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Alberta carries on as the world burns

Shift Storm newsletter—May 2023 edition

June 20, 2023

7-minute read

The following is a re-print of the May 2023 edition of Shift Storm, the CCPA's monthly newsletter which focuses on the intersection of work and climate change. Click here to subscribe to Shift Storm and get the latest updates straight to your inbox.

Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes as Alberta undergoes an unprecedented early wildfire season driven in part by emissions from its own oil and gas industry.

Against that backdrop, Albertans elected a government that opposes a cap on oil and gas sector emissions—the largest source of emissions in the country—and other federal policies intended to shift Canada toward a cleaner economy.

It speaks to the province’s cognitive dissonance that neither leading candidate addressed climate change in any meaningful way during the campaign. Even as the smoke descended on cities across the province—blotting out the sun in an apocalyptic haze—discussion focused on which party would better defend and promote oil and gas production in the province.

Make no mistake: the production and consumption of fossil fuels is the primary driver of human-caused global warming. And as the global climate enters a new El Niño phase in the coming year—piling a naturally-occurring warming cycle on top of all-time highs in global emissions—we can expect global average temperatures to rise to suffocating new heights.

Pursuing genuine climate action will not cure Alberta of its wildfire woes. Hotter, drier summers are here to stay as a consequence of historical emissions. But cutting emissions now will help things from getting even worse.

Investing in the clean economy (and divesting from fossil fuels) will also set the province up for economic success in the long term. Doubling down on the fossil fuel industry merely delays the inevitable and increases the odds of a devastating economic crash in the years to come. That will be bad for everyone, but especially for the workers and communities who have nowhere else to turn.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. In this month’s newsletter, we turn our attention south of the border where workers and environmentalists have scored some major recent victories. It’s a helpful reminder that a better future is possible if we fight for it.

Storm surge: this month’s key reads

New York State passes groundbreaking public renewables legislation

The state of New York passed the Build Public Renewables Act after years of campaigning from Green New Deal advocates. In short, the legislation requires the state’s public utility—the New York Power Authority (NYPA)—to step in and build enough renewable power infrastructure to keep pace with the state’s clean energy goals. The public sector will now drive renewable investment where the private sector has consistently failed to deliver.

Moreover, the legislation includes a raft of pro-labour and just transition provisions. For example, workers hired for publicly-funded projects must be unionized. Workers displaced from the fossil fuel industry will have first crack at new green jobs. And the state will establish a dedicated fund to provide retraining as needed.

Climate justice language is baked into the bill. Indeed, failing to advance climate justice principles is grounds for dismissing an NYPA trustee or board member. In practice, that means prioritizing funding that “actively benefits disadvantaged communities” and does not violate Indigenous rights or sovereignty.

On the whole the legislation represents a stunning victory for climate justice campaigners and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America who have long pushed for a more active state role in the clean energy transition. Now that the Build Public Renewables Act is law, it becomes the new gold standard for Green New Deal-style legislation that will serve as an inspiration for other states and (hopefully) countries like Canada.

Labour organizing for a just transition heats up

The Canadian Labour Congress passed two transition-related resolutions at its recent convention. The first calls for a more ambitious national climate agenda backed by a robust just transition plan for workers. The second calls for a green industrial policy to create good union jobs in the clean economy. Although some member unions opposed the resolutions, their criticisms were generally grounded in wanting more concrete transition plans rather than opposing fossil fuel transitions in general.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees’ Ontario wing released Your Blueprint for a Green Union, a toolkit for union locals to push for climate justice. Among other strategies in the document, they recommend leveraging Joint Health and Safety Committees to raise climate issues in the workplace.

In the U.S., the United Auto Workers are withholding support for President Joe Biden’s re-election efforts until he commits to a just transition in the electric vehicle sector. Although the president’s industrial strategy has put a big emphasis on American-made zero-emission vehicles, the government has so far failed to deliver on standards that would protect and expand unionized jobs in that industry.

U.S. oil and gas workers brace for transition

A worker advocacy group called True Transition has released The Future of Energy and Work in the United States, which summarizes the findings from a survey of 1,600 blue collar oil and gas workers in the U.S. The report highlights the insecurity workers in the sector face—more than half of respondents had been previously laid off—as well as challenges related to declining wages, increased work loads and unsafe working conditions. These issues are only poised to get worse as the industry declines in the coming decades.

The report recommends some traditional transition programs, such as retraining support and retirement bridging, as well as some more interesting propositions, such as the nationalization and managed wind-down of old oil refineries. Incredibly, the 90-page report avoids any mention of the forces actually driving transition in the energy sector—namely, the climate crisis and government policies to reduce emissions. Instead, the authors dance around the curious growth of the “alternative energy” industry and the sudden need to clean up the country’s ten million oil and gas wells…

If avoiding climate talk is what it takes to get oil and gas workers on board with the energy transition, so be it. As far as I can tell, True Transition plays a similar role in the U.S. that Iron & Earth plays in Canada. These organizations are led by and engage with oil and gas workers but do not directly represent those workers like a union does. They can play an important role in amplifying worker voices to policymakers while helping a historically recalcitrant audience come to terms with climate action—even if they call it something else.

New book puts the political economy of just transition in global and historical perspective

Researchers looking for a thoughtful and comprehensive history of just transition—as well as what that history means for the fight for climate and labour justice today—would do well to begin with Just Transitions: Promise and Contestation, a new book from Colorado State University’s Dimitris Stevis.

By exploring the evolution of the just transition concept through the lens of power and justice (as opposed to a more traditional political or policy lens), the book puts an emphasis on the struggles of workers and communities to advance labour and environmental justice. And while Stevis is principally concerned with workers in the United States, the book also charts the globalization of the just transition movement beginning in the early 2000s and culminating with the recent proliferation of just transition priorities through international institutions such as the United Nations.

Among other useful insights, Stevis highlights how labour and environmental movements are often constrained by the (neo)liberal economies they operate within. Even where “just transition” policies are won, such as improved income security or support for retraining, they rarely challenge the underlying power of capital vis-à-vis labour. Workers should take their wins where they can, but we shouldn’t give up on just transition’s potential for more radical change.

Research radar: the latest developments in work and climate

North America needs more skilled tradespeople. A feature in the New Yorker, “The Great Electrician Shortage,” puts a human face on the looming problem of too few young people entering key fields for the clean economy. Canada faces similar trends and challenges. In particular, we do a poor job of making those jobs desirable and accessible to members of historically marginalized groups, including racialized workers, immigrants and, as Memorial University’s Camille Ouellet Dallaire explains in a recent op-ed, women.

Minneapolis drafts plan to advance local climate justice. The city of Minneapolis, Minnesota has published a draft Climate Equity Plan. While most major North American cities now have climate plans of their own, few have centred equity considerations like this. For example, the Minneapolis plan recognizes that lower-income and racialized communities tend to have elevated levels of air pollution, and it thus focuses clean air initiatives on those neighbourhoods in place of generic, city-wide programs. Canadian cities should follow suit.

A just transition for UK workers requires a comprehensive action plan. The UK’s Climate Change Committee, an independent advisory body to the government, published A Net Zero Workforce, which provides a thorough overview of the risks and opportunities for workers in the UK’s transition to net-zero emissions. While the transition will create more jobs than it destroys in the UK—a conclusion that holds true for Canada, too—about a fifth of current British workers will be directly impacted in the process. The committee calls for a “net zero skills action plan” to formalize the UK’s just transition approach.

U.S. clean energy jobs poised to boom. Speaking of net jobs, new modeling from a team of American academics finds that the net-zero transition in the U.S. will be similarly positive for workers in the aggregate. Indeed, the share of energy workers in the overall U.S. workforce will rise from 1.5% today to as much as 5% by mid-century. Whether those jobs are good jobs, however, depends on proactive planning and workforce development policies, like the ones we are seeing in New York State.

A new vision for a clean and independent Africa. Power Shift Africa, a Kenyan-based think tank, published Just Transition: A Climate, Energy and Development Vision for Africa, a thorough and ambitious plan for advancing social, economic and environmental priorities all the while distancing the continent from its colonial past. In place of predatory finance from multinational corporations and rich countries, the plan calls for public ownership of the clean economy backed by international reparations. It calls on rich countries to pay compensation both for the harmful legacy of colonialism and for their disproportionate share of historical greenhouse gas emissions.

UN calls on renewable energy companies to help advance a just transition for workers. The UN Global Compact, a voluntary global framework for sustainable finance, released Just Transition and Renewable Energy. The brief lays out ten recommendations for businesses in the renewables industry, including the need to proactively diversify the workforce and to advocate for stronger climate policies. It all sounds good, but will businesses listen in the absence of regulation?

Upcoming webinar celebrates Indigenous climate leadership. Register now for “Honouring Indigenous Climate Leadership,” an event to showcase Indigenous-led climate work hosted by the Canadian Climate Institute and Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources. It takes place June 15th.

That’s it for this month! If you found this newsletter helpful, tell a friend or a colleague to subscribe. And if you think we missed something or have any other feedback, please get in touch with your suggestions.

Until next time…

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