On Feb. 24, a group of Connecticut-based climate activist organizations sponsored a conference titled, “A Teach-in for a Livable World! Climate Justice Now!” One of the speakers at the West Hartford gathering was Sean Sweeney, coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, a global organization that promotes publicly-owned renewable energy resources.
Sweeney began his presentation by maintaining that many climate scientists, NGOs and trade unions have bought into the conventional wisdom that a transition to renewables is “inevitable,” especially after British climate negotiator Nicholas Stern popularized the idea that individuals and businesses must pay to pollute, and that paying more for dirty energy will “inevitably” reduce greenhouse gases.
Here, Sweeney discusses why such a trajectory has not materialized in the 20 years since the Rio climate summit, and why a transition to renewables is not inevitable going forward unless the world converts to public ownership of energy production. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended and recorded his talk and presents the following excerpts.
SEAN SWEENEY: What’s inevitable, and what role do we play in this?
So, the labor movement was attending these climate talks very much in a small minority. It’s not a top priority. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now for the labor movement, which is struggling to survive not just in this country but elsewhere. But they took the view – and I think they should be acknowledged for their role in this – that the science was important; there was no negotiating with these emission reduction trajectories – that this was necessary. And what workers’ representatives needed to do was to make sure workers didn’t get thrown under the bus by these reductions. If there were going to be reductions in emissions, that’s going to affect energy-intensive industries and that will mean workers are going to lose their jobs. So the emphasis was on “just transition” – a term that grew up in the U.S. trade union movement with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union under the leadership of the late Tony Mazzochi in the 1980s.
So, just transition was the demand, and on top of that was “green jobs,” because if we needed a low-carbon future and if aggressive science targets were necessary, that’s going to create tens of millions of jobs around the world, so we want those jobs and we want them to be good jobs. So these were the basic demands, but they never challenged the idea that the transition itself was inevitable. In fact, many union leaders said, this is gonna happen. We have to be prepared for the future, etc., etc.
Now, let’s go to 2009 and the Copenhagen accord. The U.S. with a number of other countries decided that a legally binding agreement on emissions reductions was not necessary. This was the Obama administration, not the Trump administration. Obama said that every country should put on the table a pledge, what they think they can do, and then we will review that pledge against the science. And so the Copenhagen accord changed the whole legal architecture of the global climate talks to one which was a pledge and review voluntary agreement.
So this set the stage for a rather important moment in trade union history, in my view, which was in 2012 was the 20th anniversary of the Rio Summit, the Earth Summit of 1992. In 2012, it was again in Rio and there was a big conference hall of unions, just unions, saying what are our demands of this Earth Summit. And the issue of climate change and the green economy came up, was the main focus of the trade union assembly. And something very significant happened there; I was privileged enough to be in the room. The U.N. Environment Programme, the various agencies, the World Bank, got up and addressed this trade union audience and said, “The transition to a low-carbon economy is inevitable, and all we need to do is try to make sure we have a just transition, and we can leave it to market forces to address this problem called climate change.”
The reaction was very, very angry from the group. These were mostly unions from Latin America, but there were also very many representatives from unions from around the world. And they said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The International Energy Agency has said that from 1990 to 2012 that emissions have gone up 61 percent. Now think of that in historical terms. We’re talking about a brief moment in history, 20 or so years, and emissions going up 61 percent. That was 2012. Since then they’ve continued to rise. They’ve slowed down a little bit but they’ve gone up again this year. So emissions keep going up, so where is this transition to a low-carbon economy?
The unions also said, “Everywhere we go, especially in the global South, extractionism is running rampant: fracking, drilling, mining, mountaintop removal. Extra-judicial killing, assassination of environmental and trade union leaders who oppose this agenda.” So a resolution was developed on the floor that said there needed to be a reclaiming and defense of the Commons, that the market could not produce sustainable economy or a sustainable ecological situation, and that we have to reclaim to the public what had been privatized, particularly in the energy sectors, and extractionism has to stop; there’s no point saying we can have a few incentives or market signals to get us out of this.
Meanwhile, of course, the carbon price that Nicholas Stern said was going to be introduced, was tried in Europe, and it was supposed to be in place now globally, at the level of around a hundred dollars a ton. In the ensuing 12 years, only 13 percent of global emissions are priced, and the vast majority are priced at under ten dollars a ton, which means it has – read my lips, please – no effect whatsoever on reducing emissions; the price is too low.
We need public renewable power. It’s crucially important to put forward this idea at this point in time. When we interrogate the economics of renewable power, what we see is this: the single most expensive part of it is the borrowing of capital. We need to lower the cost of capital. How do we do that? The best thing to do is not have private companies do it. (Applause)
Sean Sweeney is coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and director of the International Program on Labor, Climate and Environment at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York. The preceding talk was recorded at a Feb. 24 teach-in sponsored chiefly by 350CT.org and the Connecticut Chapter of Sierra Club. Learn more about the movement promoting publicly-owned renewable energy resources by visiting “Teach-in for a Livable World! Climate Justice Now!”; Connecticut chapter of 350.org at 350ct.org; Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club at ctsierraclub.wixsite.com/sierraclub-ct; Trade Unions for Energy Democracy at unionsforenergydemocracy.org;and the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.
This interview was previously broadcast on Feb. 28, 2018.