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Making the Promises Real: Labor and the Paris Climate Agreement


shutterstock_124451722 (1)

As nearly 200 nations gathered in Paris approved the UN Climate Change Agreement, the AFL-CIO issued a statement that broke new ground on climate.[1] While the AFL-CIO opposed the Kyoto climate agreement and never supported the failed Copenhagen agreement, it “applauded the Paris climate change agreement as “a landmark achievement in international cooperation” and called on America “to make the promises real.”

Although it has frequently pointed out the harm that workers and communities might face from climate protection policies, the AFL-CIO has never proposed a “just transition” plan to protect them. Its Paris statement noted that “workers in certain sectors will bear the brunt of transitional job and income loss.” Recognizing that reality, it endorsed the Paris agreement’s recognition of “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.” It called for investment in the affected communities and “creating family-supporting jobs like those that will be lost.”

This statement lays the groundwork for organized labor to take a new approach to climate change. How can labor now move forward to implement that approach? What should labor’s post-Paris climate program be?

Adopt the Paris targets

The AFL-CIO has never endorsed the targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction that climate scientists have said are necessary to prevent the most devastating effects of global warming. The Paris agreement sets a goal of keeping warming well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the increase in temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is time for the AFL-CIO to endorse the GHG reductions that climate scientists say are necessary to reach that goal.

According to an analysis by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan, the current U.S. pledge to drop GHG emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, along with the pledges of other countries, will lead to a global temperature increase of 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.[2] To reduce warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit) will require the U.S. to increase its pledged reduction from 26 percent to 45 percent, and for other countries to make comparable emission reductions. Other scientific estimates fall in the same range. If the AFL-CIO genuinely wants “to make the promises” of the Paris agreement “real” it needs to endorse the Paris target of keeping warming well below 2 degrees Celsius – and the GHG reductions that science says are necessary to make it happen.

The Paris agreement includes what a labor contract might call a “reopener” every five years, designed to provide the opportunity for countries to “ratchet up” their commitments. Organized labor should call on the U.S. to commit now to ratchet its targets up to what’s necessary to realize the Paris goals and to make its climate action plans based on what is necessary to reach them.

Use climate protection to create good jobs

The AFL-CIO statement on the Paris agreements calls for “investing in the affected communities” and “creating family-supporting jobs.” Fortunately, the primary way to reduce GHGs is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy and energy efficiency – and that produces far more jobs than fossil fuel energy.

In 2015 the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) and other groups issued a report “The Clean Energy Future: Protecting the climate, creating jobs, and
brecherclimatesaving money.”[3] It shows that the U.S. can reduce GHG emissions 80 percent by 2050 – while saving money and adding half-a-million jobs per year compared to business-as-usual fossil fuel energy. Most of the added jobs will be in manufacturing and construction.

The plan does not depend on any new technical breakthroughs to realize these gains, only a continuation of current trends in energy efficiency and renewable energy costs. It is based on the conversion of all gasoline-powered light vehicles and most space heating and water heating to 100 percent renewable electricity. It includes an orderly phasing out of coal and nuclear energy and a gradual reduction in the burning of natural gas.

Organized labor should develop its own plan for expanding jobs by meeting the Paris climate goals. Such a plan can take as its starting point the “Clean Energy Future” report and similar studies. But there is no reason a labor jobs plan needs to be limited to that. Indeed, unions should also develop specific plans targeted to create jobs for workers and communities who may be adversely affected by climate policies.

An example of such a plan is presented in the LNS report “The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy.”[4] The report shows how to create five times as many jobs as the Keystone XL pipeline by investing in much needed water, sewer, and gas infrastructure maintenance and repair in the five states along the proposed pipeline route. The study found that meeting water and gas infrastructure needs in the five states can create more than 300,000 total jobs. Every dollar spent on gas, water, and sewer infrastructure in those states generates 156% more employment than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. It’s time for American labor to advocate for such programs to meet our country’s needs rather than fossil fuel projects that destroy our children’s future.

Good, stable jobs protecting the climate can help challenge the growing inequality and injustice of our society, but only if policy is designed to do so. Climate policy needs to include strong racial, gender, age, and locational hiring requirements to counter our current employment inequality and provide a jobs pipeline for those individuals and groups who have been denied equal access to good jobs. It needs to help remedy the concentration of pollution in low-income communities, the lack of transportation, education, health, and other facilities in poor neighborhoods, and other manifestations of discrimination.

How can jobs protecting the climate be generated? There are three main approaches to GHG reduction. The first, which has dominated climate legislation and treaty negotiations, consists of “putting a price on carbon emissions” to discourage GHGs through taxation, fees, cap-and-trade systems with markets for emission quotas, or similar means. The second, which is widely discussed and frequently implemented on a small scale, consists of local, often community-based initiatives designed to produce renewable energy and reduce energy consumption on a decentralized basis.

The third approach, perhaps less often delineated by proponents than excoriated by opponents, consists of a government-led strategy based on economic planning, public investment, resource mobilization, industrial policy, and direct government intervention in economic decisions. While rapid reduction of GHG emissions will undoubtedly require all three, organized labor should lead the breakout from failed conservative market-only policies and propose a government-led plan – drawing on the example of economic mobilization for World War II – to put our people to work converting to a climate-safe economy.[5]

We now have working models for how to design such government-led programs. The Obama administration – with strong support from the UAW – saved the American auto industry through massive public investment and a restructuring of the industry based on sharply reducing carbon emissions.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, despite some inadequacies and ambiguities, requires states and power companies to make defined GHG emission reductions on a legally enforceable schedule. While it gives them great flexibility in how to do so, it does not allow them to evade the targets just by providing incentives that may or may not lead to GHG reduction in the real world. It requires them to plan, invest, and disinvest to meet a compulsory schedule.

Long-term infrastructure like highways and the electrical grid are in fact already shaped by government planning and investment. Labor should propose a positive program of long-term public infrastructure investment both to rapidly reduce GHG emissions and to provide stable, good-quality jobs.

Leave no worker behind

The AFL-CIO statement on the Paris climate agreement called for “a just transition of the workforce.” It is time for the American labor movement to spell out how that can be done.[6]

According to Brad Markell, Executive Director, AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, a principal concern of trade unionists at the Paris negotiations was “what happens to workers and communities” in the transition to a new energy economy. In the US, coal industry workers, especially in Appalachia, are the “urgent focus of AFL-CIO concern for just transition.” The industry is facing bankruptcies and the UMW pension fund is falling short. “We need to save pensions, create jobs, help communities with economic development, and accelerate job-creating programs to reclaim lands damaged by mining.”[7]

A good starting point for doing so is the “Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act” recently outlined by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.).[8] The bill initially targets coal workers, but over time expands to other energy sector workers as well. It provides unemployment insurance, health care, and pensions for up to three years and job training and living expenses up to four years. Employers receive tax incentives to hire transitioning employees. Counties where 35 or more workers become eligible for the program can receive targeted development funds. The right of workers to join unions is protected by streamlining NLRB union recognition provisions. The bill covers the estimated $41 billion cost of the program by closing the tax loophole that allows corporations to send their headquarters overseas to avoid paying taxes. Organized labor needs to take that plan, make any improvements it considers necessary, and challenge the environmental movement and other allies to work together to make it happen.

A labor climate program can draw together workers, unions, and allies around protecting jobs by protecting the climate. Indeed, it can serve as the leading edge of a campaign to realize such traditional labor goals as full employment, job security, greater equality, human rights on the job, and protection against the vast economic insecurities of working people’s lives.


[1] “AFL-CIO Statement on United Nations Climate Change Agreement,” December 15, 2015. For a review of past AFL-CIO positions on climate change see Labor Network for Sustainability, “Labor, Climate, and the KXL: Interpreting the New AFL-CIO Statement on Energy and Jobs”

[2] Andrew Jones, John Sterman, Ellie Johnston, and Lori Siegel, “With Improved Pledges Every Five Years, Paris Agreement Could Limit Warming Below 2C,” December 14, 2015.

[3] “The Clean Energy Future: Protecting the climate, creating jobs, and saving money” Labor Network for Sustainability,, and Synapse Energy Economics, based on research by a team led by Frank Ackerman of Synapse Energy Economics.

[4] Kristen Sheeran, Noah Enlow, Jeremy Brecher, and Brendan Smith, “The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy.” Economics for Equity and Environment and Labor Network for Sustainability.

[5] See Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein, “If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change.” New Labor Forum, Winter, 2014.

[6] For an overview of “just transition” strategies see Jeremy Brecher, “A Superfund for Workers: How to Promote a Just Transition and Break Out of the Jobs vs. Environment Trap,” Dollars & Sense, November/December 2015.

[7] Interview, January 18, 2016.

[8] “The Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act.”

Jeremy Brecher is an historian and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new, post-Paris edition of his Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival was published by Routledge.

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