For those concerned about climate change, the last two weeks have provided an evidentiary cornucopia. Temperatures exceeded a previous daily maximum by 16 degrees in San Francisco, and the ravages of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the latter of which was one of the strongest storms in the history of the Atlantic Ocean, leave little doubt about the destructive changes in planetary weather.
But evidence is not the crucial problem in making headway on climate, nor is battling the tawdry sideshow of climate change denialists and Trumpian stupidity. The real obstacle to progress is the indifference within the environmental community to the impacts on working people that comes with addressing climate change.
Green advocates all too often demand changes without closely examining the economic effects those changes inflict on poorer global citizens of the world. Nearly every week in the Bay Area a conference is held or a study released advocating for a green future, yet seldom are the effects on workers factored into these efforts. For example, the prestigious Climate Bonds Standard, which advocates for and attempts to regulate green finance, contains no attention to the lives of workers affected by green transformation. This is not the way to build a social movement.
Workers care as much or more about a healthy climate for their grandchildren as anyone, but without ways to earn a quality standard of living today, they will not have healthy, happy grandchildren to live on a clean planet in the future. So, if they have a good paying job, dirty or clean, they’re going to fight to keep it.
As former President Obama told a world food conference in Italy in May, for those battered by the storms of inequality, “it’s a luxury to worry about climate change.” If people feel like they don’t have control over their lives, he continued, “then they will resist efforts to deal with climate change.”
Climate change is real and deadly serious. But so is income inequality. Recent research ties the opioid crisis ravaging working-class communities in the United States directly to income inequality. Yet unfortunately, many in the green community not only ignore, but often exacerbate, the deteriorating situation for workers in this country. During the early days of the Trump administration, some in the climate change movement condemned leaders of U.S. building trades unions for meeting with President Trump to discuss infrastructure work — work that is desperately needed for the nation and for union members.
Coal is a special environmental disaster, yet ridiculing coal miners is especially pernicious. What work is being presented for them in green efforts? And following disputes over the Keystone pipeline, “progressive” publications were peppered with articles ridiculing attempts by unions to secure work for their members and casting them as retrograde climate deniers. Support for sacred Native lands is laudatory, but what are the Keystone demonstrators offering the thousands on the Navajo reservation whose economic lives depend on coal?
Demanding sacrifice from workers struggling to provide for their families while sitting in the soft perch of a tenured faculty position or green finance job has a “do as I say not as I do” quality that will never produce environmental progress. Bill McKibben, a respected advocate, has called on people to mobilize around climate change like we are in war. But in the last global war, World War II, everyone in the United States pitched in, rich and poor. Where is the equality of sacrifice today?
Many argue that an explosion of clean energy jobs is on horizon. Such predictions are questionable, but even if they eventually prove to be true, people have to eat today. Arguing that good paying “dirty” jobs must end without replacing them with good paying “clean” jobs is a losing strategy. Moreover, even if these jobs materialize, most green working-class jobs do not provide needed wages, benefits, or union representation. As in conventional industry, the profits of green “triple bottom line” investing comes all too often from workers’ wages. Recent exposés of working conditions at America’s largest solar enterprise, Solar City, by Capital and Main, and at Tesla in the East Bay by the Bay Area News Group and the Guardian newspaper make this clear. Environmental darling Elon Musk imported construction workers from Eastern Europe for his local factory, paying only $5 an hour.
Some recognize this problem. Along with former President Obama, a number of labor/environment organizations have formed, though, sadly, little has been accomplished. In the East Bay, SEIU Local 1021 is at the forefront of trying to unite workers and progressives. The Sierra Club has been a leader as well and argues that “in a fair and just transition, affected workers, their unions, and communities are equal partners in a well-planned, carefully negotiated, and managed transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”
These are great words but what is being done? Unions will continue to participate in these endeavors with environmentalists, but until they bear fruit, there is little likelihood that workers will place climate change on the pedestal of their worries.
It is time for responsible investors, climate change fighters, and all those in the green movement to take a pledge — no job should be destroyed in carbon industries unless a green job with equal benefits, wages, and rights is produced. With this pledge, climate and inequality can truly be addressed. The planet’s workers are ready.