Climate-conscious international labour leader promotes just transition for fossil-fuel industry workers

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      This week, an alarming article about the pace of climate change appeared on the Australia-based website.

      "Global warming of 1.5°C is imminent, likely in just a decade from now," wrote David Spratt. "That’s the stunning conclusion to be drawn from a number of recent studies."

      Having the average global temperature rise 1.5°C above pre-industrial times is the ultimate objective of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. It was signed by 195 countries. 

      But Spratt's article has cast serious doubts on that being achievable, let alone the agreement's more plausible goal of keeping the average temperature rise to below 2°C in this century.

      "The voluntary national emission reduction commitments since Paris now put the world on a path of 3.4°C of warming by 2100, and more than 5°C if high-end risks including carbon-cycle feedbacks are taken into account," he declared.

      At around a 2°C rise, there's a high possibility that humanity will lose control of the situation.

      That's because oceans could warm to levels that lead to huge releases of carbon dioxide; Arctic ice will recede to the point where it no longer reflects much sunlight back into the atmosphere; and large amounts of heat-trapping methane could be released from beneath permafrost at high latitudes in the Arctic.

      This would bring about far more extreme weather events, huge forest fires, and food shortages unlike anything we've seen in our lifetime.

      Sharan Burrow wants workers at the table

      This is the backdrop for a visit to Vancouver by Australian Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. She's one of the most climate-conscious labour leaders in the world.

      On the same day that Spratt's article appeared, she spoke at a labour-sponsored forum called Climate Action & Just Transition at the Creekside Community Centre.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Burrow said she started reading international climate reports in 1999 and 2000 when she was president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

      "You could see that it was a nightmare scenario—that the climate was changing," Burrow said. "It was simply something we couldn't ignore."

      She realized that a changing climate had the potential to create far more displacement for workers and have an even greater impact on communities than other wrenching transitions, such as sharply accelerated global trade and monumental shifts in the manufacturing and service sectors.

      Burrow was pleased to see that the Paris climate agreement acknowledged the necessity of "a just transition" for workers. It also called for "the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities".

      According to her, other major transitions have not been "just".

      "We now need to see it implemented," Burrow said. "And it's very simple: what it means is that workers, workers' representatives, [and] their unions must be at the table.

      "We must have a say in the design process, as well as a negotiating capacity to see that workers are looked after," she continued. "And equally, vulnerable communities [must] see reinvestment, see some hope for their future."

      She said that this has occurred successfully in Port Augusta, Australia. In this town of 14,000, former coal-fired power station staff are employed generating thermal solar energy.

      "They're a year late in getting the funding, but there are jobs in that community," Burrow stated. "There will be a renewable-energy hub and they've already got new industries being spawned, particularly agricultural opportunities in what is a desert environment."

      She noted that in Denmark, there have also been some successes as it's moved from fossil-fuel-generated power to an electricity system heavily dependent on renewables, including wind energy.

      "The Danish unions were part of the mix," she said. "Pension funds have been part of the mix. It was a transition that was effected with as little pain as possible."

      Burrow acknowledged that it's not always possible for fossil-fuel workers to continue being employed in the energy industry. However, she said if they are able to make a transition to good jobs at union rates, they can remain optimistic about the direction of their lives.

      And she believes that this will build greater consensus in mobilizing society to address the very real threat of climate change.

      "If we don't leave the bulk of fossil fuels in the ground, we haven't got a hope of managing 2°C or, that's painful," she said. "But I'm a labour leader who won't lie to our workers. The fossil-fuel era has to peak by 2020 and it has to be largely over 20 years beyond that."

      She pointed out that the Canadian government has agreed with the Canadian Labour Congress to build a "just transition task force". This is supposed to secure an agreement for the most vulnerable workers in the short term. She defined those as people working in the coal industry.

      But she said that this will have to be extended to all workers in the fossil-fuel sector—and reinvestment in their communities will have to be part of the package.

      "We can move the lens of ambition rapidly if we actually invest in greener and cleaner cities," Burrow emphasized. "It's in energy. It's in industrial technologies. It's greener services. But it must actually be just, in terms of both the transition and good jobs.

      "We're not prepared to give up on full employment," she added. "We're not prepared to give up on good union-wage-based jobs where people can build a future."