Uniting the Labor Movement Behind Clean Energy

There’s plenty going on in the Trump campaign to keep voters’ attention on the growing split in the Republican party. But there are also signs of serious divisions in the Democratic party, and I’m not just referring to the tensions between the Sanders and Clinton camps, although these certainly could dampen voter turnout in November.

Even as the Democrats struggle to find a way to bring progressives and centrists together, a fault line has emerged in the labor movement between the building trade unions and the AFL-CIO. As the Washington Post reported last month, the building trade unions attacked a new labor partnership led by the AFL-CIO with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, whose opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline upset unions that viewed the project as an important source of new construction jobs.

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The primary source of the conflict is a new super PAC called For Our Future that Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, is establishing in conjunction with the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the American Federation of Teachers (AFT); and the National Education Association (NEA).

The PAC, according to a spokesperson for Steyer, will provide an important vehicle to “help elect progressive leaders who are committed to a just transition to a clean energy economy.”

The fixation of the building trade unions on fossil fuel energy in general and the Keystone XL pipeline in particular overlooks the jobs potential of building the clean energy infrastructure necessary to avoid runaway global warming. Furthermore, there is a pressing need to rebuild our country’s civil infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water systems, and schools, And what about making our cities climate resilient, especially along the coasts? An enormous number of construction jobs would be generated, and none of this even involves what a transition to clean energy would generate in the way of new job opportunities.

In addition, federal borrowing rates are at historic lows (near zero) and the federal deficit has declined dramatically since the early years of the Obama administration, so there’s really no excuse for the country not to be undertaking the kinds of public works projects that were so widespread in the 1930s.

The main difference between now and the 1930s, of course, is that the Republicans are in control of the House and Senate and they are dead set against the federal government borrowing the money necessary to fund these projects. They continually raise the alarm about the federal debt to GDP ratio even though there is no real consensus about what constitutes a “safe zone.” See here for more details. We could take a lesson from the Chinese government, which doesn’t even put infrastructure spending in the deficit total because they consider it to be an asset, not a liability.

At any rate, there are plenty of construction jobs to be had with the right national policies in place, many more than will be lost if we stop building pipelines and fossil fuel power plants. In order for this happen, of course, the different wings of the labor movement have to get on the same page. There’s no getting around that fact; if it doesn’t happen, the political consequences will be dire. It’s clearly another reason why the 2016 elections will mark a critical turning point in the nation’s path to the future.

Hope and Despair as 2015 Draws to a Close

Things can feel pretty bleak on a gray, rainy afternoon in late December as one considers the impact our greenhouse gas emissions will have on the planet for the generations ahead. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that we are making progress.

Although it certainly has its flaws, including the lack of any legally binding commitments, the climate agreement reached in Paris earlier this month by nearly 200 countries is historic, marking the most significant progress yet made in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After years of obstructionism, the U.S. actually played a positive role in the Paris talks. In the run up to COP 21, President Obama set the tone for the negotiations by exercising his executive authority to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and announcing the Clean Power Plan, a crucial step to reduce carbon pollution from power plants

At the same time, China is moving forward decisively to reduce emissions from coal and renewable energy has become an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels. Government investigations into Exxon’s cover up of its own climate research have clearly put the oil industry on the defensive and the divestment movement gathers increasing momentum.

Closer to home, as the talks in Paris got underway, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a directive that 50 percent of electricity generated in our state come from renewable technologies by 2030. This mandate sends a strong signal that New York needs to accelerate its transition to renewable energy.

In the last 10 years, New York’s renewable energy has increased from about 19 percent to 25 percent of total electricity use. The state’s renewable portfolio standard, which expires today, helped make this possible. Now the challenge is clear: we need double the share of renewable energy to 50 percent in the next 15 years.

The Road to and from Paris

All eyes are on the upcoming climate talks in Paris. Set to begin November 30, the UN Climate Change Conference is widely viewed as the last chance for a substantive international agreement to head off runaway climate destabilization. It seems likely that a deal will be struck, but the real question is whether it will be enough to do the trick.

Over the past several months, about 150 countries — including China, the United States, the European Union, and India — have made voluntary pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020, when the deal is supposed to take effect. Negotiations in Paris will seek to build upon those commitments and create a structure to monitor and strengthen them.

The major problem facing negotiators is that the commitments made so far are not sufficient to hold the world under 2 degrees C of warming. The general scientific consensus is that anything over 2 degrees C runs the risk of triggering dangerous changes that could cause global havoc.

This news comes as a flurry of new reports remind us that the road we are on currently will lead to disaster and that changes already underway will have terrible consequences, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations, the poor, young, old, and sick, to say nothing of other nonhuman species, many of which are vital to the health of the world’s ecosystems.

A study issued just days ago by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, warned that greenhouse gas emissions will cause a dramatic collapse of the ocean’s marine life unless we reverse course. A massive coral bleaching event that is sweeping across oceans from Hawaii to India to the Caribbean is among several developments underscoring the report’s findings.

Another recently published analysis estimates that, given carbon emissions to date, the world has probably committed to at least 1.6 meters of long-term sea-level rise, more than five feet. This level of locked-in increase will submerge most of the homes in over 400 U.S. towns and cities, including New Orleans and Miami. Among cities tbat will experience similar fates if they do not take drastic action soon are New York City, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville.

Even as scientists point out that we have already experienced a global temperature rise of almost 1 degree C since the Industrial Revolution, many of them maintain that the worst effects of global warming can still be avoided. “The climate change problem is one that can be solved,” insists climate expert Professor Chris Field of Stanford University. “We have the technologies, the resources – we just need to make the commitment.”

The rapid drop in the cost of producing wind and solar energy is certainly among the most hopeful developments. As a result, the International Energy Agency earlier this month projected that by 2020, 26 percent of the world’s energy will be generated by renewable sources. That’s definitely good news.

The talks in Paris will make it clear whether we can avoid pushing the temperature up another 1 degree C. If not, the road from Paris will be much more difficult than anything we have had to deal with on the road to Paris. Let’s hope that our leaders recognize this and act accordingly.

Getting from Here to There

2014 turned out to be a momentous year for the climate protection effort, culminating in the historic march on September 21 in New York City that brought more than 400,000 people, including many from Tompkins County, to join in a demand for action from world leaders. The news on November 12 that the U.S. and China, which together account for 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, had struck a deal to limit these emissions suggested that perhaps they were listening.

Then, on December 17, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his administration would ban fracking in the state largely because of concerns over risks to the public’s health. The watershed decision came after years of citizen activism insisting that the state should leave its considerable fossil fuel reserves in the ground because of the threats fracking posed to the air, water, and soil of its communities.

The call for leaving carbon in the ground also came from a rapidly growing divestment movement. Beginning with students at U.S. colleges and universities, the movement soon encompassed, among others, higher education institutions in Scotland and Australia as well as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, and Ithaca’s Park Foundation. As a result of this campaign, according to Fossil Free, more than $50 billion in assets have been divested so far. Building on this momentum, 350.org and its partners have begun organizing a Global Divestment Day for February 13-14, 2015. Stay tuned.

At the same time, renewable energy rapidly gained traction throughout the world. As the year wound to a close, reports out of Germany indicated that the country had generated a record 25 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources during 2014, with wind and solar leading the way. On May 11, almost 75 percent of Germany’s overall electricity needs were met by renewable energy.

All of these impressive developments, however, took place against the backdrop of a rapidly worsening outlook for the planet’s climate. According to climate scientists, all indications are that 2014 will be the hottest year on record for the planet, marking 38 years in a row of higher-than-average temperatures.words,

In Rebecca Solnit’s words,”It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here.” But, she notes, that’s how it felt to lots of ordinary 18th-century Europeans when they contemplated overthrowing the divine right of kings and becoming citizens rather than subjects. It takes sustained, concentrated effort on the part of lots of people working together to create a new reality.

Closer to home, Cornell’s purchase of community-owned wind power, the doubling of residential solar power in Tompkins County, the growing recognition that economic development and greenhouse gas emission reductions are not mutually exclusive, and new initiatives to make our commercial buildings more energy efficient all serve as examples of how to build this new reality. May those examples continue to multiply and grow in 2015.

“Hope is a Verb With Its Sleeves Rolled Up”

Since its founding six years ago, TCCPI has advanced the notion that the only effective way for communities to fight climate change is by working together. The many challenges we face in dealing with climate mitigation and adaptation can only be met if we break out of our silos and work across sectors.

The achievement of “emerging district” status for Ithaca is a good example of what can be accomplished when we collaborate. Made up of business, local government, and nonprofit leaders who are committed to reducing the carbon footprint of their buildings, the Ithaca 2030 District seeks to foster the establishment of performance benchmarks, the collecting and sharing of data, and the dissemination of best practices in the areas of energy conservation and energy efficiency.

Through the collaboration of diverse stakeholders, leveraging existing and developing new incentives and financing mechanisms, and creating and sharing joint resources, the Ithaca 2030 District will demonstrate the business case for healthy and high performing buildings.

Solar Tompkins is another terrific example of what can happen when we work together toward a common goal. Director Melissa Kemp recently announced that the program has exceeded its target,
enrolling nearly 1,300 families in the program. The initiative aims to double the amount of solar-panel electricity generated in the county. The deadline for enrollees to decide if they want to go solar is October 1, and already 120 have done so. In order to stimulate the growth of solar adoption in the County, Solar Tompkins is selling photovoltaic (PV) solar panel arrays at well below market rate. A typical residential 7,000-watt system could cost only $6,216 through the program once all of the tax credits and rebates are taken into account, according to Kemp.

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up,” David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, often likes to say. The continuing news about the onset of significant climate disruption could easily lead to despair and paralysis. But by local citizens and institutions coming together on projects such as the Ithaca 2030 District and Solar Tompkins, and rolling up our sleeves for the long haul, we make it possible to build a more sustainable future for Tompkins County.

Not Just Renewable Energy

The day after attending the anti-fracking concert in Binghamton featuring Natalie Merchant and the Horse Flies, I ran across a new report published by the American Meteorological Society concluding that the ice covering Lake Ontario in the winter had decreased by 88 per cent over the last forty years. Eighty-eight percent. That’s a big number.

Yes, smaller cyclical climate patterns like El Nino and El Nina were responsible for some of this decline but so, too, was the broad trend of global warming. Lake Superior was so free of ice this past winter that a local ferry north of Ashland, Wis., operated all season, something that has happened only once before.

One of the speakers at the concert called on the audience to not only oppose Marcellus drilling but also support the development of renewable energy. “Energy efficiency, too,” I thought to myself. Solar, wind, and geothermal by themselves will not be enough to manage the risk of runaway climate change. And climate adaptation and resilience must be tackled, given the amount of change already baked in. And then there are issues of local food security, alternative transportation, and waste, all being addressed in the Get Your GreenBack Tompkins (GYGB) campaign.

So much work to do; it can all seem more than a little overwhelming. But then every generation has work to do. In many ways, we are fortunate that what Thomas Berry calls “the Great Work” of our time is so well defined. We know what we must do to make sure the generations after us have clean water, clean air, healthy food to eat, and families that thrive. As Natalie Merchant sang that wonderful evening in Binghamton, “These are the days you’ll remember.”

From “Egosystem Awareness” to “Ecosystem Awareness”

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra once declared.[i] He wasn’t talking about climate change, but he could’ve been. Eight out of the nine hottest years on record worldwide, including last year, have occurred since 2000. The rate of the Arctic summer melt is accelerating at an astonishing pace and the latest reports now predict that we could have ice free summers in the Arctic as early as 2015.

Scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced this past May that for the first time in human history the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 ppm. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, over three million years ago. To top it off, a paper just published in Nature predicts that by mid-century over half the planet will be experiencing average temperatures equivalent to the hottest days recorded since 1860.[ii]

As bad as this news is, and it is bad, there is some really good news on the clean energy front. According to a recent flurry of studies, we have the ability with existing technology to get 80-100 percent of our power from wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources, and prevent runaway climate change, far worse than what is already locked in, from taking place. A 2011 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, concluded that already existing technologies could, in combination, make up almost 80 percent of our energy supply by 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third from business-as-usual projections.[iii] Earlier this year, Stanford and Cornell researchers issued a detailed analysis explaining how wind, water, and solar power could replace all fossil fuels in New York State in an economically viable way if the external health and environmental costs are taken into account.[iv] In both cases, the message is the same: the critical missing components are the policies necessary to drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

At another, deeper level, of course, climate destabilization is more than a physical problem to be solved by technology or a policy problem to be solved by politics. It is, in Malcolm Bull’s words, “an ethical problem that necessarily requires moral solutions.”[v] The real question is not so much whether we have the technical ability or the political will to slow down the rate of global warming but whether we have the capacity to expand our moral imagination so that we can grasp the importance of doing so.

Transforming our exploitation of Earth into a relationship that is mutually beneficial must be at the core of this enlarged moral imagination. We need to move from what Otto Scharmer calls “egosystem awareness to ecosystem awareness.” In Scharmer’s words, “we have to open up, let go of the past, and tune in to what we feel is a field of future possibility, something that might be possible, something that we could bring into reality, a future that would be very different from the past.”[vi] Unless we act now to make this shift to “ecosystem awareness,” devoting ourselves to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, we will become, as Thomas Berry writes, “impoverished in all that makes us human.”[vii]


A longer version of this post was originally published in Second Nature’s The Implementer newsletter in November 2013.

[i] Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said (New York: Workman Publishing, 1989), pp. 118-19.

[ii] Tia Ghose, “NASA: 2012 Was 9th Hottest Year on Record Worldwide,” Live Science, January 15, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/26277-nasa-2012-ninth-hottest-year.html.; Nafeez Ahmed, “White House Warned on Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral,” The Guardian, May 2, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/02/white-house-arctic-ice-death-spiral; John Vidal, “Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Set to Pass 400 ppm Milestone,” The Guardian, April 29, 2013. http://www.guardiannews.com/environment/2013/apr/29/global-carbon-dioxide-levels; Andrew Simms, “Why Did the 400 ppm Carbon Milestone Cause Barely a Ripple?” The Guardian, May 30, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/may/30/carbon-milestone-newspapers; Justin Gillis, “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” New York Times, October 9, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/science/earth/by-2047-coldest-years-will-be-warmer-than-hottest-in-past.html.

[iii] IPCC, Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report.

[iv] Mark Z. Jacobson, et al., “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water, and Sunlight,” Energy Policy (2013). http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf. See also Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American, 301 (November 2009): 38-65. http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf; Adam White and Jason Anderson, “Re-energising Europe: Putting the EU on Track for 100% Renewable Energy.” 2013 World Wildlife Fund Report. http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/res_report_final_1.pdf.

[v] Malcolm Bull, “What is the Rational Response?” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 10 (May 24, 2012), pp. 3-6. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n10/malcolm-bull/what-is-the-rational-response.

[vi] C. Otto Scharmer, “The Blind Spot of Institutional Leadership: How to Create Deep Innovation through Moving from Egosystem to Ecosystem Awareness,” delivered at the World Economic Forum, September 2010, Tinjan, China. http://www.ottoscharmer.com/docs/articles/2011_BMZ_Forum_Scharmer.pdf.

[vii] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower Books, 2007), pp. 201, 200.