for a "just transition" to a low-carbon economy that will not place the burden of change on those who have the misfortune of working in industries that must undergo "green downsizing."
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But so far little has been done, or even planned, by legislators and others to take care of those like coal miners and power plant workers, who may lose their jobs as a direct effect of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. While there is promising talk about the millions of new green jobs soon to be created, few seem to be taking seriously the relationship between climate change legislation and potential job loss. Joel Yudken of High Road Strategies, a consulting group that regularly advises trade unions, recently went searching for studies predicting the potential employment impacts of climate protection and turned up nothing. Now he's been hired by the unions to begin investigating these and other key questions. According to Yudken: "We know where the opportunities are; we don't know the risks."
Not surprisingly, some of these constituencies and their unions have been among the most outspoken opponents of policies to address global warming. At the same time, today's labor movement debate around green jobs and global warming is occurring after decades of job losses from globalization. Some workers and unions wonder whether climate change policy might accelerate corporate-led globalization.
Stunning progress has been made bringing the crisis of global warming into the viewfinder of American and global politics. And we are now all but guaranteed that climate change legislation is coming down the pike.
But now, in many ways, the hard work begins, since the risk is no longer the failure to respond to the global warming crisis; the danger is if we respond poorly and transform Jim Barrett's simulated political nightmare into a reality.
Brendan Smith is a legal analyst, author, and political consultant. He is co-founder of Global Labor Strategies, co-director of the UCLA Law School's Globalization and Labor Standards Project, and a consultant for the Progressive Technology Project. He has worked previously for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and a broad range of trade unions, grassroots groups, and progressive politicians.
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