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Now’s not the time for small steps on climate

paris-climate-2015Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, is part of the labor delegation attending the Paris Climate Conference, advocating for policies that aggressively address climate change while providing for a “Just Transition” that invests in the communities and working families that will be hardest hit by the transition away from a fossil fuel-based economy.

Special to The Stand

PARIS (Dec. 9, 2015) — “Now is not the time for small steps” is a quote from author Naomi Klein from This Changes Everything. It seems an apt quote to put into context what should happen at the Paris climate talks but may well not. Before reporting further on activities at Le Bourget, I would like to give a few basics as background to the talks.

The Science: Carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have caused the average global temperature to rise by 0.8 degrees Celsius or 1.44 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880 (every one degree Celsius is equivalent to 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). An average of course is just that, an average. Temperature increases are different in different parts of the planet, e.g., in the Arctic, temperatures have increased between 2 to 4 degrees Celsius already.

With average global temperatures up by 0.8 degrees Celsius we are already witnessing extreme weather and changes to our planet in the form of severe droughts, floods, hurricanes, typhoons, forest fires, glacial melting, ocean acidification, and rising sea levels.

jj-paris-cop21-entranceThe Global Temperature Commitment: At the 2009 Climate Talks in Copenhagen, Denmark world leaders agreed that the average global temperature should increase by less than 2 degrees Celsius.

Many African and South Sea Island nations protested that a temperature rise of that magnitude would cause either permanent flooding of their nations or droughts that would devastate their agricultural production. They called for reducing emissions to keep temperatures from rising no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. This point is unsettled.

Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs): INDCs are the pledges that countries have made to limit the amount of carbon and GHGs they will emit into the atmosphere to keep temperatures from increasing less than 2 degrees Celsius.

When you add up all the INDC pledges of the 195 countries at COP 21 (Paris talks) the average global temperature would increase to 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). If we assume that not all of these voluntary pledges are met — the largest pledges are from the U.S., China, European Union countries, and Russia — then temperatures may rise up to 4 degrees Celsius.

That means that average temperatures would rise between 5.4 and 7.2 degrees Farenheit. In the Arctic, temperatures would rise between 14.4 and 18 degrees Fahrenheit; in the U.S. and Mediterranean countries about 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit; and about 12.6 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of Africa and the Amazon.

Life on our planet at temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius would be drastically changed with sea level rises and flooding that would leave many coastal areas and cities uninhabitable, causing a massive migration and refugee crisis — think Bangladesh (sea level) and think Miami (six feet above sea level).

Carbon Budget: Scientists have developed a carbon budget, giving us a tool to view how much carbon we are using and how much more we can burn up before hitting that 2 degrees Celsius increase. The problem is that we have about 1 trillion metric tons of carbon and GHG emissions left before we hit the 2-degree limit — then the carbon budget is spent. We currently emit about 50 billion metric tons of carbon and GHG emissions a year around the world — most of this from the U.S., China, India, the E.U., and Russia. If we keep emitting at current levels we will reach 2 degrees Celsius in 20 to 30 years.

Ambition Review: When talking about the INDCs pledged by individual countries to limit or reduce their carbon emissions, the COP 21 process speaks of a country’s ambition. One of the goals of the Paris talks, at least from the labor movement and civil society groups, is to require an ambition review before the year 2020, where countries are asked to up their level of commitments to reduce carbon and GHG emissions. The intent is to review the ambitions at least every five years to compare to the level of emissions needed to keep the global temperature below a 2-degree Celsius increase.

Financial Commitment to Fund Developing Countries: The Copenhagen Accord declared a commitment by developed countries to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to go to developing countries to reduce emissions, adapt to climate change, and for reforestation efforts. Current efforts have produced commitments of around $10 billion per year.

Just before COP 21 began, Bill Gates Jr. and a coalition of billionaires (Branson, Bezos, Zuckerberg, etc.) and 20 countries announced a project, “Mission Innovation,” to invest about $7 billion in clean energy research and development projects. The goal is to create a $20 billion annual R&D clean energy budget.

While this is commendable, the United Nations Development Programme has suggested that the 2015 financing requirements for climate adaptation in developing countries could amount to $86-$109 billion per year to adapt to a 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase.

It further predicts that emission reduction costs are expected to be in the range of $140-175 billion per year by 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, the world needs a trillion dollars a year between 2012 and 2050 to finance a low-emissions transition.

Given these numbers, it is clear that $100 billion a year is simply not enough and the billionaires club initiative is nice, but woefully inadequate.

Just Transition: In the extreme, there are no jobs on a dead planet. But there are hundreds of millions of jobs in an economy that transforms itself into a carbon emissions free economy. A Just Transition is no less than a social and economic transformation of our economy which leaves no worker and no community behind.

A Just Transition will require ending fossil fuel subsidies and redirecting public and private funding to investments in the renewable energy economy and clean energy technology. The new jobs must require the right to collectively bargain wages and condition of work.

During the transition, fossil fuel workers and workers in energy intensive trade exposed industries must be respected with job security. When the jobs end, these workers will need income, health and pension benefit support, retraining benefits, and job placement in high quality jobs. Communities that had been dependent on income from these transitioning sectors will also need assistance. Workers and communities cannot be left behind.


These are some of the issues that set the context for this year’s COP 21 talks. The enormity of the crisis that we face is nearly unfathomable. And the likelihood of COP 21 coming anywhere near to the types of systemic commitments, accountability and enforcement that will be needed for this transformation is unlikely.

But then, what’s new? It has always been the job of labor and civil society groups to push for change. The stakes couldn’t be higher. “Now is not a time for small steps.”

15-Jeff-JohnsonJeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the largest labor organization in the Evergreen State, representing the interests of more than 500 local unions and 400,000 rank-and-file union members.

ALSO see the 2015 Washington State Labor Council resolution on ​”Climate and Jobs” approved by delegates representing unions from across the state.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!