A labor report from the Paris climate summit


Dec. 12, 2015 climate change demonstration at the Champs Élysées, Paris. (Photo by Jeff Johnson)
Dec. 12, 2015 climate change demonstration at the Champs Élysées, Paris. (Photo by Jeff Johnson)

Change is coming. Will it be just? At the Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 meeting of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, foreign ministers from 195 countries hammered out a legally binding agreement to fight climate change. Behind the scenes, a small delegation of U.S. labor officials worked with union leaders from other nations to make sure workers interests were represented in the final document. Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, was one of them. The Labor Press interviewed him by phone Dec. 14, the day he returned.


You’re Washington state’s top-ranking labor leader. Why were you attending the Paris climate talks?

Our state labor movement has prioritized climate change as one of those core issues that the labor movement has to be involved in. Given the level of seriousness of climate change and the negative impacts it’s having on the world around us and on the economy, labor has to be at the table. We’re about to experience one of the largest economic transformations that will ever occur, and if we’re not at the table, we’re going to be served up as part of the meal. We’ve got to be at the table talking about how this transition to a clean energy economy occurs, how we mitigate carbon emissions, and how we adapt to climate catastrophes. In Oregon and Washington we’ve seen drought, forest fires, rapid glacier melts, and flooding, causing hundreds of millions of dollars to property, in some cases taking lives … and this is just the beginning. In Paris as I talked to trade unionists from around the world, I heard about the devastating impacts of rising sea levels, of ocean acidification, of glacier melts and droughts. We’ve already got millions of food and water refugees being created out there, and we’re going to have more.

So why is it important to labor? It’s important because everything that happens around climate is going to have an impact on communities, our health, on our jobs, and on our economy. The transition is going to happen, and we’re saying it has to be done in a fair and just manner.


At a climate change demonstration at the UN Climate Summit in Paris, Washington State Labor Council president Jeff Johnson carries a chair — one of 196 chairs taken by demonstrators from banks all over France. The chairs, one for each country taking part in the summit, were used to make the point that money from corporate tax evasion should be repurposed to fight climate change.

You mentioned you were part of a labor delegation. How did that come about, and were you inside or outside the talks?

The national AFL-CIO attends each one of these [United Nations] climate negotiation sessions. They knew I’d been doing a lot of work on climate; I put together a resolution for our convention in July that puts us on record as a labor movement supporting carbon reductions and a cap-and-invest system, working on rebuilding our infrastructure and organizing clean energy jobs. They asked whether I’d be interested in being part of the delegation, and I said ‘absolutely.’ We were fortunate that the United Nations gave us enough badges that we could go. I was really pleased that I got to go, because we got to do some heavy-duty lobbying of the U.S. delegation.


A lot of your efforts were about promoting something called “just transition.” Can you explain what that means?

It’s clear there’s a huge economic transition coming. Trying to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels by the second half of this century will necessitate that most of our coal, natural gas and oil stay in the ground. That’s going to create huge dislocations for fossil fuel workers and workers in energy-intensive trade-exposed industries, as well as their communities. Those jobs will end at some point in this century. But we have to make sure the workers in those communities are respected, so that there are income and benefit supports for those workers. so that they’re brought along, and not left behind. There have to be full retraining benefits available for these workers. If they’re close to retirement, they need a free passage to retirement, and their health and pension benefits need to be protected. And the new jobs being created need to be quality jobs where workers have a voice at the workplace and where there’s an opportunity for these jobs to be union jobs that are high-paid, not part of the Uber economy. So that’s what we’re fighting for.


So does the Paris Climate Agreement include a commitment to a just transition?

The language around just transition, decent work, quality jobs and human rights is all in the preamble — the intention part of the document, not the binding part. But I want to be truthful here: Even in the binding part of the document, right now there’s no language that enforces the ambitions they put forth to cut carbon emissions. So when you add up all the pledges that countries made to reduce carbon emissions, it adds up to a rise in global temperatures of between 3 and 4 degrees Centigrade. The operating part of the document says we’re aiming for below 2 degrees, with a desire to not let temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees,  because at 1.5 degrees, many island nations no longer exist, and many shore-lying communities, Bangladesh, possibly even Miami, no longer exist. But there’s nothing in the document that says if you don’t meet your pledge, “X” will happen. So in that context, getting just transition and human rights language into the preamble is a big historic first step.


For those who might have missed the details, what does the Paris Climate Agreement do?

Countries have made certain pledges that they will reduce carbon emissions by X percent over the next 20 to 30 years. But right now there is no formal independent or objective review process that says, “Okay, United States: You pledged X, so we’re five years into that, are you on track?” There is no mechanism to do that, and if you’re failing to meet your goal, there’s no enforcement mechanism to say you need to step it up or get penalized. So we have a ways to go yet.


So it’s not like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has muscular protections for things like corporate intellectual property rights?

No. If there were a tribunal where people could take corporations to task for not cutting their carbon emissions, that would be a very different world.


After the Paris terrorist attacks, it was announced there would be restrictions on protests at the climate talks. Did that impact what happened?

Security was very tight at the talks. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen as many police or army around. There was pretty strict control. Nonetheless, within the blue zone, which is where the talks were happening, we had several demonstrations and rallies that were tolerated and I think had some impact. I participated in the citizens summit in Montreuil, which had thousands of folks out in the streets. And then on Saturday the 12th there were easily 10,000 people in the streets on the Champs-Élysées. I thought the police did a great job. We clearly outnumbered them by quite a bit, but they stayed back and there was no attempt to shut down the rally.


Going forward, what role do you see the union movement playing in addressing climate change?

What impressed me so much was this: The level of understanding, of knowledge, of commitment to impact this economic transformation is so much higher in the trade union movement in other parts of the world than it is here in the United States. In the United States, many parts of the trade union movement are still saying, “Okay, this is real but it’s not going to happen for another 40 or 50 years; we’ve got time.” When you talk to brothers and sisters internationally, they say, “No, brother, it’s happening now, and we may be too late.” So they get it, in the international labor movement, that we have to pressure our governments, and in collective bargaining agreements with employers, to do everything we can to cut emissions. In our country, we’ve got to educate our own members that this is serious, and it’s not abstract. It shouldn’t be looked at as an inconvenience, but rather, as an opportunity to restructure the way we do economics, and a way to fight inequality.


What work do you personally expect to do now that you’re back home?

I sit on governing board of the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy in our state, and we’re contemplating a ballot initiative next year that would cap carbon and charge fees for polluters and then take that money and reinvest it in the economy. There are many steps between now and actually putting something out there on the ballot, but that’s what we’re working on. Should the decision be made not to go ahead in 2016, we’ll continue educating our own membership and the greater public about reducing carbon emissions. Our governor also has a proposed clean air rule which has a cap on carbon. They want to adopt the rule by mid-summer.


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