May 13, 2007
The reality of global warming and its catastrophic consequences are today beyond debate. But American labor is caught in an internal stalemate among those who fear job loss from efforts to deal with global warming, those who have not considered global warming an important union issue, and those who see the climate crisis as a call for immediate action and an opportunity for sustainable economic development. Labor will confront critical issues to which it must respond at the bargaining table and in the public policy arena. Indeed, organized labor plays a critical role in funding and supporting progressive political action in the United States. Resolving this conflict constructively is a crucial step in developing a new American politics that will do what is necessary to reduce greenhouse gasses – a necessity that is just as important for working people as for everybody else. GLS begins a series of blogs to help frame a new debate on labor’s role in the climate change debate.
It’s not every day that employees risk the wrath of their superiors to blow the whistle on acts of public irresponsibility. So it must have been something important that led union representatives for more than 10,000 workers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to petition Congress to take immediate action against global warming. Their warning should serve as a clarion call not only to the Congressional committee to whom it was addressed, but to American workers and their unions. They wrote:
We, the undersigned, are Presidents of 22 Local Unions representing over 10,000 United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) environmental engineers, environmental scientists, environmental protection specialists and support staff. We are writing to protest the lack of progress in addressing global warming.
The EPA unions point out that the effects of global warming, far from being hypothetical, are already at hand.
The impacts of global warming are clear: scientists have observed that, in general, sea levels have risen, glaciers are shrinking, there are abnormally large changes in the range and distribution of plants and animals, trees are blooming earlier, growing seasons are lengthened, ice on rivers and lakes is freezing later and breaking up earlier, and the permafrost is thawing.
They argue that the need for action is urgent.
As environmentalists and public health advocates, we assure you that we do not have more time to wait for more evidence about the speed of future warming and then take even more time to decide whether, and how much, to limit emissions. If we wait, we will be committing the next generation of Americans to approximately double the current global warming concentrations, with the associated adverse impacts on human health and the environment.
This requires change.
Although the United States announced a comprehensive strategy to reduce the GHG [greenhouse gas] intensity of the American economy by 18 percent over the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012, the Federal government is using primarily voluntary and incentive-based programs to reduce the bulk of the emissions.
But “the voluntary and incentive-based programs to encourage the reduction in GHG emissions are not enough.” Congressional leaders must “support a vigorous program of enforcement and reduction in GHG emissions” and “research programs aimed at abating global warming through direct, cost-effective technological intervention.” And they must support “policies and regulations that reduce GHG emission sources, in line with the principles of the Kyoto Protocol.”
The petition added a peculiar-sounding plea:
We request that Congress mandate that U.S. EPA inform the public about their ‘right to know’ regarding the current technology that is available to control carbon emissions from coal-electric plants under review [and] allow U.S. EPA’s scientists and engineers to speak frankly and directly with Congress and the public regarding climate change, without fear of reprisal.
Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which helped publicize the effort, helps explain the peculiar request:
Professionals working for the Environmental Protection Agency are protesting being ordered to sit on the sidelines while we face the greatest environmental challenge of our generation,” stated, noting that the petition began among agency staff. “Under a new Congress, perhaps the scientists at EPA can begin to directly communicate with their true employers – the American public.
This extraordinary act of worker and union responsibility comes in response to a historic irresponsibility on the part of American business and the American government.
Early in 2007, the AFL-CIO weblog published an article headed “Exxon Mobil Secretly Funds Efforts to Deny Global Warming” by Managing Editor Tula Connell. It quotes a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists revealing that Exxon “gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in an effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming.”
According to the weblog, the report found the company “has adopted the tobacco industry’s disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue.”
Exxon “funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings; attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for ‘sound science’ rather than business self-interest; used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming.”
The efforts to prove that global warming isn’t happening, or that it isn’t the result of human actions, or that its effects will be negligible, or that nothing can or should be done about it, have now all been discredited. More and more people in the U.S. and worldwide are heeding the clarion call issued by the EPA workers. Yet few labor trumpets have so far joined that call. The next article in this series will examine the ambiguous role American labor has played so far in the great debate over global warming.
Subsequent articles in this series will examine why and how labor can let its trumpets be heard.