“We have a rendez-vous with humanity.”
With that statement, the International Trade Union Confederation Climate Summit, ‘No Jobs on a Dead Planet!’ was opened in Paris, France last week.
The Summit was the most significant trade union climate change meeting in history, held as a precursor to the COP21 Paris talks scheduled for December.
Climate Change is recognised and established. Even climate deniers like our former Prime Minister Tony Abbott are forced to at least publicly accept the legitimacy of the science.
The interconnected market pressures of a changing economy – particularly in a once manufacturing-intensive nation like Australia – means industrial change is coming, whether we like it or not.
What workers, unions and communities must decide is: are we part of that change or not? Business and capital will certainly be keeping their eye out for the best deal on their bottom line.
In Australia, the confused storm of decreasing profitability of traditional fossil fuels, unstable environment and climate change policy, and a relatively unregulated market has struck its first real victims.
My union represents workers at Alinta Energy’s Flinders Operations – the Port Augusta power stations and Leigh Creek coalfield, which the company shockingly announced earlier this year would be closed. We are now bracing for most of the jobs to go by March, a mere nine months later.
On the whole, these workers are driven by a commitment to a secure, safe energy generation for the South Australian community. Their hesitance towards renewables is not a rejection of climate change science, rather a professional concern about the security and reliability of energy generated through such means.
Our greatest question is: why should the workforce carry the greatest weight of haphazard (or worse, no) government policy, and the market impacts of climate change, while their employers cut their losses to a future with better profit margins?
The international Union movement and indeed leaders of the international environmental movement want what we call a “just transition”.
A “just transition” where workers and their communities are brought on the journey from high carbon workplaces and economies to low carbon. Where those workers are given direct access to the clean energy jobs or other jobs in the new economy. Where the communities, like Port Augusta and surrounding towns, built around high carbon workplaces, are preserved and given a new future.
At the ITUC summit, unionists from some of the hardest impacted regions were blunt in their plea for international union commitment action on climate change. A Filipino union official talked of realities of living with the effects of climate change, crushing whole communities. In the Dominican Republic, we heard, climate change induced droughts has poisoned water, killing industries and literally killing people. The examples go on.
What is clear is that climate change means regions disappearing. Whether it be for industrial reasons like Port Augusta, or more frighteningly our neighbours in places like Kiribati and Philippines, where extreme weather due to climate change means their homes and land will be no more.
The run on effect in the economy in terms of poor pay and low employment security is already evident.
Indeed, if we do not develop a just transition plan with government, communities and business, new industries will be built in the cheapest possible way, undermining the financial and work health and safety interests of their future employees.
A collective push
The summit included not just trade unionists but leading environmentalists, diplomats and politicians. For union leaders like me grappling with imminent closure of carbon intensive generating workplaces, this collective work is crucial. As French Foreign Minister and President of COP21 Laurent Fabius told us, “We are a minute to midnight.”
Leaders of the international environmental movement declared their belief that a result will only be won at COP21 and beyond with unions at the heart of it.
Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International CEO said, “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the trade union movement in a call for a just transition.” WWF’s Samantha Smith and environmental activist Jonathan Neale echoed this, stating the fight against climate change cannot be won by environmentalists alone – and certainly not without the world’s largest democratic organisations, unions, and our members.
Climate change, as WWF’s Smith shared, is not just an environmental issue. It is an industrial, social and economic issue too.
Fabius held an extensive discourse with summit delegates. General Secretary of the ITUC, Australian expatriate Sharan Burrow said to Fabius:
We want to see workers and their families at the heart of this agreement… we have to set the planet on a just and sustainable path… social dialogue is essential to the industrial transformation that lies ahead.
To achieve this call, it cannot be business as usual. It may involve governments investing bravely in untested industries and technologies. It may include massive retraining of work forces. But if we are going to truly transition we have to be brave and ambitious.
COP21 must result in an ambitious target which supports the most vulnerable countries and communities, including workers in high carbon industries.
But whatever the result, it doesn’t end there. As Fabius put to the summit, “The world started without man. The question is whether it will continue with man?” The answer for that question cannot be left solely in the hands of governments at COP21.
Importantly, Fabius declared his support for the international Union movement’s Topline priorities for COP21:
1. Raise ambition and realise job potential of climate action
2. Deliver on climate finance and support the most vulnerable
3. Commit to securing a ‘Just Transition’ for workers and their communities.
We will continue to call for governments around the world to support these priorities in coming months.
For, we must all be engaged in this debate and this issue; in this “rendezvous with history”.
There are no jobs on a dead planet. For anyone, in any industry. That’s a future we just cannot allow to be realised.
Our livelihoods depend on this.
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