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.

Drilling in the Arctic vs. the Clean Power Plan

Cognitive dissonance seems to be running rampant in politics these days, achieving near epidemic levels. Chris Christie accusing Donald Trump of not having the “temperament” to be president of the U.S? Governor Bridgegate? Germany attacking Greece for seeking debt forgiveness — remember World War II, anyone? The Republican party calling for the repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment? Huh? Wasn’t that the heart of the Republican plan for Reconstruction in 1868?

The Obama administration topped all of these, however, when it  gave final approval to Shell on August 17 to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean just days after the president announced tough new environmental regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants.

It was a head-snapping WTF moment for anyone paying the slightest attention. The strongest action ever taken in the country’s history to combat climate change, and then before you know it, the White House puts out the word that it’s okay for Shell to “drill, baby, drill.”

What to make of this? What happened to the President’s seeming determination to leave the White House with a legacy of climate change progress?

The Clean Power Plan, which will limit the amount of carbon dioxide pollution power plants can generate, is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from these facilities 32 percent by 2030. If the plan withstands the expected legal challenges, it will set in motion dramatic policy changes that will close hundreds of coal-fired power plants, halt construction of new coal plants, and generate an unprecedented boom in the production of renewable energy.

On the other hand, the approval of Shell’s plan breaths new life into the company’s 25-year bid to open up an area of the Arctic for oil exploration. Shell will be allowed to drill 8,000 feet below the ocean floor, 70 miles off the Alaskan coast.

Facing sharp questioning from the press, a senior official at the State Department was forced to acknowledge that there was an “obvious tension” between the U.S. commitment to combat climate change and its approval of Shell’s oil drilling in the Arctic. But, in the end, the official offered no explanation beyond the usual “we must be doing something right if both sides are mad at us.”

Not to be outdone by Christie, Germany, the Republican party, or Obama, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton jumped into the fray, offering her own special brand of cognitive dissonance. Although Clinton has refused to take a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, that did not stop her from criticizing the decision to greenlight the Shell project. “The Arctic is a unique treasure,” she tweeted in response to news of the White House approval. “Given what we know, it’s not worth the risk of drilling.”

As welcome as Clinton’s opposition to drilling in the Arctic is, it can only leave one wondering about TransCanada’s plan to build a pipeline to transport toxic tar sands through North America’s largest source of underground fresh water, the Ogallala Acquifer. Is that worth the risk to this unique treasure?

Stay tuned. And don’t forget to take something to ease that pounding in your head. 2015 is shaping up to be the year cognitive dissonance becomes a dominant feature of the modern landscape. Oy vey.

A Turning Point in the Climate Protection Fight?

The news about accelerating climate change continues to be grim. The most recent National Climate Assessment, issued in early May, underscored the extensive damage that climate change is already inflicting on various regions in the United States. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, called the report “the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signalling the need to take urgent action to combat the threats to Americans from climate change.”

The news is not all bad, however. Three recent events since the report’s release raise the possibility that this time the alarm might actually be registering. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on June 2 its long-awaited plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would, if approved, direct states to develop a range of programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 emissions levels by 2030.

The new rules mark the first time any U.S. president has moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions. Although arguably establishing goals that are too little and a deadline too late to prevent runaway climate change, the Obama administration sent a clear signal that it was finally willing to expend some significant political capital on the fight for climate protection.

Providing further hope that the proposed carbon regulations might mark a turning point, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 largely upheld the authority of the EPA to implement the proposed regulations, making it much more likely that the agency could fend off challenges from industry and conservative opponents.

The very next day a bipartisan group of senior political and business leaders, including three former secretaries of the Treasury, endorsed putting a price on carbon, warning that enormous deposits of oil and coal will have to be left in the ground to avoid reaching dangerous levels of global warming. In their report, “Risky Business,” the group outlined the economic impact of climate change, highlighting how climate change was becoming a serious financial issue for corporations.

In a New York Times op-ed launching the campaign for a carbon tax, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson contended that “we’re staring down a climate bubble that poses enormous risks to both our environment and economy.” Paulson, who served in the administration of George W. Bush, compared the mounting climate crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the collapse of the economy that followed.

Maybe, just maybe, the dam of political stalemate is beginning to break and the U.S. will finally adopt a coherent and effective climate and energy policy. You can be sure, however, that witout systematic and sustained pressure from the grass roots the necessary changes will never take place. That means that it’s up to us. But it’s certainly nice to see some of our political and business leaders finally lining up on our side.

Off the Climate Cliff?

Right on the heels of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a startling paper appeared last week in the journal Nature. It was the proverbial train coming down the track, driving home the message that dramatic, life altering global warming is just a few stops away.

According to the study, the new normal for millions of people in a few decades will be hotter than the warmest years between 1860 and 2005 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Go back in your life to think about the hottest, most traumatic event you have experienced,” lead scientist Camilo Mora told the New York Times. “What we’re saying is that very soon, that event is going to become the norm.”

Analyzing data from 39 different climate models out of 12 countries, the team of scientists from Hawaii and Japan sought to predict the timing of a move to the new climate regime rather than examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2030 or 2050, as most previous studies have done. The paper concludes that the tropics will undergo this extreme shift first, as early as 2029, and by 2047 more than half of the planet will experience average temperatures hotter than anything recorded between 1860 and 2005.

Coming in the midst of the confrontation between President Obama and Congress over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. In politics, when playing “chicken,” the first rule of game theory is throw the steering wheel out the window. It’s one thing for Republicans and Democrats to pursue this tactic, however, and another thing for the human race to try to pull this stunt on nature.

Even in the most intractable situations, political parties can negotiate with each other and come to some reasonable resolution, but as Bill McKibben has pointed out numerous times, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. Go ahead and throw the steering wheel out the window; it’s not going to change the outcome one whit. When it comes to climate change, better to acknowledge that reality than drive the car off the cliff.

The President’s Call for Action

President Obama, in his speech at Georgetown University yesterday, finally made clear that he was done waiting for Congress to act on the mounting evidence that climate change is already well underway. He announced a series of executive actions, none of them needing the approval of Congress, to crack down on carbon pollution from power plants, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency for commercial, industrial, and federal buildings, and prepare the nation for the impacts of climate change.

Keystone XL Protest

As many have already pointed out, these actions do not go far enough and may very well be too little, too late. Obama still hasn’t acknowledged the serious risks posed by fracking and he clearly left himself an out on the Keystone XL pipeline. His decision will depend, to paraphrase one of his White House predecessors, on what the meaning of the word “significantly” is, as in “approval to build the pipeline will only be granted if it does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

Still, although long overdue, the president’s speech was a bracing call for action and has the potential to shift the dynamics of what has been a very frustrating stalemate. Perhaps the most important point made in his remarks came near the end, when he stressed that the climate challenge “is not just a job for politicians”:

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

“Make yourself heard”: this is the essence of democracy. With so much at stake, this is no time to sit on the sidelines.

A Drought in Common Sense

Thousands of people from across the U.S. marched past the White House on Sunday, February 17, calling on President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline and fracking, and take other steps to fight climate change.The record attendance at the rally in Washington, D.C. highlighted the growing movement in the U.S. among ordinary citizens who sense that the point of no return for runaway climate change is fast approaching.

Coming on the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he challenged Congress to deal with the issue of climate change, the outpouring of people at the rally was good news indeed. As the president put it, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

Perhaps anticipating the demands of the thousands who would flock to Washington a few days later, President Obama struck an unusually combative tone in his annual address. If Congress refused to act, the president warned. then he would exercise his executive authority “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama will remain true to his word. But all signs indicate that he better do so, for our sake. Just one recent example: reports of a thin snowpack in the western mountains suggest that the High Plains, West, and Southwest are likely to experience a third summer of withering drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest three-month drought projections, which the agency released February 21, promises little relief. Forecasters predict that drought will continue in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, expand throughout northern and southern California and return to most of Texas, which has suffered a severe drought since 2011.

According to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, the February streamflow forecast predicts a decline in nearly every state and basin in the West. The winter snow season still has two months left, but “if the remaining season turns out dry, water supply conditions could end up in the 50 to 70 percent of average range.”

Those dry conditions and poor snowpack have also increased the risk that the Mississippi River could drop to levels later this year equal to or worse than last fall’s record dip, once again seriously disrupting barge traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway. According to Time magazine, if conditions do not improve soon, “the stoppage could last for months.”

We are fortunate, thanks to the abundance of water in the Finger Lakes region, not to have this kind of severe drought looming on the horizon. But we will not be unaffected by developments west of the Mississippi. One wonders what kind of national economic disaster it will take to finally force Congress to act on climate change, but perhaps the shutdown of a river that sees $180 billion of goods travel along it each year will do the trick.

Envisioning a Low-Carbon Future

Listening to the rhetoric of oil, coal, and gas company executives such as the Koch brothers, you would think they were champions of limited government and the free market. In fact, however, the fossil fuel industry is one of the most subsidized businesses in the United States and its burgeoning profits would shrink dramatically without federal support. According to the Environmental Law Institute, the U.S. government provided $72 billion between 2002 and 2008. About $54 billion of that total took the form of permanent tax credits for oil, coal, and natural gas producers. In contrast, during that same period, the renewable energy industry received $29 billion, most of it also in the form of federal tax credits. The difference is that none of these tax credits are permanent.

On top of these enormous subsidies for oil, coal, and gas, there are staggering external costs incurred as a result of our dependence on fossil fuel. These include the expense of defending strategic oil interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, the damage to air quality and our health, and the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the climate. Then there is the looming crisis of peak oil and our growing competitive disadvantage as other countries such as China rush to embrace clean energy technologies. Taking all of these factors into account, it’s hard not to believe that relying solely on fossil fuel energy is foolhardy.

The Pentagon knows this. At a recent White House summit on clean energy, I spoke with several Army officers from Fort Carson in Colorado and it was clear they were hard at work making the transition to renewables and energy efficiency. No one had to remind them of the tremendous sacrifice in lives and dollars sustained in military operations as a result of our dependence on foreign oil. And no one had to convince them that climate change was a rising national security risk; they had their own hard data about the impact of global warming on political and economic stability around the world.

In light of these developments, it makes perfect sense that President Obama is seeking to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars that the government gives to oil and gas companies. As he put it in a speech at Penn State earlier this month, “It’s time to stop subsidizing yesterday’s energy; it’s time to invest in tomorrow’s.” The redirected dollars would go towards the development of wind, solar, and geothermal power, energy efficiency technology, and building upgrades.

In his Penn State remarks, President Obama called on Americans to take up the challenge of energy innovation. The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI) has been doing just that since June 2008. A coalition of community leaders from the business, financial, nonprofit, local government, and education sectors, TCCPI has brought together many of the key organizations and institutions in Tompkins County to explore ways we can build a low carbon future and achieve the County’s target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It is efforts like these in countless communities across the U.S. that will make it possible for us to reengage as citizens in a democratic society and take our country in a different direction, one that steps back from the brink of ecological disaster and moves towards a world in which the balance between the natural world and human civilization is restored and a more just and equitable future for our children and grandchildren is made possible. In the end, it will be people, not technology, who make the difference.

Note: A longer version of this post was published in the Tompkins Weekly, February, 29, 2011.

New Roots for a New Day

“Now,” observed President Barack Obama in his Inaugural Address, “there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.” Hearing these words, I found it hard, as one of the leaders of New Roots Charter School, not to think of recent debates in our community.

Too often in the face of economic downturns and fiscal crisis we are urged to put aside new ideas and fresh thinking. “We can’t afford to do this now,” “maybe later,” “a terrible time to start a project like this” are common refrains in times like these. Yet this is exactly when new ideas and fresh thinking are called for. It is exactly because times are tough that we should be encouraging new approaches to educating our future leaders and the work force of tomorrow.

The commitment of New Roots to innovation, creativity, hands on learning, and interdisciplinary problem solving will provide students with the skills and tools they need to succeed in a world where, as President Obama puts it, “the ground has shifted beneath them” and many of the old assumptions no longer hold true.

Education to get ready for this new world, as the sight of Obama taking the oath of office underscores, cannot be a luxury for an elite few. Hence the commitment of New Roots to serve a broad, diverse student population, especially those who have struggled in a large school environment and require individual attention to flourish. Too many of our youth have talents, interests, and abilities that go unrecognized and unsupported in traditional high schools.

New Roots will be firmly grounded in research-based, nationally recognized educational models that support high achievement for every student. Working collaboratively, students will develop common visions, goals, and relationships of mutual respect across boundaries of race and class. This experience will directly address tensions that can develop among young people from different backgrounds, offering concrete examples of how they can co-create just, democratic, sustainable communities.

But we already have an alternative school in Ithaca, you say. We don’t need another one.  There is no question that the Lehman Alternative Community School has served and continues to serve a valuable role in the Ithaca City School District (ICSD). But there also is no question that there are students whose needs are still unmet, and that they face new challenges such as climate change, the end of cheap energy, global economic competition, and clean technology.

Perhaps the biggest misconception of all is the notion that we are engaged in a “zero-sum” game where there will inevitably be losers and winners. The Ithaca Journal’s editorial pages have been filled with this kind of thinking regarding New Roots.  If state aid weren’t going to New Roots, one of the arguments goes, then it could be used to help mitigate the budget cuts facing ICSD.

Of course, as the Journal itself reported, the money from New York State is a pass through from the federal government and couldn’t be used for any purpose other than the start up of charter schools.

But, even so, what about the money coming out of the ICSD budget that will be allocated to New Roots by state law? What gets forgotten here is that, for every student who attends New Roots, ICSD will get to keep a significant proportion of the cost for educating that student, even though the student will not be attending Ithaca High School. This means the overall impact will be a net increase, not decrease, in the per pupil amount for those students who remain in ICSD.

A recent study of charter schools in New Jersey, which operates according to a similar method of financing, bears out this conclusion. There charter schools receive 90 percent of what other district schools receive in per-pupil funding from state and local sources. All the more true, then, in New York, where charter schools receive an average of one-third less money per student than traditional public schools, and no money at all for buildings.

Rather than engage in these kinds of disputes, we should consider the new synergies that might be possible because of New Roots. Clearly, for example, the Obama Administration plans new investments in education, green-collar workforce development, and clean technology. Ithaca, because of its leadership on sustainability, might well become a beneficiary of these new federal funds, a possibility enhanced, not undermined, by the founding of New Roots, which is positioned to become a national model of sustainability education.

Choosing hope over fear, identifying opportunity where others see crisis, is what distinguishes communities that thrive in times of change and upheaval from those that stagnate and go into decline. Those of us who support New Roots, and who have invested time, energy, and money in this effort, have little doubt that it embodies both hope and opportunity, and that now more than ever it can help provide solutions that will ensure a prosperous and secure future.

Note: This essay was originally published in a slightly different form as “Students Will Benefit from New Roots,” Ithaca Journal, January 26, 2009.