Climate sacrifice must start at the top 


I’ll never forget the day my daughter came home from middle school with an accusation: Dad, your generation has destroyed the planet. No, honey, I joked, it was the boomers who did that. But I could see she was anxious. She’d been learning about climate change, and was fearful about its impact on her future. Trying to comfort her, I told her climate change was real, and scary, but that we ourselves were very lucky. People in other countries would suffer its worst effects. And within the United States, they’d have tornadoes in the Midwest, wildfire and drought in California, and hurricanes in the Gulf Coast and the Eastern seaboard. We in the Pacific Northwest, a region of mild weather, might see climate refugees, but we’d be fine. 

That was five years ago. How wrong I proved to be. Fire season in the Pacific Northwest has since become an annual occasion of dread and catastrophic loss. And who thinks last year’s terrifying “heat dome” —when 116 degree temperatures scorched our trees and crops and killed 96 people—will be the last of its kind? Meanwhile we’ve got ice shelves falling into the sea, mile-wide sinkholes opening up in the tundra, and according to some reports, oceans that are warming and acidifying so quickly that I may some day hear the words, “Grandpa, what did tunafish taste like?” 

What’s so frustrating about all this is the lack of urgency, the lack of action, the lack of unity of purpose.

Living with my grandparents in the 1970s, I was an earnest and patriotic little kid, so when at age nine I learned that President Jimmy Carter was calling on citizens to do our part to solve the energy crisis, I went home and told them we needed to turn down the thermostat and take shorter showers. They did not appreciate my advice. 

They’d been through World War Two, when people willingly rationed, recycled and saved, but also knew that we were all in it together. The income tax rate on the richest Americans was 90%. The rich did their part, as well as the poor.

I think we’re going to have to return to that. There’s both sacrifice and opportunity coming, and both need to be shared. Climate jobs need to be good jobs. And climate sacrifice needs to start at the top. We can’t ask working people to pay more at the pump while billionaires are blasting off on private joy rides to outer space. In fact it’s time we did away with billionaires. We can’t afford them. Let’s put their assets toward saving the planet, issue them a receipt, and thank them for their contribution.

Up and down the labor movement that I chronicle, the conversation—about what to do about climate change, and how to ally with environmental organizations— has being going on a long time. 

Today, Barbara Dudley is on the national board of the Sunrise Movement and is also senior policy advisor for the Oregon Working Families Party. But in 1998, she left a job as national director of Greenpeace to work with John Sweeney and Rich Trumka at the national AFL-CIO— to stitch together a blue-green alliance. It didn’t get very far. 

Oregon labor will meet July 25 to discuss a blue-green alliance at a climate summit at the IBEW Local 48 union hall. The stakes are too high to do nothing. Climate change is emerging as an extinction-level threat. The way I look at it, it’s like we’re in a car speeding toward a wall, and we’ve waited too long; it’s too late to avoid a crash. But it’s not too late to put on the brakes, slow us down enough that we might survive the crash.


  1. Excellent piece, Don. Especially the part about doing away with billionaires. I’m very hopeful about this labor climate summit in July.

  2. Thank you, Don. Really moving and important. We have to figure this out together. I also am hopeful about the summit.

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