Justice for All: Climate Change and the Energy Economy

The TakeAway: It’s time for us to reach across social and cultural divides to kickstart our economy and advance the cause of justice. One way of doing that is to address fear and mistrust head-on, and then work together to encourage more investment and follow-through in the energy economy—especially the job-generating Better Buildings Initiative.

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tireless efforts for simple justice—not just racial, but economic. So it’s a good occasion to celebrate continuing efforts to bring about economic justice, and contemplate what we, the people, can do to advance it. That’s why last week’s powerful speech by AFL-CIO chief Rich Trumka continues to resonate, especially when he said: “The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the ‘green economy’ will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.”

Amidst the political gridlock and troubling gaps between the rich and everyone else, Trumka’s remarks snapped everyone to attention and hammered home a message that helps loosen the lock and build a bridge. He appeared before a gathering at the United Nations of roughly 500 global investors and financial players concerned about climate risk. (The speech, which was streamed live, can be viewed online[1]). His remarks drew a standing ovation from the assembly, who together control $20 trillion and hail from four continents. They were in New York for the 5th Investor Summit on Climate Risk and Energy Solutions, an annual affair co-hosted by Ceres, United Nations Foundation, and the United Nations Office for Partnerships (UNOP).

Trumka’s speech occurred near the end of a day packed with practical information on new ideas and financial products for scaling climate and energy solutions, how to make the clean energy transition in both the developed world and emerging economies, and how the financial community can influence social policy. The Investor Summit was capped by the release of the 2012 Investor Action Plan on Climate Change Risks and Opportunities, a 5-point manifesto for managing and integrating climate considerations into portfolio decision making—including the selection of investment managers, greater investment in low-carbon / energy efficiency solutions, and integration of water risk and opportunities.

But it was Trumka’s talk that dazzled, because he called upon investors, workers, environmentalists, and policy makers to remember the 99 percent and the need for shared respect in forging a new national commitment to economic recovery and sustainability. His words underscored the critical importance for those of us working in the corporate governance, social responsibility, and sustainability space to do a better job engaging and enlisting the general public in building a better world. And they served up examples of innovative partnerships on the energy efficiency front, particularly the Obama administration’s Better Buildings Initiative and “We Can’t Wait” jobs campaign that’s been joined by the Clinton Global Initiative and involves a mix of public, private, and nonprofit sector organizations.[2] More on that later. First, let’s go back to the speech.

A Call to Conscience and Do “Just One Thing”

Trumka spoke about tackling the threat of climate change as a means of putting America back to work, a mission that not only would build a healthier world but a healthier world economy. He then explained why we’re not acting fast enough, and what needs to be done to meet “the greatest national challenge” since World War II. His comments were both personal and prophetic, drawing on principles of fairness and the common good to make a case for dialogue and respectful collaboration, which can grow into collective action.

He reminded me, a non-Catholic, about Catholic social teaching on economic justice, the preferential option for the poor, and the need for everyone to get involved in building a better world. Not only was he introducing moral considerations into economic decision making. He also was exhorting his well-heeled audience to reach out to plain people, to have empathy and work go from there in a spirit of collaboration and shared purpose. That’s what Dr. King stood for, too, because the power of many can move mountains.

But I also think Trumka’s call to action can be embraced not only by those at the U.N. to whom he was directing it. It also can prompt average people to do just one thing – maybe even two or three things – to help reverse the view that addressing climate change is a distraction from solving the jobs problem. As such it’s a perfect illustration of what this “Getting Off the Couch” series seeks to accomplish: encouraging everyone to do just one thing, at least one thing, something within reach that makes sense to them, to reassert power in individual ways that, when you put them all together, can revitalize our representative system of self-governance (both public and private) while advancing accountability, sustainable prosperity and justice.

Climate Deniers and the Politics of Fear

Trumka posed and answered two conjoined questions: Why should we focus on climate change when (a) so many believe it’s a “far off problem” and (b) we’ve got so many other pressing economic problems? I hear the same thing from some of my friends who continue to believe bizarre weather patterns are due to El Niño or some other natural cause, or maintain that environmentalists are tree-hugging elitists who don’t know about the day-to-day struggles of working – or unemployed – people.

His answer to the first: “I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.”

His answer to the second: “Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and  power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.”

Then Trumka zeroed in on one of the biggest hurdles blocking the march to justice: the fear that one’s way of life will disappear forever, stolen by strangers; the defensiveness and mistrust, the sense that “the fix is in”, that prevents any constructive collective action. I saw this dynamic during my involvement with the Boston Public Schools desegregation effort: the fear and defensiveness in white neighborhoods that powers greater than they were out to destroy them. While there’s never a doubt in my mind that the cause of racial justice is grand and good, I learned then – and later, in the 1980s, during my work in the South Africa divestment / divestiture movement – that you need to empathize with your opponent and disarm fear before you have a prayer of getting beyond it.

“Half of the electrical power in the United States comes from coal. This has been true for years,” Trumka told the U.N. gathering. “People I grew up with dig the coal that lights the lights and heats the buildings all across this country today.

The world we know exists because coal miners go down to the mines. But the carbon emissions from that coal, and from oil and natural gas, and agriculture, and so much other human activity, causes global warming, and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now.

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say ‘End Coal’…It’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants.

But when these folks hear ‘End Coal’, it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the ‘green economy’ will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.” [Emphasis added]

The way out of this, he said, is for everyone to get involved, to work together to make a difference. “If we are going to build an innovative, sustainable, climate friendly American economy, if we are going to rebuild, restore, modernize or replace everything we inherited in just 30 years, we are going to need the energies, talents, passion and hard work of more than some regions or some Americans,” Trumka  said. “The job we have to do is too big. We need the skill and effort of all of us.

Our enemy in this great challenge, as always, is fear.  Sometimes it seems like fear, and the power of money, has paralyzed our government.  But the antidote to fear is trust.

So how can all Americans sit down together and develop trust?  I think it begins with a commitment—a challenging and difficult commitment—that we are going to measure our approach not by how well it fits the needs of the well-positioned.  We must ask ourselves, “How well does this pathway serve the least, the hardest to reach, the most likely to be left behind?”  Places like West Virginia and the Ohio Valley must come first, not last.”

His remarks took aim at those who argue for progressive policies without considering the immediate impact on those whose livelihoods are enmeshed in the status quo. “Too often, we have failed to consider who bears the cost of change and ensure that change is managed fairly and respectfully,” Trumka said. “And when we do that, no matter how important the reasons might seem, we sacrifice the chance to build the power to move forward.

The only way for our democracy to act is for those who care about climate change to engage with the people whose livelihoods are tied up with carbon emissions.  All of us—investors, companies, workers, environmental activists, governments—need to be part of this dialogue. Any other approach to addressing climate risk is not just fundamentally unfair, it simply won’t work in our democracy.”

Tangible Actions, Bipartisan Appeal

Trumka then went on to tell the Investor Summit audience that the labor movement stands ready, willing, and able to address problems of climate change because it means “putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy—one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.” In addition to public policy making, he described various initiatives in which the AFL-CIO is engaged, including its Housing Investment Trust energy efficient retrofits of multifamily housing; partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative’s (CGI) Better Buildings Challenge launched in June, affecting retrofits, transportation, and infrastructure; and the AFL-CIO involvement in the aforementioned Better Buildings Initiative (BBI) initiated by President Barack Obama last February.

Of course, these alone are not enough. We also need responsible, comprehensive public policy. “It was through just such a process of [policy] dialogue that the AFL-CIO came to endorse the House Climate Bill in 2009,” Trumka said. “But it is clear that as long as Congress is effectively controlled by climate change deniers, all of us—investors, companies, workers and the broader public—must take action ourselves. So a year ago, as the climate bill failed in Congress, as the jobs crisis deepened, and as workers’ pension funds continued to suffer from microscopic fixed income yields, the American labor movement decided we couldn’t wait—we had to act to help advance profitable, risk weighted investments that would create jobs and address climate change.”

It seems to me that you don’t have to be a union member to support these efforts. I think each of us can encourage our cities and towns, our hospitals, museums, and schools, and the local companies we rely on for various goods and services to support them, too. We have civic power and consumer power, and can use these to fight climate change and build the energy economy in ways that benefit us all—once we get over the fear factor. We needn’t rely on experts or public officials or labor leaders to do that job alone.

First announced by President Obama last February, the Better Buildings Initiative is a package of administrative actions, legislative proposals, and the Better Buildings Challenge to the private sector (the Challenge is spearheaded by former President Bill Clinton).  The Better Buildings Initiative is committed to achieving 20% more energy efficiency in commercial and industrial buildings by 2020 while accelerating public-private partnerships. In 2011 President Obama traveled the country touting the plan, which could create up to 114,000 new jobs, according to a report released last June that was based on research conducted by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI).

Over 9 month, the Better Buildings Initiative had done so well in eliciting preliminary commitments that in December, President Obama boosted funding to $4 billion over two years. These commitments now include nearly $2 billion in financing support from nearly 60 property owners (corporations, hospitals, financial institutions, cities and states, colleges and universities) representing nearly 1.6 billion square feet. It also includes another $2 billion to retrofit all Federal buildings through the use of Energy Savings Performance Contracts, at no cost to taxpayers. (Performance-based contracts rely on long-term energy savings to pay for up-front costs; in essence, energy service companies and utilities conduct energy upgrades and guarantee savings from the improvements.)

And, even better in this polarized age, the Obama initiative is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because it generates jobs and “increases our energy security”. In fact, President Clinton and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue joined President Obama at the December announcement.

Justice for All: Climate Change and the Energy Economy

Trumka closed his speech by stating that the AFL-CIO is ready to lead “honest, constructive dialogue between workers and their communities and environmental advocates, between investors and companies can forge pathways to fair and politically sustainable change.” Doing this, he said, means working together with others “to shape a process for how we are going to address climate risk by putting America back to work, how we are going to build a smart grid and retool our vehicle fleet, catch up with our foreign competitors on high speed rail and wind and solar, retrofit coal plants and commercial buildings and modernize industry, how we are going to help communities prosper when coal plants and mines are closed, how we are going to create jobs for out of work construction workers—jobs that build America’s competitiveness, while we turn our nation’s economic future in a low carbon emissions direction.

And so I am closing with a proposal that all of us sit down together on the basis that we live on one planet, and that we share a common humanity that requires respect for each others’ families and communities.

In particular we need dialogue between environmentalists and workers and communities about the future of coal. About what the global labor movement calls a Just Transition to a low carbon emissions economy. And the AFL-CIO is ready to host that dialogue.

Addressing climate risk is the path to a competitive, profitable future for investors, but the path is only open if it is a path to an economy that works for the 99% who seek good jobs, economic security and healthy communities—not just in New York, but in Nemacolin, and in countries around the world, from Australia to Poland to South Africa to China, countries that face the same issues and share the same climate with you and me.

I think Dr. King would agree. The question is, do we—and what shall we do to act?

[1] Click on “Investor Summit Webcast Part Two (Afternoon)”; Trumka begins his speech about 14 minutes into the the session.

[2] I dislike sectoral distinctions, because I think they’re artificial, misleading (as my old friend Barry Stein writes), and in this day and age, a vehicle for absolving all organizations of their civic duty. Until we have a better vocabulary – and that day is coming soon, I think, to describe the convergence of organizational types and values – I’ll use these terms, reluctantly.



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