With the Help of Teachers Unions, the Climate Strikes Could Be Moving Into Phase 2

Originally published in In These Times on November 4, 2019.

As young people across the country join the global movement to mobilize school strikes to demand climate action, one group is starting to think more seriously about how to best support those efforts: their teachers.

Educators, like those in the California Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), are beginning to leverage their power both as teachers and union members to push the bounds of climate activism.

Kurt Ostrow, a high school English teacher in Fall River, Mass., has helped lead his union to the forefront of the climate movement over the last few years.

“Climate to me has always been the major crisis that needs to be addressed, and even though in the classroom I really try to prioritize it, it just doesn’t feel always enough,” he says. “So I have been trying to use the leverage that we have a as union of 110,000 people to support the movement.”

In his first year of teaching five years ago, Ostrow went as a delegate to MTA’s annual meeting, where the union’s social justice caucus—Educators for a Democratic Union—sought a teacher to introduce a resolution (known as a “New Business Item”) recommending the divestment of state pension plans from coal. Ostrow’s college friends had been leaders in the campus divestment movement, and he had always participated in their actions as an ally, so he was happy to volunteer to introduce it.

“We lost a quorum, so we weren’t able to take a vote on it, but the next year we did it again and it passed,” he said. “That was really how I first dipped my toes in.”

When the youth climate strikes took off last year, Ostrow, who now serves on the board of his statewide union, began thinking harder about how teachers could help them. At its March board meeting, he decided to introduce a resolution that the MTA would support the youth climate strike scheduled for March 15. It passed unanimously.

At the union’s next annual meeting, held in May two months later, leaders of the social justice caucus deliberated over what environmental resolutions they should introduce to best support the Green New Deal.

“I knew we could put forward a resolution that said MTA supports the Green New Deal, and I think that would have passed easily, but I really wanted to create a decision point, like a ‘which side are you on’ moment that would really force teachers to confront their own conscience,” he told In These Times. “So I decided to go radical, and I put forward a New Business Item calling for the MTA to propose a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal.”

It’s illegal for teachers to strike in Massachusetts, and following Ostrow’s impassioned speech at the conference, there was some heated debate. In the end, though, it passed.

Ostrow was pleasantly surprised. “I’m a member of the Sunrise Movement, and my dream is to try and coordinate our efforts with Sunrise’s long-term vision of striking for a Green New Deal,” he said. “So I was just trying to plant the seeds in members’ brains, but to be honest I hadn’t done any organizing around it. I wasn’t calling other locals and saying, ‘hey there will be this NBI and will you support it?’”

At the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual meeting in July, an MTA delegate introduced a resolution for the national union to also call for striking in support of the Green New Deal. It failed, with too many members nervous about the legality of such a move.

The next month, two high school students who were organizing for the September 20 global youth climate strike came out to the MTA’s August board meeting and asked the union to pass something backing their efforts.

The union did, and also upped its engagement in the weeks leading up to September 20.

“For the March strike, we just endorsed it, issued a press statement, and Max Page [the union’s vice president] spoke at a rally,” said Ostrow. “There wasn’t a lot of coordinated effort.”

Leading up to this strike, explained MTA’s president Merrie Najimy, the union did more outreach, and organized a statewide conference call with members to discuss how to get involved. “Our legal department wrote an advisory where the gist was to say you have this right to participate, and as an organizer you can push your principal, your superintendent, to make this a field trip day,” she said. “You have the right to take a personal day.”

On the day of the strike, Ostrow took his students down to a climate rally as part of a class field trip. He knows he was fortunate: In New York City, the school district, despite saying students could receive excused absences for participating in the climate strike, issued an order that barred teachers from going. The city’s education department decided that any employee participation, including class field trips or even staging walkouts on school property, would violate rules of ensuring a “politically neutral learning environment.”

The MTA’s work has continued since the strike. Last month at its latest board meeting, the union officially endorsed the Green New Deal, and a new member-driven climate crisis team is holding its first meeting in November. “Our goal will be to figure out how we can push the MTA to take more and more radical actions in support of the Green New Deal,” Ostrow said. One possible tactic is taking collective sick days. “If you can take off to take care of your kids, well the fact is Mother Earth is sick,” he said.

MTA is not the first teacher union to endorse the Green New Deal. In March, the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers passed a resolution in support of it, and was actually the first statewide labor organization in the country to adopt a climate justice agenda in 2016. That agenda includes support for fossil fuel divestment, for enacting climate legislation, and for educating members and students about the crisis.

Looking nationally

So far the national teacher unions have been more guarded.

AFT president Randi Weingarten marched with union members in New York City during the September 20 strike, but the statement she issued did not commit her labor organization to any real political action beyond educating children about the issues. “If we can help students learn about the science of climate change, help them understand free speech and citizen advocacy as part of civic education, and encourage their belief in themselves, we’ve done our job in helping the next generation secure their future,” Weingarten said.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA, has taken a similar approach. In a statement provided to In These Times, García said, “Educators around the nation are proud that their students are leading on climate change because they know it is an urgent threat. We teach our kids to be leaders in the classroom and their communities, so it is inspiring to watch them speaking up to demand action on the climate crisis from elected leaders.”

The NEA provides educators with resources to teach about climate change, and while delegates voted down the proposed resolution for a national strike at its most recent annual meeting, delegates did pass two less controversial measures—to encourage locals to compost, and to recommend schools incorporate the causes, effects, and solutions to climate change in their science curriculums.

Najimy, the MTA president, is more optimistic about growing activism from teacher unions. She pointed to a new working group on climate justice that’s forming with the national Bargaining for the Common Good network, a coalition of labor and grassroots organizations dedicated to leveraging union contracts for social justice. “When we go back to the bargaining table, we can use our power in labor to negotiate new ways of acting for the climate,” she said.

College faculty, like their K-12 counterparts, are also starting to organize in support of their students.

Leading up to September’s climate strike, a small group of professors organized an open letter calling on fellow educators to cancel classes and strike. Almost 830 people signed it. Two of the organizers, Jonathan Isham, an economics and environmental policy professor at Middlebury, and Lee Smithey, a peace and conflict studies professor at Swarthmore, co-authored Guardian op-ed in late August urging the same thing. “We risk losing credibility with an entire generation of students if we cannot take action in support of the defining cause of their generation,” they wrote.

Isham works at Middlebury with environmental activist Bill McKibben, and he taught McKibben’s seven 350.org co-founders back when they were college students. In an interview, Isham said he understands it can be easier in some ways for college faculty to take off compared to public school teachers. He praised his university’s HR department for being supportive of faculty who wanted to cancel classes for the strike, as professors were given the option to take a personal day off. Isham doesn’t even teach on Fridays, so it was especially easy for him to participate in Middlebury’s rally that day.

“I think the number-one thing educators can do is educate, and share what we know about the climate crisis and climate instability with our students,” he said. “That is our primary job, but I like to say the classroom has porous walls, and I think it’s important to also get out in the world and stand up as a citizen.”

The Environmental Left Is Softening On Carbon-Capture Technology. Maybe That’s OK.

Originally published in The Intercept on September 20, 2019.
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At the start of this year, more than 600 environmental groups — including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Sunrise Movement — sent a letter to Congress saying they will “vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage.

Congress was not chastened. This past July, tucked in the Senate’s $287 billion highway reauthorization bill, was a bipartisan measure to support carbon-capture research and development. The measure — the Utilizing Significant Emissions with Innovative Technologies, or USE IT, Act — was also included in the Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act, an omnibus package passed a month earlier. It has not yet passed the House, but last year, Congress passed a separate measure to expand a tax credit — known as 45Q — projected to generate $1 billion in investment in carbon-capture projects by 2024.

Neither have been the most outspoken advocates of a Green New Deal. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, unveiled the landmark resolution with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in February, and has been one of its leading advocates since. He has drawn a centrist primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy, and has been backed by the Sunrise Movement and Ocasio-Cortez. He’s comfortable with carbon-capture, and supported it in his 2009 climate bill, Waxman-Markey, the last time Congress made a serious effort to tackle the crisis.

“I have personally spoken to Senator Markey after the Green New Deal was introduced, and he said carbon capture is in,” said Brad Crabtree, co-director of the Carbon Capture Coalition, a group of roughly 60 companies, unions, research institutes, and energy groups that support carbon-capture technology. “I asked him directly, and he was pretty categorical, and immediately then talked about what he tried to do for carbon capture in Waxman-Markey.” A Markey spokesperson said the senator “has not advocated for specific energy approaches, nor advocated against any” and believes all proposals “should be on the table.” The spokesperson also noted that the Green New Deal resolution — while “policy agnostic”— calls for reductions in emissions as much as is “technologically feasible.”

Rachel Ventura is running a Democratic primary challenge against incumbent Bill Foster, a business-friendly congressman in Illinois, a decision she told The Intercept she made after he announced that he would not support a Green New Deal. A progressive member of a county board, one of Ventura’s highest-profile efforts is a massive carbon-capture project to stem emissions and produce energy from a local landfill — a project she describes as putting the Green New Deal in action at the local level.

In April, the left-wing People’s Policy Project released a report on the Green New Deal that included support for new federal investments in direct-air capture. “I support all the carbon-capture technologies in the abstract, but when it comes to the question of what the federal government should be investing in, it seems like the carbon-negative CCS is the one where it is uniquely needed,” said Matt Bruenig, founder of the think tank, using an acronym for carbon-capture storage. “Industry can figure out its own point-source stuff.”

And there is even evidence that some groups on the left are willing to moderate their maximalist opposition to carbon-capture, having recently signaled more willingness to compromise than they expressed in their letter sent to Congress earlier this year.

“Sunrise Movement does not support carbon capture for fossil fuel plants,” said Evan Weber, the group’s political director. “There’s no good justification for doing carbon capture for oil, gas, and coal power other than to keep an industry alive that has not been good for the planet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t valid uses for it, and there are some — like in the industrial sector, heavy industry, where we don’t have a clear path forward yet. There I do think we should continue to do more research and development because ultimately we do need to decarbonize every sector of our economy.”

John Noël, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace, echoed Weber. “We don’t have a lot of issues with capturing emissions from industrial sources,” he said. Quietly, but unmistakably, carbon capture, long loathed by the left, is moving back into the conversation.

The decades-long effort by fossil companies to sow doubt about the science of climate change has shaped the way activists and policymakers talk about it. One unintended consequence of the rejection of the scientific consensus has been the advent of the mantra “believe the science.” That puts the IPCC, or the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a powerful position when it comes to setting the terms of the debate. To disagree with the IPCC is to disagree with the science.

That dynamic, however, can leave the environmental left boxed in when it disagrees with the IPCC. That’s the case with carbon capture, which the IPCC says is necessary to hit carbon-concentration targets absent rapid reforestation and major changes to global diets and energy consumption.

“Those changes would be positive, but I’d rather not rely on them manifesting at global scale to stabilize the climate,” said James Mulligan, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

A number of factors have driven renewed attention to carbon-capture technology, most notably the growing agreement among scientists that keeping average global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius will require not only reducing future emissions, but also removing some of the carbon dioxide that’s already been released. Modeling by the International Energy Agency suggests that nearly 15 percent of all emissions reduction must come from carbon capture by midcentury. There’s also’s greater recognition among climate experts that emissions from the industrial sector — like those associated with aviation fuel, cement, and steel — can’t be easily reduced with renewable sources. Nearly 30 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from industry.

The opposition to carbon-capture is rooted largely in politics, as opponents argue that it is merely being put forward cynically by a fossil fuel industry intent on its own survival at the expense of the planet’s. Sen. Bernie Sanders, in his recently released climate change plan, came out against carbon-capture technology, calling it a “false solution.” Noël, of Greenpeace, who stipulated support for carbon-capture in an industrial scenario, drew the line at power plants. “If you’re building new power plants with the intent to put carbon capture, we don’t think that’s a good use of money, especially federal subsidies, and we think it further entrenches the extractive mindset and the fossil fuel’s political grip which thwarts meaningful action,” he said.

Activists on the environmental left view financial support for carbon-capture as yet another misguided subsidy for polluters and a barrier to transitioning away from fossil fuels once and for all.

But if political concerns are driving opposition to carbon capture, there are important political reasons to support it, too. Opponents currently lack a political strategy to deal with the fact that nearly all of organized labor (and not just the building trades) is committed to advancing the technology. Unions will be a key constituency to organize in the fight to pass any sort of Green New Deal.

“I don’t see labor supporting any climate policy that doesn’t include support for carbon capture and storage,” said Brad Markell, executive director for the Industrial Union Council at the AFL-CIO. “You can very safely say that.”

Some Democratic legislators who support a Green New Deal, like Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Brian Schatz, have backed recent carbon-capture bills.

Union representatives support investments in carbon-capture technology because, they say, it will help preserve the high-paying, unionized jobs in the fossil fuel industry, while also taking steps to tackle a warming planet that scientists say is necessary. Unions argue that the most important priority is to reduce emissions and decarbonize the economy, not necessarily to move off fossil fuels as fast as possible. “Some groups have a strain of thought to leave everything in the ground, and that’s a difficult discussion for labor,” Markell of the AFL-CIO said.

Earlier this summer, the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of eight large labor unions and six national environmental groups released a plan for tackling inequality and climate change that included support for carbon-capture tech. Environmental groups in the BlueGreen Alliance include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters, collectively known in environmental circles as “big green.” These groups declined to sign the letter outlining opposition to carbon capture sent by other green groups to Congress earlier this year.

The BlueGreen Alliance includes a number of building trade unions, as well as unions that represent industries that won’t necessarily be directly impacted by investments in carbon capture, like the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Communications Workers of America. SEIU was also the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution.

“I think about carbon capture every day. It’s more than just useful — it’s indispensable for addressing climate change,” said Lee Anderson, director of governmental affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America. “Even if we close every coal fire plant in America — which I don’t think we’re going to do for a while — but even if we did that, it doesn’t change the basic fact that if you believe and follow the science, carbon capture is a thing we must do globally at scale or we won’t make it.”

Anderson thinks there’s a fundamental misconception about labor’s motives. “There’s this idea that we want to save coal and natural gas and petroleum for its own sake because we love those things,” he said. “What we love is the things associated with them, which is cheap and abundant energy and really good jobs that support the economy. It’s about combatting emissions, saving jobs and the communities around those places that rely on those jobs. It’s about not driving people out of middle-class jobs that are almost impossible to replace. Why would we not support it?”

“It’s about economic stability, not just job preservation,” emphasized Cecile Conroy, director of government affairs for the International Brotherhood of Boilmakers. “We’re not just being selfish here. The Boilmakers, the IBEW, the Utility Workers — you unload our jobs, what’s going to happen to our multimillion-dollar health care and pension plans on Wall Street? Surely people don’t want to see those things collapse. There’s a whole thread of this that’s for economic and social stability and the tax base and making sure communities have jobs to go to.”

Cost remains significant barrier for carbon-capture technology — but supporters say if the government backed it like it did for wind and solar, we’d see similarly steep drops in price. One study published in 2018 suggested that direct-air capture — ­a carbon-capture method that sucks CO2 from the atmosphere — could cost between $94 and $232 per metric ton, a significant reduction from a 2011 study that estimated the price at more than $600 per metric ton.

The most economical form of carbon-capture technology right now is through enhanced oil recovery, in which companies capture carbon dioxide, store it geologically, and then use that CO2 injection for producing additional oil. According to the International Energy Agency, using carbon capture yields a 37 percent reduction in emissions per barrel of oil compared to conventional oil production.

There’s certainly growing scientific momentum behind investing in the technology, and a study published in Nature Communications this past summer used computer modeling to show that a “massive” rollout of direct-air capture technology could help bring down climate mitigation costs.

Though opponents of carbon capture usually argue in the political arena that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, when it comes to carbon capture, critics generally emphasize that the technology is too costly, too underdeveloped, and will detract from more important steps society needs to take. Other critics see the fossil fuel industry’s interest in carbon capture as glaring proof that this is not really about environmental protection at all, but a way to boost the bottom line of oil and gas companies. After years of denying and obfuscating climate science, why should the government help out these companies and effectively give them more political power to fight climate regulation?

Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, said that grassroots opposition to carbon-capture technology comes from “an understanding that the fossil fuel industry needs to be confronted head-on and overcome completely.” Under that framework, he said, “there’s much less patience for saying, ‘Well, let’s just pay Exxon Mobil to develop new technologies to save everyone.’”

Crabtree, of the Carbon Capture Coalition, said these sorts of objections misunderstand the actual dynamics of the fossil fuel industry, where U.S. domestic production of oil and gas continues to grow rapidly thanks to capital investment flowing into shale development. “Enhanced oil recovery, which has significant climate benefit, is not the component of the industry causing that growth,” he said. “Critics of carbon capture are seeking to prevent the adoption of less carbon-intensive CO2-EOR, when growth in conventional oil and gas production is exploding. It’s not an effective strategy if your goal is to reduce carbon emissions.”

One of the most powerful arguments made by carbon-capture advocates is that given the trajectory of coal around the world, it may be too risky to expect to meet global climate targets without carbon capture and storage technology as part of the solution.

One recent forecast published in August by Wood Mackenzie, a global energy consulting firm, projected that coal, gas, and oil will contribute around 85 percent of primary energy supply by 2040, compared to 90 percent today. Other analyses find that while developed nations are moving away from fossil fuels, developing nations will still be relying significantly on coal, oil, and natural gas to drive economic growth over the next two decades. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that non-OECD energy demand will rise by 71 percent between 2012 and 2040.

“Without carbon-capture and sequestration, we will not solve the problem,” said Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America. “Go tell China and India and Indonesia to stop burning coal. They’ll say no. Countries are going to continue to use coal for electricity.” Smith argued that it consequently makes the most sense for the U.S. to take a lead in developing carbon-capture tech. “For one thing, this sort of technology can be developed here, sold globally, and can put people to work,” he said.

“Our fuel usage will look different in 2040 and beyond, but those years are a far way away and we have to be realistic about what our usage is today and in the next 10, 15 to 20 years,” said Roxanne Brown, international vice president at large for the United Steelworkers.

“We can’t switch to renewables overnight,” added Conroy of the Boilmakers. “And too often, climate change is discussed only in the context of the U.S., when it’s really a global problem, and a lot of developing countries will still need to rely on fossil fuels to sustain their population, so we need this technology.”

Commercial carbon-capture technology dates back to 1972, when it was first used to seize CO2 from natural gas processing and then used for enhanced oil recovery. Today, 19 full-scale carbon-capture projects are in operation worldwide, with 14 using captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery and five storing the carbon dioxide in saline aquifers.

The federal government has had a rough time with a few big carbon-capture projects. In 2003, President George W. Bush announced the “FutureGen” project to demonstrate carbon-capture and storage at a coal-fired electrical generating station. The Department of Energy partnered with coal companies and pledged $1.1 billion for the project. But years of problems delayed it, and construction didn’t begin until 2014. By 2015, the federal government suspended the effort altogether, after wasting $378 million in taxpayer funds.

Likewise another high-profile carbon capture project in Mississippi was suspended in 2017, after running three years behind schedule and $4 billion over its projected budget. That project, known as Kemper, was led by energy giant Southern Company, which was reported to have misled state regulators and the federal government to get more subsidies. (The Department of Justice opened an investigation into the failed project this past spring.) “Kemper was a fiasco, and it was a huge money pit that never went anywhere,” said Ross of Friends of the Earth. “There’s been so much effort to shove federal money into carbon-capture black holes.”

But carbon-capture advocates say that Kemper’s failure isn’t an example of carbon-capture technology itself failing. “Kemper was trying to marry this commercially established carbon-capture technology [Selexol] to an unproven new coal technology [TRIG Gasifier],” said John Thompson, the technology and markets director of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group. “Selexol has been used hundreds and hundreds of times around the world since 1960 on all kinds of plants. So you were marrying this very old, very established technology that was cheap and easy to use, to this innovation, this new way of converting coal into electricity, and that method was capital intensive and went way over budget.”

Advocates point to Petra Nova, a large coal fire plant outside Houston that launched in 2017, as an example of the technology’s potential. The federal government gave $190 million to the project, which burns coal and then uses scrubbers to remove carbon dioxide from the process, something known as “post-combustion” carbon capture. It marks the U.S.’s first and the world’s largest commercial post-combustion carbon-capture system at a power plant, and was hailed particularly for launching on time and on budget.

Proponents also emphasize second-generation innovations, like those identified in a feasibility study released in November 2018, which looked at the SaskPower’s Boundary Dam 3 in Canada. In 2014 Boundary Dam 3 became the world’s first power station to successfully use carbon capture and storage technology, and the feasibility study suggested that future projects could see steep reductions in capital costs.

Reforestation, or replanting an area with trees, is one method of “natural carbon capture” — which research suggests can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions. But as an IPCC report released in August also made clear, carbon-removal efforts that involve things like planting large-scale forests can also lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Mulligan, for his part, said tree restoration should be pursued alongside technological and natural approaches to carbon removal that do not demand large-scale land use. Climate “modelers are good at modeling lowest-cost options given a set of assumptions, but they’re less good at thinking holistically about constraints [and] societal tradeoffs,” he said of the IPCC pathways. “When I look at the pathways that deploy lots of BECCS” — bioenergy with carbon-capture and store, a negative emissions technology — “the key message I take away isn’t that we need lots and lots of BECCS; it’s that we need to find a way to remove lots and lots of carbon from the atmosphere — whether that’s BECCS or other options that the modelers haven’t yet figured out a way to model.”

Support from the oil and gas industry understandably makes those concerned about the environment anxious. Some of the biggest investors in carbon capture to date include companies like Halliburton, General Electric, NRG, Equinor, and Shell. And earlier this year, Occidental Petroleum and Chevron announced that they would be investing in Carbon Engineering, a direct-air capture company that’s also backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Grand View Research Inc., a business consulting firm, estimates that the global carbon capture and storage market will exceed $8.75 billion by 2025.

Crabtree said that while oil and gas companies in his coalition largely support carbon capture as a business investment, and not out of a deep concern for saving the planet, that doesn’t negate its environmental potential. “We didn’t require people to sign on to each other’s agenda,” he said.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.

8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

Originally published in In These Times on August 26, 2019.
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On June 24, the BlueGreen Alliance—a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups—released an eight-page document laying out its vision to curb climate change and reduce inequality. The report, dubbed Solidarity for Climate Action, marks a significant development in the world of environmental politics. It argues the needs of working people must be front-and-center as the U.S. responds to climate change, and rejects the “false choice” between economic security and a healthy planet.

While the report’s focus on public investment, good jobs and justice shares much in common with the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February, it also stands in tension with environmentalists who demand the U.S. work to transition more quickly away from oil, coal and natural gas. “We’d really like them to be stronger and more concise about what it means to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewables,” said José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance and speaking on behalf of the Climate Justice Alliance. Members of the BlueGreen Alliance say the ultimate goal should be to decarbonize the economy—to reduce CO2 emissions, but not necessarily end the fossil fuel industry itself, with its tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. Other climate groups say that won’t be enough, and humanity cannot afford to preserve industries that have caused so much environmental harm. This difference in vision will stand as one of the most fundamental political questions facing progressives in the next decade.

The report spells out a series of principles, including limiting warming to 1.5°C, expanding union jobs, modernizing infrastructure, bolstering environmental protections and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector with green technologies. It also elevates the issue of equity, calling to “inject justice into our nation’s economy by ensuring that economic and environmental benefits of climate change solutions support the hardest hit workers and communities.” The BlueGreen Alliance emphasizes the disproportionate impact low-income workers and communities of color will face, and says those affected by the energy transition must receive “a just and viable transition” to new, high-quality union jobs.

To make its platform a reality, the BlueGreen Alliance endorses a host of specific policies and timetables, like reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while being “solidly on a path” to that goal by 2030. Among other things, the report calls for measures like restoring forests and wildlands, cracking down on empl­oyee misclassification, making it easier to unionize one’s workplace, winning universal access to high-speed Internet, and “massive” economic investing in deindustrialized areas, “including remediating any immediate loss of tax base or public services for communities.”

Labor groups in the coalition include the United Steelworkers, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. The environmental organizations include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Following the 2016 election, the coalition organized listening sessions with workers in communities that voted for Donald Trump, like in Macomb County, Michigan, and the Iron Range in Wisconsin. After those discussions, leaders started investing in broader polling, message-testing and focus groups. While opponents of regulating greenhouse gas emissions relish exploiting tensions between environmentalists and labor unions, Mike Williams, the deputy director of the BlueGreen Alliance, said it became clear from the research “that working people do quite care about climate change, but they also believe they should not be forced to make a choice between that and having a good job.”

“We went through a lot of iterations and a lot of conversations,” said Sara Chieffo, the vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “There was real unanimity that we were solving the twin crises of inequality and climate change.”

Jeremy Brecher, the co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports organized labor in tackling climate change, tells In These Times that he sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “quite a significant stepping out” for the BlueGreen Alliance. “The BGA was basically [created in 2006] to advocate for the growth and quality of jobs in the clean economy,” he said. “It did not take positions on targets and timetables for carbon reduction, clean coal and the KXL pipeline. It was a green jobs organization, which is important in terms of understanding where the BGA was coming from.” Brecher says the BlueGreen Alliance’s new statement “about the pace of greenhouse gas emission reductions and the absolute centrality and necessity of it is an extremely positive development.”

Evan Weber, the political director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, agrees. “I think the platform represents a really historic step forward for a number of the nation’s largest and most influential labor unions,” he said. “It leaves some questions about what needs to be done, and we’d like to see more ambition, but it is really meaningful that these groups and unions have come to the table and shown that they’re willing to move forward and not stay in the ways of the past.”

The Green New Deal resolution was introduced in Congress as the BlueGreen Alliance hashed out its own proposal. The leaders of some labor unions in the BlueGreen Alliance that represent workers in the fossil fuel industry—including the Steelworkers and the Utility Workers—have publicly voiced criticism of the Green New Deal, blasting it for a lack of specifics. The federal resolution “certainly took over a big portion of the national climate conversation, and a few of our partners were supportive, but there is also skepticism from the labor side,” said Williams. “As we were working we said we need to focus on our own process to see where we can forge alignment.”

Some hope the BlueGreen platform can serve as a policy blueprint for moving forward on the Green New Deal. SEIU, which represents 2 million workers, is both a BlueGreen coalition member and the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution. “SEIU members know that we must take bold, immediate action on climate change, including holding corporations accountable for rampant pollution and ensuring good union jobs as we transition to a clean energy economy,” president Mary Kay Henry told In These Times. “That’s why we are proud to support both the Green New Deal, our North Star for what needs to be accomplished on climate change, and the BlueGreen Alliance’s platform, a roadmap for how we can get there.”

The League of Conservation Voters also endorsed the Green New Deal resolution back in February, and Chieffo told In These Times that her group sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “a really essential addition” to the conversation. “We are proud to endorse the Green New Deal and I think it’s incredibly valuable to have these eight powerful unions at the table laying out a proactive vision for how we tackle climate change.”

In These Times reached out to the original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey of (D-Mass.), for comment on the BlueGreen Alliance’s report.

Anika Legrand-Wittich, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, said while she was unable to reach the Congresswoman for specific comment, she “confirmed with our staff that we have indeed worked with BlueGreen Alliance and share many of their goals.”

Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for Sen. Markey, pointed to a supportive tweet the senator posted following the report’s release. It signal boosted the BlueGreen Alliance platform, and reads, “Transforming our economy and combatting climate change will create millions of jobs, but it won’t be possible without our workers and their families. Great to see our allies in organized labor continuing to make climate action a top priority.”

New Consensus, a think tank working to develop policies for the Green New Deal, said in an email “We don’t have any comment on the BGA report at this time.”

Fossil fuels

Despite its generally positive reception, the Solidarity for Climate Action has not gone without critique — and some environmental groups and labor leaders have raised issues and questions about the platform.

“I don’t think it goes far enough in terms of moving us definitively off fossil fuels at the speed that is required,” said Weber of the Sunrise Movement.

Brecher, of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said while overall the report marks a “very big step forward” for unions, he thinks its language “can use a little tightening up” to prevent groups from having too much “wiggle room.” He specifically pointed to language that America should be “on a pathway” to reducing its emissions, and suggests that be more specific. “It is overall quite close to the Green New Deal resolution, which also has a little wiggle room,” he said. (For example, most action items in the Green New Deal come with the caveat of “as much as is technologically feasible.”)

Julian Brave NoiseCat, the director of Green New Deal strategy at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, said his organization’s vision for climate action shares a lot of overlap with the BlueGreen Alliance platform. But he noted BlueGreen Alliance’s does not include a 100% clean energy commitment, nor explicit provisions to phase-out fossil fuels, and it does not include a 10-year mobilization, in line with the Green New Deal. He also said he wonders whether the BlueGreen Alliance would support a federal jobs guarantee, or some other federal work provision.

Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, a climate group, said while it’s significant to see the labor movement taking proactive steps on the environment, as well as seeing the report’s emphasis on justice and equity, he protested its lack of mention of fossil fuels, natural gas, oil or coal. “How do you have solidarity for climate action when you’re not proactively calling out the very fuel sources that we have to eliminate from the U.S. economy?” he asked. “It says a lot of great things about how we want the economy structured, but in many ways it papers over where some of the greatest disagreement is between parts of the labor movement and the environmental community.”

Pica also acknowledged that the Green New Deal resolution did not make any mention of fossil fuels. “We were critical of that, too,” he said.

Mike Williams, of the BlueGreen Alliance, said while he understands that critique, he also thinks “it’s a bit much” to expect this platform to call for banning fossil fuels. “Our goal is to get climate pollution out of our economy by a certain time to avoid as much warming as possible, so we established our platform with the methods we think will help get us to those goals,” he said. “The banning of fossil fuels — that’s pretty controversial to expect of the people who represent the human beings who work in that sector. This is tens of thousands of people who work in these industries, and for a union to step out and say we’re going to end your job and the promise of a new job is a wink and a nod and a handshake. Well America has never before followed through on any proper transition, save for maybe the New Deal for white dudes.”

From Williams’ perspective, demanding unions call for ending their own jobs, before any sort of real alternative agreement is in place, is simply unrealistic. “It’s so mind boggling to think that people who represent folks who work in those industries would jump so far out ahead of where their membership is, and without any real forthright and immediately implementable solution,” he said.

Pica, of Friends of the Earth, also critiqued the BlueGreen Alliance for making no gesture toward campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “It’s been the divestment fights, trying to get universities and cities to divest their money from fossil fuel companies, that has been the fuel of the climate movement over the last decade,” he said.

Williams said the absence of certain “buzzwords” doesn’t diminish from what the document accomplishes. “We’re on the same side, and I truly respect [the environmental critics] and I hear them, but this is about building a broader movement that can get bigger solutions across the line,” he said.

Carbon-capture technology

Perhaps the most polarizing policy endorsed by the Solidarity for Climate Action report is that of carbon-capture technology, a method backed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and supported by most of the labor movement. But among environmentalists it’s more divisive, as some argue it will prolong dependence on fossil fuels, be too costly, and make it harder to reduce emissions overall.

“The fact that it’s included in the BGA report I think is very unfortunate and something that realistically has no chance of making a significant contribution to climate protection,” Brecher said. “Some of the other environmental groups are more squishy.”

Pica called carbon-capture “an expensive detour to nowhere” that’s a “nonstarter and at worse feeds kind of feeds false hope.” In January more than 600 environmental groups sent a letter to Congress saying they will—among other things—“vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage. Brecher and Pica’s groups were among the signatories. While the Green New Deal resolution is ambiguous on carbon-capture, last week Sen. Bernie Sanders released his presidential climate plan, which includes opposition to the technology.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, a labor union not represented in the BlueGreen Alliance, tells In These Times that there are aspects of the report his union agrees with, “especially with respect to carbon-capture technology.” But he critiqued it as not specific enough when it comes to defining what a “just transition” means. The platform calls for “guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support, healthcare and retirement security” until an impacted worker finds a new job or retires.

“Coal miners want to know what the hell you mean when you say you want a ‘just transition,’” Smith says. “Training to drive a truck is not a just transition. Training a miner to earn half of what they’re making now is not a just transition. … Our concern is once laws get passed to phase out carbon dioxide in 10 years, if we’re going to have a ‘just transition’ then we needed to be working on that 15 years ago. It’s just meaningless words on paper right now, and we keep seeing it over and over.”

Moving forward, members of the BlueGreen Alliance plan to promote the policies outlined in their new platform through legislative advocacy and local community organizing. In late July, the coalition sent a letter to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and its ranking member, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), encouraging them to consider the Solidarity for Climate Action platform as they proceed in Congress.

“I think the next phase of work is educating elected officials on what’s in the platform,” said Chieffo. “And then really rolling up our sleeves to craft the legislation and hopefully future executive branch options needed to deliver it.”

Will Bernie Sanders Stick With a Carbon Tax In His Push for a Green New Deal?

Originally published in The Intercept on July 3, 2019.
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A DEFINING FEATURE of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s political career is his consistency. The economy is rigged against the working class, the independent senator from Vermont charges, and bold political action is necessary to remedy that. His approach to tackling the climate crisis has long reflected that mindset, with Sanders ignoring the advice of the Democratic consultant class to champion taxing the nation’s largest polluters and redistributing the bulk of the earned revenue back to consumers and vulnerable people.

Now, as the 2020 presidential candidate prepares to release his climate change plan, a key element to watch out for is whether Sanders will abandon the tool he’s heralded for years to combat global warming, or integrate it into his push for a Green New Deal. As he makes this decision, Sanders is wading into an increasingly contentious debate among environmentalists about the right role for market-based solutions in progressive policy.

Sanders has long argued that a carbon tax “must be a central part of our strategy for dramatically reducing carbon pollution,” and he’s often touted the consensus behind it from economists across the political spectrum. He’s called a carbon tax “the most straight-forward and efficient strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and has urged his colleagues “to catch up with the scientific community and with the rest of the country.”

But over the last year, some influential groups on the left have soured on a carbon tax, pointing to a recent ballot measure that failed at the polls in Washington state and also the yellow vest protests in France over rising fuel prices — sparked by taxing carbon. And as more conservatives and business leaders have warmed to the idea of a carbon tax, some progressives have grown correspondingly distrustful — skeptical that Republicans will really do anything other than undermine the bold action that is needed.

Sanders, an original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, has been touting a Green New Deal often on the 2020 campaign trail but has so far been silent on taxing carbon. His campaign website, unlike in 2016, says nothing about it, and in June, a Sanders speechwriter told E&ENews, an environmental trade publication, that a forthcoming Green New Deal speech does not say anything about a carbon tax, though he added that doesn’t mean Sanders might not tackle the issue in the future.

“While Bernie has, in the past, introduced federal carbon pricing legislation in the Senate, the IPCC report makes clear that our window for action is closing,” Sarah Ford, the deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign, told The Intercept, referencing a landmark 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that underscored the urgency of the crisis. “So, if we are to solve the issue of climate change, a price on carbon must be part of a larger strategy and it must be formulated in a way that actually transitions our economy away from fossil fuels and protects low-income families and communities of color.”

The campaign pointed to Sanders’s Senate office, which is in the process of drafting new climate legislation. A spokesperson for his Senate office told The Intercept over email that “all I can say is that we’re still in the legislative development of our climate policy and GND, which we hope to unveil soon, and we still need to review, get input, etc.” In June, Keane Bhatt, a spokesperson for Sanders’s Senate office told E&E that he foresees his boss’s Green New Deal bill to be “focused primarily on public investment.”

Where the Vermont senator lands on the issue could be a bellwether for what’s to come.

SANDERS HAS NEVER supported a carbon tax as the exclusive measure needed to tackle the climate crisis, but he has insisted it’s an integral one. To protect families from potentially increased energy prices, a 2013 bill he introduced with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., stated that 60 percent of the carbon tax revenue would be rebated, per capita, to every legal U.S resident. He and Boxer also promoted a number of other ideas, including weatherizing 1 million homes per year, funding worker retraining programs, and making massive investments in clean energy research and development. Sanders called it “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.”

In 2015, after Sanders had mounted his bid for the White House, he used his support for a carbon tax as a way to distinguish himself from the more piecemeal climate proposals pushed forward by his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Her advisers, many of them still bruised from the failed cap-and-trade fight from 2010, urged her to steer clear of anything resembling a tax, which they said could leave her vulnerable to Republican attacks of raising energy prices.

But Sanders, who has never been very fearful of potential Republican smears, leaned into the policy idea he believed in. On the campaign trail, he called for a carbon tax, banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, and ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies. He also called for increased federal investment in wind, solar, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and public transit — items that will likely be central to any Green New Deal.

“Bernie will tax polluters causing the climate crisis and return billions of dollars to working families to ensure the fossil fuel companies don’t subject us to unfair rate hikes,” his plan stated. “Bernie knows that climate change will not affect everyone equally. The carbon tax will also protect those most impacted by the transformation of our energy system and protect the most vulnerable communities in the country suffering the ravages of climate change.”

One major success of his 2016 campaign was getting language included in the Democratic Party platform in support of a carbon tax. The platformstated that Democrats “believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities” and that Democrats should “support using every tool available to reduce emissions now.”

ONE OF THE most prominent voices in the environmental movement to turn against a carbon tax is Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state and the presidential candidate who is running primarily on tackling climate change. Inslee has strongly supported taxing carbon in the past (an idea sometimes called imposing a “carbon fee”), but bills in favor of the proposal never made it out of his state legislature, and related ballot initiatives failed in 2016 and 2018. (The fossil fuel industry spentmore than $31 million to beat the 2018 initiative, more than twice the amount spent by supporters.)

In January, Inslee announced that he had grown wary of relying on a carbon tax to reduce emissions. “To actually get carbon savings, you need to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable,” he told NBC News, adding that he was more interested in taxing the rich to fund a Green New Deal. His aggressive proposals on the 2020 campaign trail also do not include taxing carbon.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, the original Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also pointed to Washington’s failed carbon tax ballot measure as reason to not hold much hope in a similar national effort. “If it can’t pass in Washington state right now, I’m not sure that says that there’s much of a pathway at this moment nationally,” he told Politico in December.

Other proponents of the Green New Deal have argued that a carbon tax just shouldn’t be a primary focus. A set of talking points released — and then retracted — by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office in February emphasized that any carbon tax “would be a tiny part” of a Green New Deal. A carbon tax generally “misses the point and would be off the table unless we create the clean, affordable options first,” the fact sheet said. Ocasio-Cortez also wrote on Twitter that ideas like a carbon tax can’t be the premier solution to tackling the climate crisis.

Paradoxically, the successful grassroots organizing led by environmental groups like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has been building bipartisan support for a carbon tax and dividend since 2007, has now sparked wariness among other environmental activists who say Democrats can’t afford to compromise with a party that denies climate science and answers too often to the fossil fuel industry.

Others on the left have been increasingly skeptical of relying on any sort of market-based solution to tackling the climate crisis. In January, more than 600 advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth, the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch, Indivisible, and People’s Action signed a letter pledging to “vigorously oppose” any climate legislation that promotes “market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.” This kind of language kept eight of the largest environmental groups off the letter, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, separately criticized Democrats for “still seem[ing] fixated on the half solutions of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.” He argued that “market pricing schemes should no longer be the centerpiece of a comprehensive climate strategy.”

Aside from signing the congressional letter, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has also signaled it’s not very interested in a carbon tax. While Sunrise’s political director, Evan Weber, has said a carbon tax “has the potential” to be part of a Green New Deal, he’s also dismissed the idea that it’s an important tool for tackling the problem. “There’s been a predominant conversation in Washington, D.C., that’s been led by economists and politicos that have tried to frame a carbon tax as the only way,” he told Politico. “It’s proved time and time again to be not politically popular, and we haven’t even priced the policy at where economists say it needs to be. The idea that [a carbon tax is] the way out of this mess is something we need to be pushing back on.” Neither the Sunrise Movement nor Weber returned The Intercept’s request for comment.

SUPPORT, HOWEVER, STILL exists for a carbon tax, even among environmental groups that have embraced the Green New Deal framework. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have endorsed both bold public investment and a carbon tax as ways to combat climate change. New polling from Data for Progress, a progressive polling organization, also recently found strong support among Democratic voters for both approaches to tackling the crisis.

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Many congressional supporters of the Green New Deal also agree there’s room and need for both. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., an original co-sponsor of the resolution, has said a price on carbon has “got to be part of the solution.” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a vocal supporter of a Green New Deal, has also argued that it’s perfectly compatible with a carbon tax.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., another original Green New Deal resolution co-sponsor, has also pushed back on the idea that the failed carbon tax ballot measure in her state means it’s too politically unpopular to pass anywhere — pointing to the large sums of money the fossil fuel industry had to spend to defeat it. “I am not in the camp that thinks it failed because of a carbon tax, I don’t believe that,” she told E&E“I think it failed because industry really doesn’t want it to succeed.” She acknowledged that the progressive movement has been “a little bit all over the place” when it comes to carbon taxation.

Climate change experts also continue to vouch for a carbon tax. In its report issued last October, the IPCC endorsed pricing carbon to reduce emissions and recommended imposing prices of $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 to keep global warming in check. But an OECD report from last September found that few countries that do have carbon taxes are setting them at levels high enough to meaningfully curb emissions — highlighting the political challenge at hand.

IN MANY RESPECTS, there is more legislative traction around carbon pricing than there’s been in years, and Republicans are increasingly warming up to the idea. While groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity still adamantly oppose it, other conservative businesses and even fossil fuel companies have come out behind it, though sometimes with conditions that progressives would unlikely support — like environmental deregulation or immunity from any lawsuits.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee heldits first climate-related hearing in over a decade, and in late November 2018, three Republicans and three Democrats in the House introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the first bipartisan carbon tax proposal in Congress in almost 10 years. Known colloquially as the “Deutch proposal” after one of its Democratic authors, Rep. Ted Deutch, it would direct proceeds from the tax back to consumers in the form of monthly rebate checks. The legislation has been described by experts as a “highly progressive” proposal, given that high-income households would pay a disproportionate amount of the tax, yet the resulting revenues would be distributed equally to all households. Under this bill, a family of 4 with two adults would take home an annual dividend of $3,456 by 2025. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby said it “may be the strongest and most comprehensive climate bill ever submitted to Congress,” though the group also stressed that “no one should expect any single policy to solve climate change by itself.”

There are other carbon pricing proposals on the table. One, known as the “Baker proposal,” has earned the endorsement of many in the business community, and it embraces a carbon tax in exchange for repealing other environmental regulations and limiting legal liability on the energy industry. Another bill, known as the “Whitehouse proposal,” would redirect most of the carbon revenue generated to reduce the employee portion of the payroll tax. Named after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the proposal was co-introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another presidential candidate and original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.

The idea of a carbon tax came up briefly in last week’s Democratic presidential debates, when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Rep. Tim Ryan how he would fund climate projects “if carbon pricing is just politically impossible.”

As Time’s energy reporter Justin Worland noted, the question itself confused the point of a climate tax, which is meant to make polluting the environment more expensive, not primarily finance green projects. Ryan didn’t reference any carbon pricing in his answer, yet former Rep. John Delaney, who co-sponsored the Deutch proposal last November, picked up on the opportunity to tout his work pushing the bipartisan solution. “My proposal, which is put a price on carbon, give a dividend back to the American people — it goes out one pocket, back in the other,” Delaney said. “I can get that passed my first year as president, with a coalition of every Democrat in the Congress and the Republicans who live in coastal states.”

In the second debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for “aggressive and ambitious measures” to tackle climate change and cited a carbon tax and dividend as one he’d support. “But I would propose we do it in a way that is rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole,” he said, invoking bills like the Deutch proposal.

Some commentators online criticized the way Democrats fail to adequately explain how a carbon tax and dividend work to voters.

Though Sanders was not asked anything about a carbon tax and dividend in the debate, he has for years demonstrated how to promote the idea in clear, progressive terms — highlighting the need to make wealthy polluters pay for their planetary destruction, while protecting working people and vulnerable communities from rising energy prices.

In 2016, though not a single question was asked in the general election presidential debates about climate change, Sanders seized on a question in the primaries about fracking to push his opponent on the need for a carbon tax.

“The truth is, as secretary of state, Secretary [Hillary] Clinton actively supported fracking technology around the world,” Sanders said. “Second of all, right now, we have got to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet. And that means — and I would ask you to respond — are you in favor of a tax on carbon, so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do?”

Three years later, it’s not yet clear how Sanders will proceed. Does he still believe taxing carbon is worth fighting for, or will he eschew consistency in favor of a new approach to tackling the climate crisis?

How Unions and Climate Organizers Learned To Work Together in New York

Originally published in In These Times on June 10, 2019.
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Several years before Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) elevated the climate, jobs and justice framework to the national level, a coalition of labor, environmental and community groups joined together to push for a pioneering climate bill in New York.

The idea for the legislation came in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 People’s Climate March, when organizers decided to build on the momentum of the historic demonstration. In 2016 the Climate and Community Protection Act(CCPA) was born, an expansive bill that would require New York to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The bill would also mandate that 40 percent of New York’s climate funding go towards projects in low-income, vulnerable communities, and require all green projects to have high labor standards, including the requirement for a prevailing wage.

“It’s among the most aggressive decarbonization proposals in the nation,” said Arielle Swernoff, the communications coordinator for New York Renews, a coalition of over 170 state groups backing the legislation. “The only state that has really done something comparable is Hawaii.”

New York Renews offers an encouraging example of how labor and environmental groups can work together to act on climate change. The coalition has the backing of unions like 32BJ Service Employees International Union—a property service workers union, the New York State Nurses Association, the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. It also has the support of a vast number of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Environmental Advocates of New York and GreenFaith.

The bill’s strong language around labor—such as requiring that government contracts include mechanisms for resolving disputes and ensuring labor harmony—has helped quell opposition from building trade unions that typically fight robust climate proposals. The New York AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing 3,000 state affiliates, has notably stayed quiet on the bill.

Nella Pineda-Marcon, the chair of the Climate Justice and Disaster Relief committee with the New York State Nurses Association, told In These Times that it was an easy decision for her union to back the CCPA. Her union, which represents 43,000 nurses statewide, got very involved with the climate crisis following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The following year, Pineda-Marcon traveled to the Philippines as a first-responder to Typhoon Haiyan. “We are on the front lines of this crisis, we see first-hand the destruction it has,” she explained. “And the massive amounts of pollutants in our air are driving up rates of chronic asthma in our most vulnerable communities… We need to lead now and the rest of the world can follow us.”

The politics of the CCPA are coming to a head as the deadline for passage ends June 19. The bill passed the state Assembly in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and last year a majority of state senators signed on in support. But the Senate Leader never allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. After the 2018 midterms, however, when progressive Democrats ousted a group of centrists who often caucused with Republicans, advocates felt the stars were aligning more favorably for the CCPA’s passage this year.

Indeed, in January the new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins released a statement calling the CCPA “the main vehicle through which we will address climate change.” The state senate held its first-ever hearing on climate change in February, led by Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D), the new Environmental Conservation Committee chairman.

Various scientists testified, including Mathias Vuille, a professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at the University of Albany and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Vuille explained that the most significant impact resulting from a changing climate in New York so far has been the rise of intense storms, which have increased in frequency in the Northeast more than any other region in the United States. Sea levels along the mid-Atlantic and New England coasts have also risen much higher than the global average, he said, pointing to a rise in New York sea levels by 280 millimeters over the 20th century, compared to a global average increase of 170 millimeters.

While Vuille cautioned that he’s neither a renewable energy specialist nor an economist, he said “we owe it to future generations” to continue leading the transition off fossil fuels, and emphasized a need to reduce emissions in the transportation sector in particular. “I think this can be done if we really have the will,” he said.

Some labor advocates, like Mike Gendron, the executive vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1108, also testified in support of the CCPA. “As we transition from fossil fuel based energy to renewable energy, we must make sure that the jobs created, are good paying union jobs with proper training, for both new workers and transitioning workers,” he said. “The New York State Climate and Community Protection Act will help make that happen.”

Other unions offered more qualified support, endorsing specific sections of the legislation. Ellen Redmond, representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), testified that her union does in fact believe the CCPA contains commendable language around workers’ rights. “We do believe the labor protections are strong,” she said, though suggested it could be even better if there were more teeth and real dollars behind it. IBEW represents about 50,000 members in New York, many of whom work in the utilities industry.

Mark Brueggenjohann, a spokesperson for the IBEW, told In These Times that his union didn’t have anything new to add to Redmond’s February testimony and doesn’t “anticipate any further statements” this month.

State senators also heard from industry groups that raised concerns, like Mitch Paley, testifying on behalf of the New York State Builders Association. Paley said while his colleagues support some aspects of the CCPA, they object to the prevailing wage requirements which would, by their own estimate, increase residential projects by 35 to 45%. The mandated solar requirements for new homes, he added, could increase the cost of each project by $10,000. This would “dramatically affect the ability to promote affordable homes in our region,” he argued.

Darren Suarez, the senior director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State testified against the bill, arguing that the proposed legislation would “increase energy costs, operational costs, and create uncertainty, compromising the global competitiveness of energy-intensive, trade-exposed industries.” He insisted the bill’s goals are not practical, and that the manufacturing sector should be included in developing the state’s climate policies.

A study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst found that New York transitioning to a 100 percent renewable economy could support 160,000 direct and indirect jobs initially and an average of about 150,000 in each year over the first decade. The institute also estimates that New York’s fossil fuel workforce is relatively small, comprised of roughly 13,000 individuals, out of a statewide workforce of around 9 million.

A threatening factor for CCPA supporters is that the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, has introduced his own more moderate climate bill—the Climate Leadership Act. His legislation calls for the electricity sector to be carbon-free by 2040, but does not lay out a concrete plan for other sectors that emit greenhouse gas, like transportation. The two bills are dividing Democrats in Albany. Advocates for CCPA say Cuomo’s bill does not go far enough, and it’s imperative to legislate specific climate goals, so they are not “at the whim of the executive” anymore.

Swernoff of New York Renews says the governor’s office has expressed discomfort specifically with the prevailing wage standard for all green projects, the 40% investment into vulnerable and low-income communities, and setting a timeline for the whole economy, as opposed to just for electricity.

New York federal legislators are ramping up pressure on state lawmakers to pass the CCPA. On June 4, eleven Congressional representatives from New York, including Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, sent a letter in support of the bill. “We believe the people-led Climate and Community Protection Act before you in Albany presents…an opportunity for New York,” they wrote. “An opportunity to cure the injustices of the past and to secure, with intent, a just transition into the future.” On June 5, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand sent her own letter in support of the bill.

Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, a steering committee member of New York Renews and the New York affiliate of Jobs with Justice, said she knows lawmakers are taking the CCPA very seriously right now, and she’s “hopeful this year its passage will become a reality.”

When it comes to the governor signing the bill, Silva-Farrell says she is less sure. “You never know where he’s going to be on an issue,” she said. “But one thing that is very clear is that if he wants to leave a strong legacy for his family, for his kids, and his grandkids, he should get behind this.”

Maine AFL-CIO Becomes First State Federation to Support a Green New Deal Bill

Originally published in In These Times on April 22, 2019.
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On Tuesday, Maine lawmakers will hold a hearing for “An Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine”—a new climate and jobs bill that has the notable support of Maine’s AFL-CIO, the first state labor federation to endorse a Green New Deal-themed piece of legislation. The bill calls for 80 percent renewable electricity consumption by 2040, solar power for public schools, the creation of a task force to study economic and job growth, and a commission to help facilitate a just transition to a low-carbon economy. Its backing from a coalition of over 160 labor unions offers an instructive lesson for other states looking to build union power to tackle a warming planet.

The bill is the brainchild of Chloe Maxmin, a 26-year-old state lawmaker elected in November, and the first Democrat to ever represent her district. Maxmin, who has been an environmental activist since she was 12 years old, and co-founded the Harvard fossil fuel divestment campaign while in college, said she knew if she was voted into office she would approach climate politics in a different way.

One of the criticisms of the national Green New Resolution sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is that it lacked a broad coalition of supporters when it was first introduced. But Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s political strategy, they’ve explained, is to use the aspirational framework as an organizing tool over the next two years, to bring more key partners on board.

Maxmin, by contrast, sought to bring allies into her coalition prior to going public with the legislation, and Maine labor and environmental groups did not have a deep history of working together before. “I’ve been an organizer for a long time, and to build power and to really create something inclusive I knew it had to be inclusive from the beginning,” she told In These Times. “The traditional strategies that we’ve used around climate and climate policy just have not really gotten us very far.”

Maine has some unique characteristics: It is the most rural state in the nation, the whitest (roughly ­tied with Vermont), and the oldest. It’s also, as of 2019, one of just 14 states where Democrats control all three branches of state government.

While she knows her bill will be associated with the federal resolution, Maxmin stresses that hers should be understood as targeted legislation, specifically tailored to her state’s needs. “Of course, there are national parallels with not only the name but also echoing the themes of economic justice and opportunity, but it’s a very Maine-specific bill, and not meant to cover every component of the climate crisis,” she said.

Matt Schlobohm, the executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, praised Maxmin for her deliberate efforts to “create a policy that was ambitious, aspirational and do-able” for working-class people. Maine’s labor community, which has about 12 percent union density, has not historically focused on climate issues or climate justice. Schlobohm thinks this legislation is a real chance for unions “to build trust and develop their analysis and capacity” in a meaningful way.

The bill sets less ambitious targets than the national Green New Deal resolution, which, among other things, calls for 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years, and includes language around reducing emissions from transportation and agricultural sectors. While the Maine Sierra Club supports the legislation, Maxmin acknowledged that some environmental activists have criticized her bill for not going far enough.

“Our approach was targeted legislation focused on economic and job growth in Maine,” she said, pointing to the solar projects for schools, and the jobs-focused task force which would report on its findings by next January. Like the state’s opioid task force which has paved the way to new state policies, Maxmin said she expects to be able to introduce more specific job legislation generated by the task force’s research next year. “There are other [environmental] bills going through the State House around transportation and agriculture,” she said. “This [bill] is for workers, low-income Mainers, and economic growth in Maine.”

Haley Maurice, a junior at Bowdoin College involved in the Bowdoin Climate Action group and a student leader with the national Sunrise Movement, has been involved in discussions with Rep. Maxmin to shape the bill. (Sunrise also endorsed Maxmin’s bid for office.)

“We started meeting in early February, and [Rep. Maxmin] was just really forward in saying we need young people involved,” she said. “I’ve been very impressed by her adamant belief in the democratic nature of the bill and in making sure that everyone who is affected by this is considered and at the table.”

Maurice said that while “other climate bills proposed in the Maine legislature have very ambitious timelines,” this is the first bill she believes really prioritizes how the energy transition will take place, and constitutes “a very strong starting point” for Maine. The legislation outlines requirements for a commission to study and track progress towards a low-carbon economy, particularly for those most adversely impacted: people from demographic groups that have been historically affected, and people who are low-income and cannot participate in energy efficiency programs.

Moreover, Maurice doesn’t think a state bill on a less ambitious timeline is at odds with the work that she and her Sunrise colleagues are pushing for on the national level. If anything, Maurice said, it just reinforces why the federal government needs to also be involved in the process.

“When you say we need 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and we need a faster timeline, you need to think about the burden that places on Mainers here,” she said. “And if state bills have a slower timeline than what science is saying we need, I don’t think that is necessarily contradictory to our values. States need to push forward in the ways we can now while ensuring these transitions are happening in an equitable way, and we need a federal Green New Deal to bolster the work of the states.”

The Maine AFL-CIO’s support for the bill is an important milestone, as labor remains devided on the Green New Deal nationally. While the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee responded critically to the Green New Deal resolution, unhappy with both some of its specific language and its lack of specifics, other labor organizations have started to mobilize in support. In late March the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor approved a resolution in support of “a Green New Deal or similar effort” to address climate change and economic inequality. In mid-April, Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines, wrote an op-ed in in support of the Green New Deal, and the general urgency of tackling climate change.

Schlobohm said if he were to give advice to environmental leaders about how to organize effectively with labor, he’d encourage them to make deliberate efforts to understand unions, and engage them in a good-faith process. “And I think just the basic organizing 101 of showing up for each other,” he said. “There’s a lot of strikes and picket lines these days. Do environmental organizations show up at teacher strikes and grocery worker strikes? The same question should be asked of unions, but I think there’s just opportunity to build solidarity in this moment.”

For his labor allies, Schlobohm says the energy transition is going to happen, so it can either happen “with us or to us” and “one option is far superior than the other.”

Ultimately Schlobohm feels optimistic about the future of climate-labor organizing, says there are lots of opportunities for “win-wins”—and points to the recent organizing done by climate and labor groups in New York.

“There are renewable energy policies moving in every state in the country,” he said. “And every single one of those policy frameworks has the opportunity and levers for job quality and labor rights standards.”

 

Labor Unions Are Skeptical of the Green New Deal, And They Want Activists To Hear Them Out

Originally published in The Intercept on Feb. 28, 2019.
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Deciding whether to sign onto the Green New Deal resolution is not an easy call for many members of Congress. They have to contend with the usual opponents: coal, utilities, oil companies, and other big-pocketed interests who like today’s economic order just fine. But even on the left, coalition-building can be complicated.

After signing onto the Green New Deal as an original sponsor, one House Democrat felt that acutely when he traveled back to his district and met with two top local labor leaders. The congressperson, who asked not to be named, said he faced harsh criticism from building trade representatives who worried the plan would put their members out of work. He pushed back, arguing that their members will actually fare better with a green infrastructure plan that can drive up wages for blue collar work, pointing to jobs like retrofitting buildings and constructing renewable energy infrastructure.

Recent polling has found strong bipartisan support for a Green New Deal, but unions, a key constituency, have been less than enthused by — and in some cases, downright hostile to — the ambitious proposal to tackle climate change.

Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA, denounced the Green New Deal the day it was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. In a blistering statement, O’Sullivan said it was “exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda to address our nation’s dangerous income inequality” and “exactly how not to win support for critical measures to curb climate change.”

For many observers, the construction union’s opposition was not too surprising. LIUNA had ardently supported the Dakota Access pipeline and said in 2016 that the labor organizations who opposed the project were “self-righteous” and “display[ing] a truly amazing level of hypocrisy and ignorance.” In January 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, LIUNA was one of several building trade unions to meet with the president, later praising Trump’s “remarkable courtesy” and affirmed that LIUNA “look[s] forward” to partnering with the White House on infrastructure.

Some climate activists have said that support for the Green New Deal should be a litmus test for progressives. Writing for The Intercept, Naomi Klein argued recently that the labor movement should “confront and isolate” LiUNA over its opposition. “That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders,” she wrote. “Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO” — the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the country’s largest umbrella group for unions — “for planetary malpractice.”

As advocates of the Green New Deal work to gin up more support for the resolution, they face the challenge of parsing out bad-faith criticisms from legitimate critiques by those whose livelihoods would be impacted by a transition to green jobs. The way they straddle that line and respond to those concerns could make all the difference in getting the critical mass of support needed for the Green New Deal to pass.

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s nonbinding resolution includes explicit language backing union jobs that pay prevailing wages and a commitment for “wage and benefit parity for workers” affected by the energy transition. The Green New Deal also calls for “strengthening and protecting” the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments” with strong labor protections.

Despite those promises, only one big union, 32BJ SEIU, has come out swinging in support of the Green New Deal. The majority of labor organizations have so far stayed quiet or voiced skepticism or criticism. The opposition, particularly for those in the building industry, is rooted in concerns about jobs and wages, as well as the approaches favored in the resolution for decreasing carbon emissions. There is also a political thread, with Trump-voting Republican coal miners, for example, hesitant to embrace a policy that has been sponsored only by members of the Democratic caucus.

Evan Weber, political director at Sunrise Movement, the youth advocacy organization credited with putting the Green New Deal on the political map, suggested that his group is not too worried about labor’s early response. “Since the resolution launched, a few [unions] have put out negative and less-than-enthusiastic statements about the Green New Deal,” he said, “but most are remaining silent and choosing to view this as a potential opportunity.”

Two weeks ago, seven unions representing workers in the building industry sent a letter to the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and its ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., saying they “have grave concerns about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the ‘Green New Deal.’” The unions have also used the letter — which outlines their climate legislative priorities — in meetings with House members and senators since January, according to Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America.

Despite advocating their position in Congress, the signatories have not yet made public statements on the Green New Deal. Mark Brueggenjohann, spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which signed the letter, told The Intercept that his union is not commenting now on the resolution, but “will be better prepared to do so” when actual legislation is available.

One climate strategy that many unions have said is important is investing in carbon capture technology and storage — a conceivable, if yet to be realized, way to prevent most of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel plants from entering the atmosphere. This method has already generated a bit of controversy in the rollout of the Green New Deal. 

In November, the Sunrise Movement called for a Green New Deal Select Committeethat included “funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases.” This language appeared to endorse research and development in carbon capture technology, something many climate experts say is necessary to keep the planet from overheating. But in January, as Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic reported, the drafters of the final version of that resolution quietly removed any reference to “capturing” greenhouse gases. Meyer noted that the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which last fall warned that a failure to make major changes to reduce global warming in the next 12 years will be catastrophic for the planet, “has not produced any projection that shows us hitting that [necessary decarbonization] target without massively deploying carbon-capture technology.”

Carbon capture technology is somewhat polarizing. Critics say it’s risky to bank on pricey technology that does not really exist yet, and they say that the fossil fuel industry uses the prospect of carbon capture as an excuse to avoid reining in their environmentally harmful businesses.

Supporters, however, argue that investing in carbon capture is scientifically necessary for reducing emissions globally and vital for maintaining economic stability. “Our union does not question the science about climate change, and we’ve been working for some time on ways to mitigate it,” said Smith, the spokesperson for the mine workers union. “The answer, to us, is not quit using coal, but to spend the kind of money that needs to be spent on carbon-capture technology, on a commercial scale in this country and across the world. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t do that, you’ll never solve the global crisis.”

The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t explicitly rule out carbon capture technology, but in a section that deals with removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the authors endorse “proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage,” like protecting land and planting new trees. Other vaguely written sections of the resolution, however, could open the door for carbon-capture technology. The resolution endorses “creating solutions to remove” emissions, and endorses the international exchange of technology, products, and services to address climate change.

The resolution is nonbinding, so the inclusion or exclusion of a provision does not dictate how future legislation will be written, but it does suggest some hesitancy to embrace carbon capture technology and storage.

The Sunrise Movement does not see “a heavy role for carbon capture and storage,” said Weber, the group’s political director, though he said it could be worth investing in some research and development for so-called heavy industry like steelmaking and shipbuilding. He noted that carbon capture technology is “pretty expensive compared to just reducing emissions by moving toward alternative forms of energy.” Ocasio-Cortez’s and Markey’s offices did not return requests for comment.

As an alternative, Weber said photosynthesis should be seen as an optimal way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “We think there’s a lot of upward potential here in the U.S. to do ecosystem restoration and preservation,” he said. “A number of studies have shown that that can really help us get toward our climate goals and we’re most interested in investing in those proven solutions.”

Laborers are also skeptical of what the Green New Deal’s promise for a “just transition” would mean in practice. “We think it’s very important to find out what a ‘just transition’ actually means and who gets to define it,” said Smith of the mine workers union. “And will people be paid what they’re earning now, with the same level of benefits? None of that has been clarified.”

Members of the United Mine Workers of America earn an average of $30 an hour, along with employer contributions to a 401(k), paid sick leave, paid vacation, and ample health benefits, according to Smith. “I think, frankly, if you’re able to say to these folks, here’s a $30-an-hour job with all the rest of the stuff you’re used to, and you’ll pretty much work the same hours, you’ll have folks say, ‘OK, I’ll consider this,’” he said. “But that’s not what anyone is saying. And it seems to us there’s a very naive view about what this is going to cost and where the money is going to come from.”

Saikat Chakrabati, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, responded to early criticisms of the Green New Deal by saying that they envision future legislation that would provide economic security to miners who would find a switch to a new career challenging.

When asked if his members see an urgency to address climate change, Smith said they haven’t done formal polling, but that “anecdotally, our membership is very split on that issue.” He noted that plenty of miners voted for Trump and tend to agree with his perspective on climate change.

Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, or NABTU, told Reuters that his members were skeptical of promises of “green jobs” and noted that “renewable energy firms have been less generous” than the oil and gas sector when it comes to paying their workers. Renewable jobs, notably, are generally safer than fossil fuel jobs and can be done anywhere in the country, unlike jobs that are dependent on the location of a mine or an oil rig.

Like the mine workers, when it comes to NABTU and other critics of the Green New Deal, members’ political orientations are relevant.

In 2016, NABTU, along with LIUNA and a handful of other unions, sent a letter to the AFL-CIO, calling on the federation to cut ties with Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer, a vocal critic of the Keystone oil pipeline. (Since Trump’s election, Steyer has also frequently called for the president’s impeachment.) Despite their agreement over Keystone, the groups’ partisan leanings are a bit divergent. In the 2018 cycle, NABTU gave 41 percent of its political action committee contributions to Democratic candidates and 59 percent to Republicans. More than 75 percent of LIUNA’s contributions, by contrast, went to Democrats in the last election.

NABTU and LIUNA did not return multiple requests for comment.

Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, said some of the concerns unions have raised about needing more specificity are “completely valid,” though he accused LIUNA of lying about what the resolution contains and misrepresenting climate science. “It’s always kind of disappointing to see potential allies resort to tactics that we see the right wing and our common enemies using,” he said.

With respect to labor issues, Weber said, the Green New Deal is “leaps and bounds ahead of previous climate proposals.” From his group’s perspective, if energy workers cannot find new jobs that pay them equal to what they’re currently earning, then “the government should step in and make up that difference,” he said.

“I think the job guarantee is a really critical element of the Green New Deal,” he said. “It doesn’t say if you’re a coal miner, you’re now going to go work on installing solar panels, it asks what are the jobs that make sense for your community and have this transition be something that’s locally determined.”

The union that has offered the most enthusiasm for the Green New Deal has been 32BJ, which represents 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers along the east coast. On February 6, the Joint Executive Board of 32BJ passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal and “reaffirm[ed] its commitment to a 100 percent clean and renewable energy economy.”

In an interview with The Intercept, 32BJ’s New York City-based president, Héctor Figueroa, proudly noted that his union was the first to come out in support of the Green New Deal. “We can build unity in labor if we can recognize the urgency of the climate crisis” and effectively link the fight for climate justice to economic justice, he said.

Figueroa’s rhetoric is similar to that of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise activists. He emphasized the need to take action “in a big, bold way” that addresses climate “concurrent to the problems of income inequality and declining labor standards.” He noted his personal connection — his family comes from Puerto Rico and has been dealing with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — and he said two-thirds of their membership was born outside of the United States. “They know the impact of climate change back in their home countries,” he said. “They understand this is a global problem.”

32BJ’s February resolution on the Green New Deal “marked a new phase” in the union’s engagement on climate change, as for the past two decades, they’ve focused primarily on advocating for green jobs and energy efficiency standards, Figueroa said. “Now we’re taking another step, which is to very clearly and categorically say we need to build a future without fossil fuel,” he explained.

Their next task will be to pressure their national union, SEIU, to support the Green New Deal. “We are very passionate about it, and we believe it’s the right place for labor,” he said.

Other locals may also play a role in pressing their parent unions for support. Out in California, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, of which an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local is a member, issued a resolution in support of the Green New Deal.

Aside from that, most unions have stayed silent — even those that have contributed to the discourse around climate change in the past. The AFL-CIO, for example, passed a resolution in October 2017 on “Climate Change, Energy, and Union Jobs.” The resolution affirmed the labor federation’s commitment to passing “energy and environmental policies with a focus on ensuring high labor standards, the creation of union jobs and environmental sustainability,” and also affirmed its support for enacting “comprehensive energy and climate legislation that creates good jobs and addresses the threat of climate change.” In 2009, the AFL-CIO worked to shape the House’s cap-and-trade bill. The American Clean Energy and Security Act — the name of which is conspicuously missing the term “climate change” — died in the Senate without a vote.

While the AFL-CIO has yet to issue a statement on the Green New Deal, in September, the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, gave a speech on fighting climate change that is telling of the group’s perspective. He said that “strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now … plans that devastate communities today, while offering vague promises about the future … they are more than unjust. … They fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of 14 unions and environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers — backed the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but has not commented on the Green New Deal. (Spokesperson Abby Harvey declined The Intercept’s request for comment.) Critics have noted that BlueGreen Alliance tends to avoid weighing in on more controversial issues, like the Keystone XL pipeline. (LIUNA, which supported the pipeline, quit the alliance in 2012 over related disagreements.)

David Foster, the former executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, wrote an op-ed in The Hill earlier this month, urging the public to study the lessons from a decade ago, the last time leaders called for a global Green New Deal. “Unless the transition to a clean energy economy is based on unifying politics, this next iteration will also prove another adventure in pyrrhic rhetoric,” Foster warned. A decade ago, unemployment was high and the price of oil was also skyrocketing. While neither are true today, he noted, inequality remains terrible and working conditions throughout the entire economy feel even more precarious.

The Sunrise Movement plans to launch a campaign in March to build more support for the Green New Deal, with events planned in states like Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. “We’ve been working to get a lot of support from the grassroots and the grasstops,” Weber said, “and we’re going to keep doing that going forward.”

The Government Shutdown Is Killing Antarctic Science

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on October 9th, 2013.
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There’s been a lot of news lately about the unexpected side-effects of the government shutdown, but here’s one that hasn’t garnered the attention it deserves.

On Tuesday the National Science Foundation announced that given the lack of appropriated funds, the U.S. Antarctic research program would be cancelled for the rest of the year. While that may not seem so important at first glance, Antarctic research diver Henry Kaiser calls it —with dramatic rhetoric very much intended— “the 9/11 for the science community.”

“There’s never been a disaster like this in science before,” he said, explaining that people who are not scientists—including journalists and politicians—seem not to understand the catastrophic ramifications of the closure on scientific studies. “It’s truly unprecedented,” he said.

That’s largely because of the nature of scientific research in Antarctica, a unique and fragile natural laboratory. If scientists, including geologists, glaciologists, oceanographers, volcanologists and biologists, fail to gather their annual data, it has the effect of either negating or seriously compromising decades of work—and wasting hundreds of millions of research dollars along the way.

“Most climate studies work on trends, and having gaps in the data is detrimental to being able to interpret them properly,” said Ross Powell, a geologist at Northern Illinois University and chief scientist for the WISSARD project, the first drilling expedition to discover life in a buried Antarctic lake. This year, with a $10-million investment by the NSF, Powell and his colleagues planned to search for a hidden estuary beneath the Ross Ice Shelf. Powell says that losing this field season would mean already wasting half the money, not to mention the myriad hours of operational and planning time.

Marine Biologist Gretchen Hofmann, who studies the effects of changing seawater acidity and temperature on marine life, says that long term records are necessary “to understand what’s been happening in the recent past.”

“These conclusions rely on continuity, and some of these studies have been going on for well over twenty years,” she said.

Richard Jeong, a researcher currently based at McMurdo, the United States’ Antarctic science facility and the largest research community on the continent, has begun to circulate a Change.org petition, calling for a shutdown exemption for Antarctic Program. More than 2,000 individuals have signed it, but it may be too late. Unlike national parks, which could reopen on Monday if the government reopened tomorrow—the amount of time and logistical preparation required to prepare for the Antarctic research program makes the likelihood of rescuing this research season extremely unlikely.

Although the Antarctic summer research season began last week on October 3rd, staff from Lockheed Martin, the NSF’s Antarctic operations contractor, have been working since late August to prepare for the season’s studies. “It takes them weeks to set everything up. There’s a whole slew of safety concerns, holes to be drilled, research preparation,” said Hubert Staudigel, a senior research geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has been traveling to Antarctica for research every other year for the past ten years. “The problem with the Antarctic program is it’s like a machine with 100 cogs and you have to have every cog in place to make it work. It’s incredibly complex and it can’t just be stopped and started.”

And there’s safety considerations, too. “Would you want to deploy a group of mountaineers to the Antarctic knowing that you won’t have enough search and rescue people back at the station?” said Hofmann.

The National Science Foundation, which furloughed 99 percent of its workforce, has been unavailable to answer calls or provide real clarity on the situation.

The personal cost of the shutdown is also enormous for the staff, contractors and researchers. For example, two PhD students under Powell’s supervision who were set to go to Antarctica this month for thesis research may have to extend their study for an extra year, putting universities in precarious funding situations.

Lydia Kapsenberg, a PhD candidate at UCSB who was preparing to leave for Antarctica to continue an ongoing study on ocean acidification, says she and her team could expect to lose up to two years of data. “We’re looking at how changes in pH will affect animals and in order to do that we need to know what their current exposure is,” she said.

For now, it’s a waiting game, and people try and predict which types of studies can be saved, and which are simply ruined.

“Really awful things are happening as Congress recklessly and carelessly has their macho stare down,” said Hofmann.