by Bill Onasch
Under the Dome
Television weatherpersons often step outside to check conditions before they give their report. It doesn’t hurt for those of us who write about climate change to also keep an eye on our proverbial backyard for any empirical verification of present trends. This past week I didn’t need to leave my finished attic office to know whatever replaced mercury in our thermometer was rising beyond the norm even for our typically hottest stretch of the year.
For over a week, a huge anti-cyclone was spinning clockwise near Kansas City in no hurry to move on. It at times dominated weather over a vast swath of the United States, from the Rockies to beyond the Mississippi River on the east, from Minnesota south to Texas. It helped produce a “heat dome” often generating triple-digit (F) temperatures, along with absurd dew points, and dangerous heat indices. Those of us near the center of this high pressure compression of air suffered the longest exposure, with little relief even at night. As I write, this powerful “heat making machine” has finally moved slowly east. A different system also brought an excessive heat wave in to the Southwest and similar patterns this summer have led to unwelcome record heat in many parts of Canada as well.
The ramifications go beyond mere discomfort. There are acute health threats to humans and animals. Especially vulnerable are old folks like me who don’t have access to air conditioning. I’m fortunate to have AC. But I can’t avoid some pangs of guilt—not only about my comfort when so many others are suffering, but also for the fact that this lifesaver is responsible for a very potent greenhouse gas, hydrofluorocarbons, as well as the usual smokestack emissions of the local power plant.
In some areas the heat has sparked monster wildfires, like those consuming 50,000 acres and counting in California, some in Los Angeles County. Others have seen unusually severe storms. Temperate agricultural zones continue to creep north. Electricity demand soars. And many meteorologists think it likely another “dome” will develop later this summer.
This is no anomaly; it is a leading edge of what has contributed to record-breaking average high temperatures in the USA in 15 of the last 16 months. The same prevailing pattern has been recorded globally. NASA scientists announced last week 2016 was on track to be the hottest year on record, with 2015 and 2014 ranking second and third. Global warming is no theoretical future threat—it is palpable now, just beginning a relentless march toward ultimate catastrophe if left unchecked.
Though the Paris Climate Summit last December claimed countries had submitted goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would stop climate change short of calamity, most climate scientists have remained dubious. Subsequent developments have done nothing to justify optimism.
* President Obama’s climate plan hailed in the Democrat platform that will be approved at their convention this week, depends on voluntary cooperation from states with executive orders that rely heavily on cheap natural gas—obtained through environment wrecking fracking—supplanting coal fired power plants while pursuing pipe dreams of “clean coal.” New York state’s plan counts on expanded nuclear power.
* The Republican presidential nominee has pledged to “cancel” the Paris deal—and to put all West Virginia unemployed miners back to work digging coal once more.
* The impeachment coup in Brazil has scuttled that important country’s emission goals as well promises to protect the planet’s biggest natural land “carbon sink” in the Amazon rain forest.
* Wikileaks exposed secret negotiations around the TTIP trade/investment deal that according to the Guardian “could sabotage European efforts to save energy and switch to clean power.”
* In a follow-up, the Guardian reported the British Tory government’s slashing of subsidies had eliminated 12,000 UK solar industry jobs last year, about a third of that vitally needed fledgling industry’s workforce. And Bloomberg began a story, “Global investment in renewable energy fell 23 percent in the first half of this year.”
I could go on and on with many more examples. But I don’t want to beat a Monty Python dead parrot. Instead let’s begin to turn our attention to some action alternatives—especially two that try to incorporate a Just Transition plan for workers who will lose jobs in restructuring an ecologically sustainable society. I’ll start with one this week, the other to soon follow.
A Liberal Surprise
The American Prospect is a journal of the pre-Bernie Democrat “left,” founded to counter Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats.” It has never been on my follow list. But an article reprinted on the Portside list grabbed my attention—A Just Transition For U.S. Fossil Fuel Industry Workers by Robert Pollin, an economics professor at U Mass Amherst and Brian Callaci, a PhD candidate at the same school and a former researcher for Change to Win. I was particularly attracted by some favorable references to the remarkable self-described “union bureaucrat” Tony Mazzocchi. They say,
“The late U.S. labor leader and environmental visionary Tony Mazzocchi pioneered thinking on what is now termed a ‘Just Transition’ for these workers and communities. As Mazzocchi wrote as early as 1993, ‘Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.’”
Mazzocchi didn’t think labor should be part of the environmental movement—he believed that workers should lead that movement. He collaborated with scientists like Barry Commoner and even convinced the pale green Sierra Club to support a strike of his union—the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, now absorbed in to the Steelworkers—against Shell Oil. When Tony helped found the now defunct Labor Party he made sure Just Transition was a featured part of the party’s program. Unfortunately, he passed away before the present movement around climate change began to take hold and we missed his input to update and expand Just Transition to these even bigger challenges.
Pollin and Callaci attempt to pick up where Tony left off. They make some important and timely proposals. They also attempt to cost them out, arguing that they are affordable as well as achievable. Their effort is applaudable and may stimulate useful discussion.
But, in my opinion, their effort falls short of the mark because of its too narrow focus.
Because drastic reduction in fossil fuels is indispensable to stopping climate change they chose to apply Just Transition primarily to workers and communities involved in extraction and processing of these fuels. And they derived the numbers and pace of these job losses based on the inadequate and unreliable voluntary goals for reducing emissions included in the Paris agreement.
They ignore huge sectors of the economy that are inextricably tied to the use of fossil fuels. There are 900,000 American manufacturing jobs dependent on the auto industry—and present sales of plug-in electrics account for less than one percent of car/truck sales. A needed shift in personal transportation from cars to public transit would eliminate hundreds of thousands more jobs involved in vehicle repair and maintenance, road and bridge projects, and insurance. And since most filling stations have become convenience stores and fast food stops, declining gasoline/diesel sales would impact an unknown number of non-fuel retail employees in that venue as well.
So far there is only one experimental solar powered airplane in the whole world. What will happen to the hundreds of thousands whose paychecks depend on the jet-powered aviation industry—both civil and military–as we tackle that huge source of emissions?
Pollin and Callaci are confident that millions of what they call “green jobs” can be created—as am I. But they offer nothing new on how this can be accomplished. They remain upbeat in expectations that capitalist market forces—stimulated by carbon price/tax measures—can get the job done. Like most practitioners of the “dismal science” of economics, down deep they are romantic optimists about a sensibly regulated Free Enterprise.
Next time I will contrast this approach to the working class perspective of “making a living on a living planet” promoted by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and one of their American affiliates, the Labor Network for Sustainability.
* The fight by the right-wing “New Labor” forces to oust the present left-wing Party Leader is hotter than ever. The Guardian reports, “Labour is being sued by a group of its members over the decision to exclude 130,000 people who joined the party since January from being able to vote in its leadership contest….Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) decided to allow only members who joined before 12 January to vote in the contest between Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, and Owen Smith….Some Corbyn supporters believe that the excluded members are backing Corbyn by four to one and believe the legal challenge has a good chance of success. Corbyn is the clear favourite to win the contest. A survey released on Monday by the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University found that 60% of Labour councillors in 250 marginal constituencies were backing Smith, but they expected that members and registered supporters in their wards will favour Corbyn.”
Next time, after all the shouting is over, I’ll give my take on the two boss party conventions.
That’s all for this week.
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