The Crisis of Climate Change
By Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) and a PSARA member
Editor’s note: The following is an exerpt from Jeff Johnson’s speech at the WSLC Convention, July 23-25.
Brothers and Sisters, now we have another crisis facing us, though it is one that also presents us with a great opportunity. That crisis is climate change.
Forty-three years ago when I was a student in Washington, D.C., an analyst from the CIA made a presentation in a political science class I was taking. The presentation was on the geo-political ramifications of a warming planet. She hypothesized that if the planet kept going the way it was that we would reach a point in time when the temperate zones, those areas of the world that are the bread basket for the planet, would begin shrinking and that this could set off a geo-political confrontation over food and water.
Now I wish I could tell you that I totally got what she was saying at the time, but I didn’t. I looked at it as a hypothesis and with all the interests of a twenty-year-old, including whether there was enough beer in the refrigerator. I assumed that even if this was true, we wouldn’t let it happen.
Well, the hypothesis is proving out, and we did let it happen.
Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, said before last year’s People’s Climate March in NYC, “We must act on climate change now. We don’t have a Plan B, because we don’t have a Planet B.”
Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical on climate, linked climate change and inequality together, and said that we have a collective moral responsibility to look after our common good.
But all we need is our own eyes to recognize that severe weather events (climate change) caused by carbon pollution are dramatically impacting our economy, our health, and our very existence.
Increasing ocean acidification has led to the closing of shellfish operations in Puget Sound and Willapa Bay; accelerating glacial melt is leading to increased flooding and storm water pollution; increasing droughts are affecting our water supply and food production, causing great hardship for families and communities dependent on the agricultural economy and causing forced migration around the planet as people desperately seek food, water, and economic survival; great storms like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines have exacted enormous tolls on life and property.
Today 85 percent of Washingtonians believe that climate change is real and that it is largely man-made; this is twenty points higher than the national average.
And 55 percent of Washingtonians believe that climate change will negatively impact them. We have no choice but to significantly reduce our carbon emissions and green house gas emissions over the next several decades.
We need to cap and lower carbon emissions over time. This will mean leaving much of the proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
But we do have choices over how we do this if we don’t let the oil and fossil fuel industry divide us with false choices over jobs and the environment.
We can have both jobs and a clean and healthy environment if we choose.
We are not going to transition off fossil fuels overnight, but we will have to, over the next several decades, if we are to stop and reverse the negative effects of climate change.
So, as labor, we need to be both on the right side of history, but we also need to be at the table planning for a successful transition rather than being served up on the menu.
As we put in place policies that reduce carbon emissions, we need to make sure that workers who work in fossil fuel-dependent industries are protected. We need to make sure that industries can actually meet carbon emission reduction levels; so we will need some compliance flexibility to ensure this happens.
We also need to prevent the leakage of jobs and investments in these industries during the transition from unfair competition from companies out of state or out of country that don’t have to meet these emission standards.
We need to protect direct line workers in fossil fuel industries and other vulnerable workers, particularly in communities of color. People who work and live closest to industrial sites and highways and whose health is most negatively impacted by carbon pollution must be protected. These workers and community members suffer rates of asthma and lung disease two to three times higher than the general public.
We need to change this. We need to invest in repairing our state’s infrastructure – from sea walls to water mains and pipelines, from the electrical grid to water storage and flood plain protection – creating tens of thousands of building trades jobs, protecting against severe weather, and lowering our carbon footprint.
We need to invest money in the renewable energy economy, taking energy efficiency to scale in our public, commercial, and residential sectors; building high speed electric rail; investing in electric car technology and infrastructure; investing in mass transit; expanding our capacity for various forms of renewable energy; and creating tens of thousands more jobs.
And we need a “Just Transition” — one that invests carbon revenue in mitigating rising energy costs. One that assists vulnerable communities, providing income and benefit support to direct line fossil fuel workers. And one that provides job and training opportunities to direct line workers and to workers in communities of color.
The late visionary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, once said, “We need to treat workers as good as dirt.”
He was referring to the new super fund created to clean up toxic waste sites. Tony believed that we should have a super fund to invest in transitions for workers so that they would not have to bear the burden of economic transition. It is important for workers to be able to maintain their wage and benefit packages and the standard of living they have struggled for and won over time.