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Blue-Green Alliances

[ 29 ] January 17, 2012 |

Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed the United Nations Investor Summit on Climate Risk. He made a couple of important points.

First:

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Taking on the threat of climate change means putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy–one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.

But of course, as Trumka notes, fighting climate change on the ground is deeply complex:

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.” Never mind that such a thing is simply not going to happen—there is no substitute now for metallurgical coal and if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening. Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

Trumka goes on to state that in the transition to a green economy, working-class people need to be the first consideration, not the last. That can be easier said than done. As Ken Ward notes, the United Mine Workers, Trumka’s home union, has not exactly articulated a very clear environmental critique of the coal industry. The coal is running out in many Appalachian mining communities and the UMWA sees itself attacked from all angles, even if evils of mountaintop removal are obvious. It hasn’t even expressed strong stances against companies on worker health, by which it could define an environmental program even if it can’t fight to end mountaintop removal.

This gets to the complexities of the blue-green alliance, or the coalition between labor and environmental groups to craft policies that builds a unionized and sustainable future. There are clear areas where labor and environmentalists should have a common agenda–green technology, worker health, pollution. But there are equally clear lines that demarcate where the two groups can and can’t work together, particularly in extractive industry unions. My book-in-progress explores how logging unions in the Pacific Northwest organized around environmental issues, broadly defined. In the 1970s, a strong blue-green coalition (though I don’t believe the term had been invented yet) existed in the Northwest, with logging unions allying with environmentalists to keep workers safe and force timber companies to comply with the era’s new environmental regulations. But this was fraying at the same time it was peaking. The International Woodworkers of America had long criticized the timber industry’s unsustainable cutting, but when the rubber met the road and environmentalists in the 1970s and 80s were demanding increased wilderness areas and the protection of the last remaining old-growth stands, how could they vote their own members out of work? Especially when their union was coming under attack from so many other sides, with mills shutting down left and right?

The lesson from both the Northwest forest and Trumka’s coal miners is cultural. In the end, cultural divides shouldn’t stop anyone from promoting environmental positions with as much vigor as possible. But there is something very real about the resentment engendered when so-called outsiders (a term that can mean so many things) demand the end of an extractive industry without much thought into where workers are going to go. Even though those jobs are probably going away anyhow, it gives business a convenient target to direct workers’ ire. Of course, I don’t have any great answers about how to avoid this problem except to build understanding between the two constituencies, hoping that alliances over keeping workers’ bodies safe and air and water clean lead to stronger connections that allow environmentalists and labor to build toward understanding on the more intractable issues.

Comments (29)

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  1. “articulated a very clear environmental critique of the coal industry. …It hasn’t even expressed strong stances against companies on worker health, by which it could define an environmental program even if it can’t fight to end mountaintop removal.”

    Worker health is not really a basis for a full environmental program (it is the basis for improved health and safety), and at the end of the day, the environmental critique of coal is that we should stop using it (however gradually). There’s no sustainability out as there is in logging.

    Ultimately, I think we have to push past assuming that green tech/green economy is going to solve the distributional issues of climate change and part of that means getting the environmental movement onside of full employment.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      “Worker health is not really a basis for a full environmental program”

      I think that depends on how you define environmentalism. Worker health means clean air, clean water, reduced pollution, healthy communities. That’s a very strongly defined environmentalism. It may not be the post-counterculture wilderness-first idea of environmentalism, but there’s a reason IWA leadership considered themselves staunch environmentalists during the 60s and 70s.

  2. David M. Nieporent says:

    Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

    And if we throw rocks through everyone’s windows, just think of the benefit to all the glaziers!

    • Jeremy says:

      Yes, how terrible it would be if we had to employ more peoplle in this economic climate.

      The broken window fallacy has its time and place, but it’s not here and not now. People ain’t got jobs, people ain’t got money. That’s what needs fixing right now.

    • rea says:

      It seems odd to equate not destroying the planet with vandalism . . .

      • BKP says:

        He really doesn’t explain why Neiporent is wrong.

        To prove it, read that article and explain to me why Neiporent is wrong in your own words. Be as brief as you desire.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Brad, it is not my fault you lack basic reading comprehension, and I’ve really lost patience with endlessly explaining things to you. We both know this will end with you invoking the beautiful elegant theory of Say’s Law, which even Say came to disbelieve when the real world intervened.

          • actor212 says:

            Brad and Neeps would have companies using Big Iron like the IBM 360, simply because BROKEN WINDOWS!!!!!

            Simple enough for ya, Bradley old bean?

          • BKP says:

            This:

            And the broken windows fallacy ceases to be a fallacy: something that forces firms to replace capital, even if that something seemingly makes them poorer, can stimulate spending and raise employment.

            is not an explanation Mal. In the context of you posting it in response to Neiporent, it is merely gainsaying.

            • Malaclypse says:

              And in the context of yet another discussion of why normal rules of economics change during a liquidity trap, it is an explanation. And eventually you will invoke Say’s Law, instead of observed reality, to say that liquidity traps are impossible.

              • David M. Nieporent says:

                Even if one thinks that this is a liquidity trap, and even if one adheres to the faith-based Keynesian approach, it is simply not the case that the broken windows fallacy goes away. If one thinks that the solution to economic woes is to force companies to spend money, it’s still more sensible to force them to build new things rather than force them to destroy and rebuild existing things.

                Now, what I can’t understand is why Malaclypse can’t spell my name correctly, when it’s right there atop each of my posts.

                • No, the reason that the broken window fallacy falls apart in these cases is because there’s no window breaking going on.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  it’s still more sensible to force them to build new things rather than force them to destroy and rebuild existing things.

                  Yes it is. And the very passage you quoted was about

                  every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

                  So not the same things, but improved things.

                  Next you will tell me that you are still driving the very first car you ever bought, because BROKEN WINDOWS!

        • DrDick says:

          How about you explain why this is anything other than purely reflexive and unsupported libertarian bashing of environmental regulation in your own words?

        • You should probably explain why he’s right first, since the broken window theory doesn’t really seem to apply in any way shape or form. It would be like responding to the question “what is two plus one equal to” with “pickles!!!”

    • And if we throw rocks through everyone’s windows, just think of the benefit to all the glaziers!

      We’re not throwing the rocks. Climate change is throwing the rocks.

      It actually is the economically smart move to fix your window when a storm blows a branch through it.

  3. DrDick says:

    Thank you. This is a nicely nuanced and balanced discussion of important issues confronting those of us who care about both labor and environmental issues. It is also nice to see Trumka, in contrast to some other labor leaders, embracing the need for change to protect the environment. We and they need more of this.

  4. actor212 says:

    It strikes me that many of the technologies employed in traditional fossil fuel industries, like mining coal or oil drilling, have parallels in renewable energy technologies.

    After all, someone has to lay pipe to provide water for solar heating. Someone has get their asses in the ground to raise a windmill. Someone has to weld chains and maintain turbines in tidal-driven turbines.

    We’re not talking wholesale re-education here. Indeed, there would likely be MORE jobs in these industries, since the BTU output of renewables is below that of fossil fuels, thus requiring a distributed network of sources that far exceeds even the most extensive oil fields and coal seams in the world.

    • rhino says:

      Yep. For example, I’m a Plumber, and most of a nuclear power plant is plumbing. So all those guys building oil refineries (all of em plumbers and pipefitters) could start building nuclear power facilities tomorrow.

      Same applies to essentially any power generating system. Something gets water heated into steam and drives a turbine.

      In fact, until the global economy crashed, plumbers and pipe fitters were so scarce on the ground that we couldn’t do the work in front of us…So you could start turning law school graduates into plumbers as well.

  5. Glenn says:

    I’m certainly no fan of Mike Bloomberg, but when exactly has he called for the immediate shutdown of all coal plants?

  6. [...] and writer Erik Loomis has an interesting post on the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, called “Blue-Green Alliances.”  Loomis [...]

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