Environmental, technological, socioeconomic and political forces continue to disrupt and reshape American and global society, manifesting themselves today in what many see as twin economic and ecological crises. The ability of American capitalism and society to create the number and quality of employment opportunities characteristic of previous generations has been waning.
Coincidentally, the disruptive and destructive effects of climate change and ecological degradation, along with successive military campaigns in the Middle East, have become increasingly apparent and costly, leading growing numbers of Americans to question our continued support for, and reliance on, fossil fuels.
However, public and private sector policies and actions centered firmly on climate change mitigation and adaptation offer us the ways and means to address these twin crises simultaneously. Job creation can address both growing economic inequality and the growing threats to ecological sustainability in American society. Economically viable and socially and environmentally responsible policy options – like job creation – exist, advocates for environmental justice assert. The only thing lacking, they contend, is the sociopolitical will to enact them.
The best of times, the worst of times
Launched in Oakland, California in 2007 by then head of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Van Jones, Green For All zeroes in on realizing the potential for climate change action to address environmental injustice, lift people out of poverty and redress disparities in U.S. income and wealth – inequality that has reached disturbing, historic proportions.
Minority and low income communities have typically borne the brunt of the environmental pollution and ecological degradation that have resulted from our reliance on fossil fuels while garnering comparatively little in the way of benefits, Kimberly Freeman Brown, who heads up Green For All’s Washington DC office, asserted during an interview with 3p.
However, lower income Americans also spend a much greater percentage of their income on electricity and fuel than their higher income counterparts. Doesn’t government spending in support of stricter environmental regulations and development and deployment of cleaner, renewable energy sources disproportionately affect lower income Americans?
“Lower income Americans spend proportionately more on energy, that’s absolutely true,” she acknowledged. “That’s why we have to look at ways to lower the cost of power, but that doesn’t mean choosing power that’s based on polluting the environment.
If you’re talking about fossil fuels to produce electricity, you have to factor in their significant, high costs in terms of health care and environmental degradation. You have to look at the increased vulnerability of communities of color and low-income folks to climate change, things like food insecurity, the predominance of severe storms, floods and droughts, and their disproportionate effects – these communities are less able to escape, recover from and survive such disasters.
Such costs have been ignored – “externalized” – and hence pushed off on others (the public) in the classical and neoclassical economic and financial models and calculations that we have been using to make and justify investment and policy decisions.
Freeman Brown’s assertions are supported by numerous research studies on the overall socioeconomic costs and benefits associated with enacting stricter environmental regulations. In a March, 2011 report to Congress on the costs and benefits of the groundbreaking Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the overall socioeconomic benefits of Clean Air Act compliance have and will, from 1990 through 2020, end up outweighing the costs.
Green For All’s vision of building a more equitable, just and sustainable U.S. society shares a lot in common with that of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS). An AFL-CIO veteran, co-founder of CERES and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), LNS founder and executive director Joe Uehlein also served 12 years on a UN global warming commission. He and LNS staff bring a lot of knowledge and experience – local, national and international – to bear on the cross-cutting issue of climate change and how it is affecting American labor, the economy, society and the environment.
Climate change and American labor
Americans collectively “need to look at the full spectrum of costs, benefits and options when it comes to sustainability,” Uehlien stated during a 3p interview.
It’s our responsibility as a labor movement to become part of the future of building sustainable societies, and that means stepping up to the plate on the climate change crisis, arguably the central, defining issue of the 21st century. We have to stand up for all three legs of the Triple Bottom Line.
The issue of climate change poses a deep conflict of interest for American labor, Uehlein pointed out.
Yes, they’ll say, we’re all for addressing climate change, but we’re also for coal, oil and fossil fuel energy jobs. We, as labor, need to become part of the movement to solve that problem.
How does climate change impact American labor, and how does LNS communicate that message and bridge the divide the issue creates among labor unions? “There are two ways to answer that question,” Uehlein responded. “One of those ways is operational, by spreading the word and getting people to think differently about this issue. We do that by publishing, taking lots of meetings and using all the ways people spread ideas to build bridges between labor and environmentalists. Core to all that is the central belief that although there are immediate conflicts of interest, there are no long-term conflicts of interest.”
Climate change action: The means to address twin crises
Nonetheless, won’t federal government efforts that aim to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels, such as President Obama’s historic National Climate Change Action Plan, cost the growing ranks of lower income Americans jobs and opportunities to earn higher incomes?
Not necessarily, both Uehlein and Freeman Brown agree. Much of the information being put out publicly by fossil fuel interests is misinformation, populist rhetoric and fear mongering. In fact, employment in the U.S. oil and gas sector has actually been shrinking, despite the boom in shale gas and oil fracking and companies booking historic profits.
Moreover, viable policy options exist that would level the U.S. energy market playing field, stimulate innovation and good job creation and directly and indirectly compensate those that would bear a disproportionate share of the costs. What’s lacking is the political will to adopt and enact them, they contend.
The U.S. government “subsidizes oil companies to the tune of at least $8 billion and picks up the cost of air, water, land and health problems,” Freeman Brown pointed out. “If we could recover those subsidies, which are being doled out to companies generating over $500 billion a year in profits – and enact modest carbon pricing, we could generate in the trillions of dollars over the course of a decade.”
Both Uehlein and Freeman Brown assert that fossil fuel subsidies and investment in unconventional oil, natural gas and infrastructure development, such as fracking shale, mining tar sands, drilling in critical ecological zones like the Alaskan and Arctic wilderness, and the building of distribution infrastructure, such as the Keystone XL pipeline, could be put to much more productive and beneficial use.
Redistributing and investing even a modest portion of proceeds from carbon pricing and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies into renewable energy resources, clean technology development and water, power and agricultural infrastructure would yield much greater overall returns to American society, according to LNS and Green For All.
More immediately, they could be used to avoid cuts in critical social safety nets, such as the After School Snack Program, and to ensure “that fossil fuel industry workers, who have risked life and limb to keep the lights on, aren’t thrown under the bus. I think the opportunities are endless as to how we could apply those resources,” Freeman Brown told 3p.
We’re facing two huge crises now: an economic crisis that’s been a long time in development, and the other is an environmental crisis that is existential and immediate. Both can be met and addressed successfully by the same set of policies if we have the political will,” Uehlein stated.
We have to look at these challenges the way we looked at such critical challenges in the past,” he continued. “In the ’40s it was WWII mobilization. In the ’50s, Americans built the interstate highway system. In the ’60s and ’70s, we launched the Apollo program and sent men to the moon. When we decide something needs to be done, we have done it and we have done it through strong national political leadership and programs.
Both Freeman Brown and Uehlein agree that a commensurate national effort is needed to address climate change and the threats it poses to the American economy, society and ecological sustainability.
“We can’t afford the failure of not recognizing the primacy of work in people’s lives and not giving recognition of the essential contributions made by America’s working class population. Sustainability starts at the kitchen table, with affordable housing, jobs that support raising a family, and providing educational opportunities for everyone,” Uehlein said.
“There are two parts to our equation: one is helping labor to see its interest in helping build a sustainable future; the other is helping environmentalists recognize the primacy and importance of working life in American culture and society.”
Both Freeman Brown and Uehlein believe that despite President Obama’s efforts, the prospects of enacting such sweeping change aren’t good given the current composition of Congress. “Politics aren’t aligning very positively, but those conditions can change the moment something unexpected happens,” Uehlein noted. “Hurricane Sandy opened a lot of people’s eyes to climate change. It shouldn’t have to come to that, but it did.”
“We’re at a point now where we’re experiencing the beginnings of climate chaos. There will come a political tipping point where it will automatically be okay to talk about what it’s not okay to talk about today. Our job is to organize and prepare policies and action plans, and be ready when that day comes.”