In Face of Climate Crisis, Environment and Trade Union Movements Finding Common Cause

World climate negotiations concluded in Bonn, Germany recently after two painstaking weeks. Whilst many parties to the UN convention and other commentators choose to highlight any small steps forward in the talks, no matter how inadequate, Friends of the Earth opts to speak truth to power.

Asia Pacific is the region where the most people are already feeling the impacts of changes in the climate and Meena Raman of Friends of the Earth Malaysia spoke out in Bonn, saying “Every COP feels like a broken record.  We are sick and tired of talkshops. Act!”

2017 has been a devastating year and is set to be one of the hottest three years on record. Around the globe people are paying with their lives and livelihoods for climate-exacerbated extreme weather events in the form of hurricanes, wildfires and heatwaves. Terrifyingly, new data shows that global emissions will rise again this year after several years of stagnation—world emissions have not even peaked yet when we need them to be falling fast. The disconnect  between the scale of government action and the urgency of the climate crisis is as vast as ever.

And yet, the transition of world economies away from fossil fuels will happen. The energy transformation is as inevitable as climate change and its devastating impacts are real. The questions are; how fast will it be? who will benefit? and who will lose out?

Analysts believe the transition to clean energy sources is likely to happen faster than anyone expects. Even the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – not a body prone to invite instability – predicts that the pace of technological change will be underestimated.

But if left to market forces guided by transnational corporations it is very likely to be unfair, slow and painful. We should be ready for the most rapid industrial transformation ever. And we should learn the lessons from history of other industrial shifts. Trade unions are already warning that transitions of industrial systems in the past have brought a lot of suffering for workers. People’s jobs, livelihoods, connections to the land, family bonds and heritage have been lost.

With this in mind, environment and trade union movements have come together to call for a ‘just transition’—a transition that leaves no-one behind. A transition that is fair and secures workers’ jobs and livelihoods through the creation of decent opportunities. Done right we can simultaneously tackle the climate crisis and also inequality, employment and democratic crises.

In many ways we should not be afraid to see the back of the current system. We should not be under the illusion that today’s economic model has brought universal benefits. The percentage of people in organised labour is decreasing and varies from country to country. Work frequently doesn’t give people a decent income. Often low wages have to be subsidised. The relentless pursuit of growth has led to these times we live in characterized by gross inequality, more and more precarious work, and a deepening democratic deficit.  

The concept of a just transition is already embedded in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Its preamble calls for “a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs”. Yet most negotiators and governments are not really thinking about the social implications of climate policy. Luckily environmentalists and trade unionists and others are.

In Bonn Friends of the Earth International and the International Trade Unions Confederation co-organised a public event to demonstrate their common cause, share positive experiences of transition, and to plan for an economy that respects and protects workers’ rights and benefits communities, not only employers.

Success stories came from all continents. In Australia efforts have been made to put a just transition into practice. Following the abrupt decisions to close a coal power plant, workers and other local actors came together and organized a successful campaign to get government support for a solar thermal plant providing 1500 jobs on the same site as the old coal plant—a powerful symbol. In another case from Australia, employees at a decommissioned coal plant fought for and won a worker transfer agreement covering jobs in other nearby plants as well as training—a rare example of legally binding transition provisions for workers.

As the climate talks drew to an end, Canada’s unions were applauding the federal government for announcing plans to tie Canada’s phase-out of coal-fired electricity with a just transition for affected workers and communities. Alberta’s coal workers have been long awaiting support in response to the announced phase-out.

In Scotland100,000 jobs in North Sea oil have already been lost. Now the government—under pressure from a coalition of environment groups and trade unions—has established a Just Transition Commission. It’s a recent announcement and it is not yet clear who will sit on the commission or how it will work, only that it will “advise Scottish Ministers on adjusting to a more resource-efficient and sustainable economic model in a fair way which will help to tackle inequality and poverty.” Such initiatives need to be shared, built on, improved and to become the norm as the transition accelerates.  

It is vital that the transition away from the old polluting economy happens in collaboration with workers, starting with those most disproportionally affected. It should be publicly owned and address current power imbalances.

It remains to be seen whether governments, especially those in the developed world, can catch-up to the reality that fossil fuels must be left in the ground and transition to clean energy sources in time to minimize the effects of climate change. We know, for example, that the EU can afford just nine more years of burning gas and other fossil fuels at the current rate before it will have exhausted its share of the earth’s remaining carbon budget. 2018 will be an absolutely critical year for the 1.5°C maximum temperature rise goal the Paris Agreement aspires to and which is a matter of survival for low-lying countries and vulnerable communities. The urgency cannot be understated.

In these circumstances, it is inspiring to see the diversity and strength of the movement coming together to demand that the transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative one happens in a fair and fast way. What unites this movement is our shared recognition of the gravity of the climate crisis, our shared desire for justice, and our common vision of ‘Decent jobs on a living planet.’

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission