If Unionists And Environmentalists Work Together Climate Change Can Become An Opportunity


Moving our economy to a low-emissions future can help create jobs and overcome social disadvantage. But only if we work together, write Colin Long, Troy Gray, and Victoria McKenzie-McHarg.

This Friday night Melbourne will kick off the worldwide People’s Climate Marches calling on governments to make real commitments at the Paris climate talks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The stakes are high: if we don’t start to get emissions down substantially and soon we risk catastrophic climate change that will radically destabilise the world’s natural, political and economic systems.

In the shadow of the multiple terror attacks in several countries, the People’s Climate Marches take on an even greater urgency and importance. The French government’s decision to cancel the Paris March adds a potent significance to those taking place elsewhere in the world. The marches are also an expression of solidarity with the people of Paris and other cities traumatised by terror.

Our organisations are from different traditions, but we stand united on demanding a safe climate. Too often unions and environmentalists have been at loggerheads. Those opposed to action on climate change have been very successful in creating the fear that protecting our climate and our environment costs jobs. It is true that some jobs in old polluting industries will disappear, but many more will be created if we act now to rapidly increase renewable energy provision – jobs in manufacturing, installation, design and maintenance of renewable energy technologies. Many thousands of jobs can be created in retro-fitting our enormous stock of older houses and commercial buildings for energy efficiency.

A large-scale expansion of public transport systems would create many more and longer-term jobs than the continued construction of roads. There is enormous potential for expanding job opportunities in tourism, health, education and other sectors that will not be so affected by a carbon-constrained world.

Indeed it is the opportunities presented by the threat of climate change that give us hope. And what the world needs now, beyond all else, is hope. Imagine if the world we inhabit now, with its violence, its extremists, its wars, its mass movements of refugees, were to be plunged into the chaos caused by climate change – with population displacement on a level even greater than what has led to the present inflows of refugees to Europe, infrastructure destruction, and economic breakdown. Such a scenario should fill us all with dread.

Or envision a world that is united behind a commitment to alternatives to endless resource extraction and the burning of fossil fuels (oil, as we all know, has been the main contributor to the destabilisation of the Middle East over decades, and China is now choking in its own coal-fired smog), that is united in ensuring a just transition for workers in all industries and in all countries.

Imagine a world where the peoples of Pacific islands aren’t afraid of losing not only their jobs and livelihoods but their countries. Imagine a world where poverty is declining and living standards increasing for the vast majority of the world’s people because we have a concerted plan to ensure that all countries have a fair share of the earth’s limited atmospheric and other resources.

Imagine Australia committed to a truly nation-building project of converting our energy sector to renewable energy, of making our cities, our houses, our offices, shops and factories energy efficient, our transport systems sustainable.

Such an enterprise would be like the Snowy Mountains scheme multiplied by twenty. We could return to full employment, give those young men at risk of being groomed by extremists meaningful work and a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. We could give ourselves a decent chance of avoiding the sort of climate change that will destroy the Great Barrier Reef, render much of our agricultural land useless, and expose us to flooding, and extreme weather events and fires. We could build a country where people had time for their families, their friends and their natural environment, instead of being urged to endlessly work and compete to have more stuff.

On Friday night we will be marching in hope, not despair. In a fractured world, where differences are more often than not expressed in violence, we know that we will be taking part in a global movement uniting millions from all countries, faiths and backgrounds behind a call for a safe climate and a better world.


Colin Long is the Victorian Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union. Troy Gray is the Victorian Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union. Victoria McKenzie-McHarg is the Manager of the Climate Program for the Australian Conservation Foundation.