Workers and Climate Change

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On International Workers Day, unionists must reject the illusion that ‘clean coal’ is possible, and join the fight against climate change

Editorial from the indispensable Australian newspaper  Green Left Weekly, April 26, 2008

On May 1, International Workers Day, workers and unionists need to reflect on the greatest challenge facing humanity: global warming.

Workers operate and build the industry that creates greenhouse gases, whether it’s mining coal, making cars or clearing forests. We make all the polluting processes work. But we’re doing this to satisfy big companies’ desire for more profits rather than for social good. If we are to build a sustainable human society, workers are going to have to do it: we hold a key that can unlock this great problem.

Climate change is happening, and accelerating. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in its annual index of greenhouse gas emissions released on April 23, found atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary driver of global climate change, rose 0.6%, or 19 billion tonnes, last year. The primary source of CO2 is the burning of fossil fuels, which is increasing, the administration scientists reported.

Unions know about the problem, but some, such as the Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), are unfortunately trailing behind the coal lobby supporting a mythical “clean coal” or other inadequate “solutions” that promise a sort of cut-and-come-again resource magic pudding.

In the real world, delaying the shift away from fossil fuel-based energy to clean energy is a dangerous exercise — for all of us.

The urgency of the problem can lead some to panic-driven and irrational conclusions.

Some environmentalists are still putting their hopes in an illusion that the captains of industry will, one day (soon), wake up to the enormity of the problem and redirect their capital to sustainable practices. As the science becomes more compelling, these people argue, capital will realize what’s at stake and act, even if only out of self interest.

Others, such as Tony Maher of the CFMEU, say “clean coal” is essential to securing jobs in regional Australia. He advises his members they will only have jobs “if coal use — and gas use — becomes a low emission industry here and overseas”.

Workers, especially in the coal industry, should not pin their hopes on this desperate fantasy. Coal cannot be made climate-safe — it has to be phased out. This industry is currently Australia’s largest export earner, but there are also jobs to be had in building new sustainable energy systems.

There is little chance that the business elite will push for a sustainable economy that protects workers’ rights. This is indicated by the carbon-trading schemes currently under discussion, all of which will drastically increase the cost of basic amenities, such as electricity and water, and with no hope of preventing disastrous climate change.

We have a climate emergency, and we need to act now. But we do not have to agree that the current framework is the best way to deal with the global warming challenge.

We do not have to accept mass sackings in the polluting industries. Rather, why not retrain workers for the sustainable energy jobs? We do not have to accept building walls to keep out climate refugees. Let the Pacific and other Islanders in: they have hardly contributed to the global warming problem. We do not have to accept rationing and food shortages while the rich stockpile and profit from the shortages.

Unions have an important role to play in the growing protest movement against global warming. Siding with the coal bosses, such as the Australian Coal Association, delays the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels. It is a short-sighted “fix”, which will not sustain jobs and communities into the future.

All union activists should make it their responsibility to support the climate protest movement, to draw their work mates into it, and to get their union leaderships to understand climate change is an emergency.

Workers make the world run, and we can make it run sustainably. This is the only way we’ll guarantee our jobs, our livelihoods and our communities. We have a world to win or lose. It is up to us.

1 Comment

  • Even if “clean coal” and carbon sequestration technology were 100% operative and running effectively today (which they are not), there is still the ethical problem of mountain-top removal and coal mining in general (for workers’ health and ecosystem health). Coal mining and coal use have to end.

    I was at a talk yesterday (our Citizen’s Inquiry on Uranium Mining) and Frank DeJong of the Green Party spoke in favour of mining and green capitalism. I was embarassed to have invited him and had to get up afterwards and refute his statements, which many people appreciated. I just wanted you to know what the Green Party of Ontario stands for: capitalism and market solutions to the climate crisis. The rest of the day went very well and had a large number of First Nations participants.