(Image: Hoesung Lee, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, addresses the crowd on Dec. 2 at the U.N. COP25 climate talks in Madrid, where world leaders will continue to discuss and refine the Paris Agreement.)
With the Green New Deal percolating in the background, some U.S. policymakers are beginning to turn their attention to the impacts of climate change and economic decarbonization on workers and their communities.
Now the AFL-CIO, the largest labor union in the nation, has joined 75 leading CEOs in support of that trend. On Monday, they issued a joint statement that articulates how the Paris Agreement on climate change supports the emerging concept of a “just transition” toward a decarbonized economy—one in which social equity grows alongside environmental sustainability.
Sustainability and survival in the era of climate change
By connecting climate action with labor and social justice issues, the new joint statement makes it clear that planning ahead for upheaval in the labor market is just as important as accelerating the pace of decarbonization.
Globally, climate impacts are already feeding labor disruptions and political conflict, leading to a cascade of displacement and refugee crises in parts of the world.
U.S. businesses that seek a more stable, predictable environment for future ventures must create new alliances in the absence of a strong national policy on climate change.
Climate cooperation: strength in numbers
Though the new joint statement on the Paris Agreement is a domestic effort, it is positioned for global impact.
Along with its domestic affiliates, the AFL-CIO represents more than 12.5 million U.S. workers in fields as diverse as the performing arts and radio as well as key decarbonization sectors including agriculture, energy, transportation, construction, manufacturing and more.
In addition, AFL-CIO is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation. Spanning 163 countries and territories, ITUC has 207 million workers on its roster.
At first glance the 75 CEOs represent a much smaller number. According to the joint statement, they collectively employ about 2 million people in the U.S.
The joint labor union and CEO statement on the Paris Agreement
The joint statement was released on Dec. 2 under the umbrella of a new group called United for the Paris Agreement. The timing is of critical significance, as it coincides with the opening of COP25, the United Nations climate change conference in Madrid, Spain.
U.S. President Donald Trump is still bent on pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, but many state and local policymakers are still dedicated to the decarbonization goals of the Agreement. The joint statement provides a powerful lever of support for those efforts as the U.N. climate talks get under way.
In their statement, AFL-CIO and the 75 CEOs make the case for affirming the Paris goals as a matter of national economic policy. They insist climate action is “what’s best for the economic health, jobs, and competitiveness of our companies and our country.” They also note that the Paris Agreement supports predictability in the private sector, because it establishes the kind of precise goals that provide for innovation and long-term planning.
Above all, the statement emphasizes that U.S. policy on climate change is out of step with public sentiment.
The signatories note that U.S. companies need to compete “under the shifting expectations of Americans.” And those expectations are coming into sharp focus as consumers, clients and other individuals seek out business with a strong sustainability profile. According to the joint statement, 77 percent of registered American voters support the Paris Agreement.
In addition, it counts more than 4,000 U.S. states, cities and businesses supporting the Paris Agreement.
Sustainability and a just transition
As for the need to work quickly toward a just transition, the statement focuses on the disruptive impacts of climate change, which have already manifested in parts of the world and in the U.S., too:
“Today, with record temperatures across the country, fiercer hurricanes pummeling coasts, more destructive wildfires, droughts and flooding disrupting the economy, we have no time to waste.”
The signatories draw a direct connection between supporting the Paris Agreement and supporting a just transition:
“We stand by our conviction that a commitment to the Paris Agreement requires a just transition of the workforce—one that respects labor rights and is achieved through dialogue with workers and their unions. Participation in the Paris Agreement enables us to plan for a just transition and create new decent, family-supporting jobs and economic opportunity.”
Think globally, act locally—but it’s complicated
This message may not reach into the Oval Office, but then again, most likely the president is not the intended audience. The message is one of support for local efforts to plan ahead for the workforce transition as the private sector sets aggressive decarbonization goals.
Together, the 75 CEO signatories represent companies that have business interests in practically every community in the U.S. The list includes Mastercard, CitiGroup, Microsoft, PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Co., the Walt Disney Co. and Apple, among others.
The group of 75 also puts companies that are far ahead in the sustainability field on common ground with others that have much more catching up to do. For example, Patagonia and Levi-Strauss & Co. signed the joint statement. So have Cargill, Dow, and the global petroleum firm Total.
Another area of complication lies within AFL-CIO, which represents workers across all areas of energy production, including fossil fuels.
As the U.N. climate talks move forward, it will be interesting to see if AFL-CIO and the 75 executives balance these areas of conflicting interests and follow up on their joint statement with concrete plans for action.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.