Trumka at U.N.: We Must Act on Climate Change

New York, N.Y.

Good morning and thank you, Tim [Wirth], I’m honored to be here with you all, and to say a few words on behalf of the 12.5 million working men and women of AFL-CIO unions.

In the two years since I was last with you, much has changed---but one thing remains constant. And that is the simple truth that halting runaway climate change is about investment. Lots of investment, the International Energy Agency says $36 trillion in new investment by 2050. CERES, in its Clean Trillion report, says $1 trillion a year by 2030. So we in this room remain central actors in this play, but as I will discuss more in a moment, we are not the only central actors.

But first, a word about the terrible cost of inaction and denial.

When I was a coal miner, the company I worked for often subscribed to a convenient version of scientific reality. You see, it was expensive to shore up the mine tunnels safely, so the company wanted to defy gravity. It cost money to properly ventilate the mine so it didn’t fill with explosive gas, so they liked to tell us the air was fine, when it wasn’t.

And most of all they told us it was healthy to breathe coal dust, when we knew it was killing each of us, and our families.

But of course, the real laws of science always win—tunnels without supports cave in, mines filled with methane explode, and miners’ lungs filled with coal dust, have no room for oxygen.

Climate change is the same. While we play the politics of denial, physics is relentless.

Already unprecedented storms have devastated coastal areas across the globe—including New York itself. Climate change and extreme weather could cost the world more than 3% of global domestic product by 2030.

And if we don’t act, the longer term forecast is for something much worse, perhaps within the lifetime of our children and grandchildren—warming at levels so great that literally no one knows what might happen—unknown unknowns. We are passengers on this earth, and we cannot change planes. If we don’t act, our Earth may become the equivalent of a high altitude plane without a pressurized cabin. It can fly just fine, but it can’t carry us.

We have a responsibility to act, and the events of the last two years teach us action will require more than a basic understanding of climate science. We must understand how the politics and economics of climate change interact with the politics and economics of a world that is now, in truth, in its seventh year of economic crisis. It is not good enough to simply call for an end to carbon emissions—we have a responsibility to think carefully about how to actually make change.

This is our responsibility, because our climate, more than almost anything else in the world, is a public good. And the reality is that private investors, despite all the desire and good will in the world, will not invest sufficiently in reducing carbon emissions without public policies—carrots and sticks—designed to make it happen.

Getting those policies enacted is a political task, one that in the U.S. is made incredibly difficult by the recent experience of the average American family. My friends, let me outline for you three things that are at the heart of why the last two years have been so disappointing, in terms of action on climate: unemployment, austerity, and inequality.

First, jobs and unemployment. The official unemployment rate in the U.S. is just under 7%, down from 10% at its peak, but still higher than at the worst of the 2001 recession. And in many states dependent on carbon-based fuel production, unemployment is even higher, and Congress continues to fail to extend unemployment benefits for the millions still looking for work.

Worldwide, the picture is worse—the International Labor Organization estimates there are over 200 million people unemployed worldwide—a number greater than the entire U.S. workforce. Unemployment breeds desperation, and people without work are easy prey, for those who will tell them that stopping climate change means fewer jobs.

Second, austerity. The richest countries in the world, the countries with the greatest capacity to act to address runaway climate change, have spent the last three years following economic policies that reduce public investment, and make unemployment worse. You couldn’t come up with public policies more destructive to any effort to address climate change—both in terms of the economics and the politics.

There is no way to stop runaway climate change without massive public investment. Yet politicians and economists promote austerity, while wringing their hands about inaction on climate. Shame on them for their hypocrisy, and their cynical contribution to inaction.

Let me tell you just one fact that pretty much says it all. I recently returned from a trip to China. In the last few years, China and the U.S. both committed to build high-speed rail networks. But starting in 2010 the U.S. chose the path of fiscal austerity, while China created jobs through public investment. Today, the U.S. has not a single mile of high-speed rail. While China’s high-speed rail system carries as many passengers as the entire domestic U.S. airline system.

Third, inequality. As inequality has increased in developed countries, most big changes in the economy have had a negative effect on working families and their communities. Jobs are lost to free trade. Public services are diminished. Pensions are lost to bankruptcy, and our infrastructure is in shambles.

Today in the U.S., five years after the financial-sector meltdown, corporate profits are up, the stock market is way up, and median family income is down 4%. That’s not a recipe for convincing the general public to favor more big changes that affect the whole economy.

In the developing world, the moral scandal of extreme poverty exacerbates any attempt to reduce pollution through measures that compromise energy access for people who are both poor and energy-poor. Citizens in these nations want and deserve solutions to climate change that do not involve cutting off their hopes for a better life.

Friends, the challenge of climate change can only be solved when we find a formula based on clean energy that also meets the real needs of regular people in their everyday lives. Their need for decent work and pay, for access to energy and water, healthy communities, food security and so much more.

If we want investors to put trillions of dollars into climate change mitigation and adaptation -- which we clearly need -- the policy and regulatory environment must support those investments.

As long as we live in democracies, citizens must have confidence that their needs are going to be met for the public policies to be put in place that will make it possible for investors to invest in the public good of a stable climate.

The truth is that the obstacles to effective action to stop runaway climate change are not scientific or technical—they are political.

We have the technology to reduce building emissions by 50%. At the AFL-CIO headquarters, we have deployed many of these technologies in a retrofit project financed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers National Pension Fund, and we put engineers, carpenters, glazers, electricians, and plumbers to work doing it. The AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust has put hundreds of millions of dollars to work retrofitting public housing, creating jobs, saving energy, and saving money.

And our nation has the technology to reduce methane leaks across our natural gas production, transmission, and distribution systems, and to create hundreds of thousands of jobs doing it, and the AFL-CIO and the Blue-Green Alliance have formed a partnership to do the work on the ground to get these programs enacted.

We also have the example of the U.S. automobile industry. Almost four years after GM and Chrysler went bankrupt, the U.S. auto industry is turning out fuel-efficient vehicles that are the climate-policy success of our time, getting cleaner every year, and avoiding more greenhouse gasses than any other sector of the economy.

And the auto industry is hiring.

It’s a remarkable story of investing in America, and creating tens of thousands of production and engineering jobs by making advanced-technology fuel-efficient vehicles.

These investments and technological advances didn’t occur in a policy vacuum. Indeed, they were shaped and encouraged by federal policy.

Regulations on fuel economy and tailpipe emissions gave certainty to product plans and reduced the risk of investing the hundreds of billions of dollars it will take to remake the auto industry.

Loans and grants by the federal government reduced the cost and risk of investing in the most-cutting edge technology and helped get production up and running in the United States. And that investment is creating jobs as we speak.

That’s the kind of success we need to replicate on a much wider scale. Good investments creating good jobs. Investments by government in setting the table and helping industries grow to scale. Investments by companies innovating and then bringing new products to market.

We make the most progress when we find solutions that address both our endangered prosperity and our endangered climate.

But we aren’t going to accomplish what we need to one industry at a time.

Nothing illustrates this more than the current efforts to regulate the electric power sector in the United States. There are fierce debates about the economic feasibility of the technologies. The matter seems likely to stay tied up in court for years.

We don’t have that kind of time, and it won’t work anyway. We can’t possibly succeed with piece-meal policies that pit sector against sector. The politics of a “stick only” approach are poisonous, and those poisonous politics will embolden climate deniers.

We need a comprehensive approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation across our economy. It has to begin with dialogue and negotiation with those whose lives and communities, health care, and pensions are bound up with carbon-based fuels.

But frankly my friends, that kind of discussion is not going to yield fruit until we can break the logjam in Washington, D.C. and in capitals across the globe. We must push for a comprehensive energy, jobs and climate bill—one that provides the carrots and the sticks that can make change work for working people. Let me speak candidly, as someone who talks to people on all sides of the increasingly passionate debates around energy policy, about what some key actors need to do if we are going to make progress.

First, to environmental activists. I understand your despair at the lack of action. But you cannot allow despair to lead you to embrace self-destructive tactics. Simply demanding that plants, industries and projects be stopped and shut down—that poisons the well politically.

You must engage with the people whose lives are at stake and you must be about positive, job-creating approaches, or we will all fail. And you must stop making the perfect the enemy of the good. Every source of energy, every technology both creates jobs and has environmental consequences—but only carbon emissions threaten our civilization. This means technologies some environmentalists don’t like, such as carbon capture and sequestration and nuclear energy, must be part of the solution.

To billionaires like Mike Bloomberg who have put up small fractions of their personal wealth to fund campaigns to “end coal,” we say: You are not doing what it will take to be successful. Running campaigns that can only be interpreted by working families as threats to their livelihoods and their communities actually hurts the chances of meaningful action on climate policy.

The smart money should be on a comprehensive approach that includes clean energy, investments in technology and job creation. That means making sure that fossil-fuel linked communities and sectors are not made to bear the entire cost of change.

And that requires real money. Real leadership means finding tens of billions of real dollars to fund both investment and just transition. The alternative is the continued politics of stalemate and inaction.

Consider one example. The main pension for retired coal miners—covering over 100,000 people—needs an additional $2 billion to meet its obligations. Any workable, equitable path forward on climate includes making sure those miners and their families get what they earned through a lifetime of backbreaking, dangerous work.

Finally, to business and finance—the world needs your political leadership. There is no way to break the logjam in Washington around climate and energy and jobs without business leadership. Business and labor have shown we can work together on immigration and infrastructure. We can do it on energy, too, and we can build a partnership with the environmental community--but we cannot do it if business stays on the sidelines politically.

My message is pretty plain: Those who want to foster and encourage the financial, regulatory and market conditions that will increase the opportunities for profitable investments in new technologies and cleaner energy, please join with us in trying to break the logjam in Washington.

Government can make private actors internalize externalities by putting a price on carbon. And government can prime the technology pump by investing in innovation. Or government can do nothing, and nothing will happen.

But the choice will fundamentally be made outside government. By business, and investors, workers and environmentalists. If we choose to act in ways that pit us against each other, we will come closer and closer to the point of no return—not political no return, but physical no return.

I am here on behalf of the American labor movement to tell you we remain committed to the task of stopping runaway climate change. This is not easy for us. For millions of workers in the U.S., our livelihoods, our families, our communities are at stake—not decades from now, but right now. We are prepared to make hard decisions and to make sacrifices, but not while the most privileged in our society stand on the sidelines and expect our poorest communities to bear the costs.

We need to act together, to find common ground, to make the kind of effort we once made to win world wars, to find solutions that speak to the hopes and aspirations of working and middle-class Americans, and we must shed the illusion that some other path will work.

Together, investors, business, labor and environmentalists can -- and we must -- come together to break the political logjam that prevents the progress we so desperately need.

Thank you.

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