Environmentalists, workers seek common ground
The nation’s largest labor unions are ready and willing to help fight global warming, but are cautioning environmentalists that workers need new clean-energy jobs before existing industries are shut down.
The four-day Power Shift conference in Pittsburgh, which concludes today, is training young people to stop coal mining, fracking for oil and gas, and nuclear power, but organizers also want workers to join the battle against climate change.
Union leaders say their workers want to help build a new, green economy.
“Global warming is here, and we can work and get it fixed together,” United Steel Workers president Leo Gerard said Friday night.
But other labor groups note that while they share the same long-term clean energy goals with environmentalists, there are challenges.
“It’s not just as simple as ‘No Fracking’” or other bans, said Tahir Duckett, an AFL/CIO representative who spoke at a Saturday Power Shift panel that sought to promote dialogue between environmentalists and workers.
Duckett said workers need new jobs to make a transition to clean energy, noting that shutting down industries such as coal “can turn entire communities into a ghost town. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend like people aren’t fighting for their very survival.”
Richard Fowler, a Power Shift moderator, said that instead of talking about a “ban” on a particular industry, environmentalists should talk about solutions that provide jobs.
“That’s what is missing,” said Fowler, a radio host and member of Generational Alliance, a Washington, D.C., based coalition of community youth groups. “It’s always a ban, or a fix, or a cap, or a trade” instead of just straight-up campaigns to build cleaner energy sources like wind and solar.
The overwhelming consensus among top scientists from around the world is that they’re about as certain global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill, and pollution from fossil fuels is the biggest problem.
The organizers of Power Shift say a green economy is the only way to head off catastrophic global warming and build a healthier future for everyone, including workers and their families. Pittsburgh was chosen for the biannual conference partly because it’s at the crossroads of old and new energy. The city itself has banned fracking, yet the surrounding county recently signed a huge drilling lease for land under the Pittsburgh International Airport. Western Pennsylvania is also the birthplace of the oil and steel industries, but tech firms are attracted by students from Carnegie Mellon University and other schools.
Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said their goal is to simultaneously decrease pollution from existing fossil fuels and increase clean energy, “while taking care of workers in the process.”
“We have to begin replacing old, outdated, dirty fossil fuel projects with energy efficiency and clean energy,” Brune said. “We’re talking about a massive transition, with millions of people who will be affected.”
The Power Shift conference is organized every two years by the Washington, D.C.-based Energy Action Coalition, with support this year from groups including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, 350.org and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.