December 18, 2009 Volume 110 Number 24

Labor in the room at Copenhagen climate talks

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Workers of the world may not have a seat at the table, but they’re in the room — for the climate change talks under way in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Dec. 7-18 conference is between governments that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a non-binding UN treaty in which governments committed to measure and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The International Trade Union Confederation has observer status at the 2009 talks, and is using that opportunity to advocate a set of what it calls “just transition” principles. ITUC came to Copenhagen with a 400-strong contingent of labor unionists from around the world. The labor representatives are lobbying their official government delegations to commit to major investments in alternative energy and energy efficiency, and do so in a way that creates and maintains decent jobs. They are also calling for commitments to minimize harm to workers caused by both climate change and measures to combat it.

Heading up the 40-member U.S. labor delegation is Bob Baugh, co-chair of the AFL-CIO Energy Task Force, and former Oregon AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. [Three other Oregon trade unionists are in Copenhagen: Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Byrd, and Ron Heintzman and Jon Hunt of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).] Also present are several top U.S. union leaders, including Plumbers and Fitters General President William Hite, Laborers General President Terence O’Sullivan, and Boilermakers President Newton Jones.

The United States is one of 192 nations that signed the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but it was not a part of the later Kyoto Protocol, a binding 1997 treaty in which 37 developed countries made specific commitments to reduce greenhouse emissions to 6 to 8 percent below 1990 levels. President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto treaty, but the U.S. Senate failed to ratify it. At the time, the AFL-CIO opposed the Kyoto treaty because it did not require developing countries — chiefly China and India — to make similar commitments.

Eleven of the last 14 years have been the warmest on record. The Arctic ice cap is melting. Scientists from many fields attribute the warming to human causes — mainly the addition of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, is now present in earth’s atmosphere at over 380 parts per million, up from 315 in 1960.

Despite the efforts of some countries to meet the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise almost every year, and even the rate of increase has risen. Most European nations have reduced greenhouse gas emissions through energy efficiency and alternative energy, but their progress has been more than canceled out by the rapid industrial growth of China. This doesn’t vindicate inaction by the United States, but it does make it clear that countries like China and India will have to be included if any progress is to be made reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Getting a concrete commitment from the United States, and bringing the developing world into the process, is the heart of what’s being discussed in Copenhagen.

U.S. President Barack Obama wanted Congress to pass a bill to curb greenhouse gas emissions, so that he could take that commitment to Copenhagen.

A bill in Congress — American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 — would do that. Also known as Waxman-Markey, HR 2454 would create a cap-and-trade system. Annual caps would be placed on emissions from large sources like utilities and refineries, with the cap getting smaller each year. Businesses would be able to decide, via a market in allowances, how to make the reductions. The bill passed 219-212 in the U.S. House of Representatives June 26, with 211 Democrats and eight Republicans in support. Congressman Peter DeFazio was the only Democrat in Oregon or Washington to vote against it, explaining in a press statement that he opposed it because the cap-and-trade system would be set up as an unregulated market, susceptible to gaming by Wall Street, and also because U.S. polluters would be allowed to invest in developing country carbon-reduction projects instead of making meaningful changes in the United States.

The AFL-CIO supports the Waxman-Markey bill, for several reasons. The bill makes substantial investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, and requires that workers who do that work be paid the prevailing wage. It makes sizable investments in research and development for “carbon capture and sequestration” techniques to bury carbon dioxide rather than release it into the atmosphere, which would enable the continuation of the coal industry. And it has money for worker training, and benefits for workers who lose jobs because their employers shut down operations to comply with the law. As for the cap-and-trade market, the AFL-CIO’s Baugh says the bill’s framers took a number of the labor federation’s regulatory suggestions. Finally, it contains measures to stop “carbon leakage,” the term for what would happen if carbon dioxide limits in the United States push production to countries without similar limits: trade-exposed energy-intensive industries would get free emission allowances, and a “border adjustment” mechanism would kick in if any surge in imports occurred.

Massachusetts Democrat Sen. John Kerry is working on a companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

The president could also act independently of Congress by directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that EPA has the authority to do so under the Clean Air Act. On Dec. 7, the EPA moved to assert that authority, issuing an official finding that greenhouse gases pose a significant threat to human health. That finding lays the ground for the EPA to impose new emission standards on vehicles, power stations and industrial plants as soon as next year. And that could happen if Congress doesn’t provide a better plan.

Getting the United States to start limiting emissions is only half of the immediate challenge; the other half is getting poorer countries like China, India, and Brazil on board. China is now on par with the United States in total greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Copenhagen talks, the developing countries are negotiating in a loose coalition known as the “G77 plus China.”

The Kyoto Protocol left the developing world off the hook for the reason that rich countries could better afford the expensive transition, and could lead the way. Also, developing countries could rightly point out that most of the human-added greenhouse gas that’s now in the atmosphere was put there in the last 150 years by coal and oil burned in developed countries, and such energy consumption directly contributed to their wealth. It would be unfair, developing countries argued, for greenhouse gas restrictions to prevent their late-starting chance at prosperity.

At the Copenhagen talks, as of press time, rich countries were proposing aid of $10 billion a year to help poor nations reduce their carbon dioxide output.

“Ten billion dollars is not enough to buy us coffins,” Lumumba Di-Aping, chair of the G77 plus China group reportedly replied.

China, with one fifth the world’s population, may be the key to any global commitment. China is facing severe threats from the effects of global warming in, for example, changes to the country’s crucial river system if warming temperatures disrupt Himalayan snowmelt.

Baugh, as fierce a China critic as any when it comes to trading practices, says China may be near a breakthrough, as its leaders see the dangers of global warming and the advantages of efficiency and conversion to clean energy. The key is to get China to use its industrial might to transform its own economy, instead of depriving other countries the opportunity to make windmills and solar panels.

For the latter, a case in point occurred at the end of October, when a consortium announced plans for a $1.5 billion West Texas wind farm, with 240 turbines producing enough power for 150,000 homes. The turbines would be made in China, creating 2,000 to 3,000 jobs there. U.S. workers would get 300 temporary U.S. installation jobs and 30 permanent maintenance jobs. It would be financed by Chinese banks, but get loan guarantees and cash grants from the U.S. government, including $450 million in stimulus funds. The plan was not well-received in Washington, D.C., Baugh said.

“It created a perfect learning moment,” Baugh said. “This sure isn’t what anybody intended to happen, and there’s not a politician in the country that wants to be associated with sending half a billion dollars to China to buy wind turbines.”

Another course might be for the United States and China to move from competition to cooperation. During Obama’s November visit to China, the two sides made a series of announcements related to cooperation on climate change.

Those included: a U.S.-China Electric Vehicles Initiative designed to put millions of electric vehicles on the roads of both countries;  cooperation on large-scale carbon capture and sequestration demonstration projects; and joint research and development on clean energy by teams of scientists and engineers from both countries.

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, the European Union, Argentina, and Norway have pledged to support elements of ITUC’s “just transition” proposal. As of press time, even the U.S. negotiators were speaking in favor of it, but it wasn’t clear whether the language would be included in any final agreement to come out of the Copenhagen meeting.

Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Byrd will report back on her experience at Copenhagen at a Jan. 8 workshop sponsored by the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon. Entitled “Oregon Workers and Climate Change: Developing a Labor Agenda,” the workshop will cover the economic costs of doing nothing, what policies are most effective at curbing global warming, and what unionists can do to make sure the new “green” jobs are good jobs. The event runs 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Oregon AFSCME office in Salem, 1400 Tandem Ave. NE; call 503-412-3721 to register.

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