Climate Change and Trade Unions

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By Sandra Owsnett

What’s the connection between being a Trade Union member and a Scottish Green Party member?

There are no jobs on a dead planet!

Climate change is the biggest single threat to current and future generations.

We are all stewards of the planets natural resources.  We all have a significant role to play in the protection of our environment and the fight against climate change.

Trade Unions have a role to play in securing a transition to a low-carbon sustainable future because of their responsibility towards the workers they represent, and through the promotion of social, economic and environmental justice beyond the workplace and tackling inequality nationally and internationally.

Trade Unions also understand the need for international solidarity because climate change impacts on us all, and most of all, those in the developing world, where the impact is felt disproportionately by those who are already worse off.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change.  It was established by the UN 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.  The IPCC reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.

A number of IPCC reports published since 2007 have concluded that

  • “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal.”
  • “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
  • “It is extremely likely that human activities caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010.”; and
  • “From the combined evidence it is virtually certain that human influence has warmed the global climate system.”

Below is a summary of some of the key findings from their “Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report”:

  1. Climate change is happening. ‘The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen’.
  2. ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear and recent….emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history’.
  3. ‘Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease’.
  4. Much of recent warming has been in the ocean. ‘The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation’. This means warmer, expanding oceans which cause stronger storms, rising sea levels and eroding coastlines.
  5. The oceans are becoming more acidic and will continue to do so through absorbing so much extra carbon. This is already affecting marine life and its effects will become increasingly severe‘.
  6. ‘Heat waves will occur more often and last longer’ … Extreme rainfall and flooding events will become more intense and frequent in many regions. ‘The ocean will continue to warm and acidify, and global mean sea level to rise’.
  7. ‘Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.’
  8. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped.

Combatting climate change and helping workers and the communities they live in adapt to a changing world is a key Trade Union issue and many Trade Unions have developed their own policies and campaigns around climate change, the environment and greening the workplace.

Why do Trade Unions have an important role to play in addressing the most serious threat to the future of life on our planet?  Because climate change is also about employment, jobs and opportunities for millions of workers, and because:

  • any move to a low-carbon economy has massive implications for jobs;
  • it has considerable economic consequences;
  • it is linked to union policies, e.g. international development;
  • it has implications for the working environment;
  • it has implications for the overall quality of life.

Trade Unions, social movements and others who want to see a move to a clean, renewables based, low-carbon sustainable future have recognised this need for decades.  But such a transition, one that meets social, economic and environmental priorities, can only happen if there is a radical change in policy and direction by the UK (and other) governments, and a shift away from large profit–driven companies towards workers, communities and the public.

Prior to the 2015 Paris Summit the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) launched ‘a call for dialogue’ over ‘a just transition’.  Below is an outline of what is meant by a just transition.

A just transition will:

  • invest in jobs – decent work opportunities in sectors which reduce emissions and help communities adapt to climate change;
  • respect the contribution that workers in fossil-fuel industries have made to today’s prosperity and provide them with income support, retraining and redeployment opportunities, as well as secure pensions for older workers;
  • guarantee social protection and human rights;
  • invest in community renewal to gain the hope and trust of regions and townships at the forefront of the energy transition, industrial transformation or climate impacts;
  • support innovation and technology sharing to enable a rapid transformation of energy and manufacturing companies along with all other economic sectors, and the involvement of workers and communities in the plans for transforming megacities;
  • formalise jobs associated with rescue, restoring communities and building resilience to climate disasters;
  • be based on social dialogue with all relevant parties, collective bargaining with workers and their unions for workplace change, resource productivity and skills development with the monitoring of agreements which are public and legally enforceable.

Transition is possible – 40 years ago, a movement for ‘socially useful production’ pioneered practical approaches for more democratic technology development.  Considered to be radical at the time, it was called the Lucas Plan.  The plan was done in response to management announcing the need to cut jobs in the face of industrial restructuring, international competition, and technological change.  The Plan became symbolic for a movement of activists committed to innovation for purposes of social use over private profit.

The Scottish Green Party Just Transition policy is:

  • A just transition to a sustainable economy includes the collective participation, through their trades unions, of workers who are currently dependent on unjust, unsustainable and exploitative employment, in order to ensure that they do not suffer from the transition.
  • The just transition should identify opportunities for the skills and contributions of workers to be redeployed and enhanced in diversified industries which produce and distribute goods and services which are socially just and ecologically sustainable.

The “Jobs in Scotland’s New Economy” report commissioned by the Scottish Green Party demonstrates that a just transition towards a low-carbon economy is possible, and can make climate action a driver for sustainable economic growth and social progress.

The social, economic and environmental benefits of a transition to a low-carbon sustainable future would lead to better air quality, lower pollution levels, better health and create stable and useful employment for millions of people.

We have a shared future. Together, we can tackle climate change.

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More reading:

A Green and Fair Future: For a Just Transition to a Low Carbon Energy, Trade Union Congress:
https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/greenfuture.pdf

The Employment Effects of Climate Change and Climate Change Responses: A Role for International Labour Standards?:
http://www.uncclearn.org/sites/default/files/inventory/wcms_122181.pdf

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