What I Do
IBEW keeps San Francisco's cable cars running.
Good morning and thank you, Dave [Foster]. 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.
Today we are focused on the biggest issues facing our society—the intertwined challenges of an endangered global climate and our nation’s endangered prosperity. We must solve both those challenges, and we must solve them at the same time.
Why? They must be solved together not just because it’s the right thing to do, which it is, but because if we don’t solve them both, we aren’t going to solve either of them.
Runaway climate change and the threat of global climate instability endanger not only prosperity, but human civilization. That’s a fact we dare not ignore. But we must face the political and the economic realities preventing us from action to stop climate change as clearly as we must look at the science.
So today I want to talk to you about two realities we must face, understand and challenge. The first has to do with inequality, and the way inequality prevents action. And the second is trade, and how trade policies will undo everything we seek to achieve if we don’t change the way our trade policies deal with carbon emissions.
President Obama rightly says that inequality is the defining issue of our time. It is also the key to the climate fight. Inequality erodes the basic sense that we are all in this together, and that together we must meet the terrible threat of climate change. But we did not become unequal by accident.
For more than 30 years, powerful people have made economic decisions in this country with the clear purpose of lowering the wages and diminishing the economic security of working people. Policymakers decided to engage with the global economy through trade deals whose real purpose was not trade, but empowering and enriching multinational corporations. The ultimate result has been downward pressure on wages and consumer and environmental standards.
Corporate leaders took apart the pension system, with the help of pliant politicians. Other politicians chose tax cuts over investing in our future, and the result is a D+ infrastructure and a public education system drained of resources and under attack by the power of private wealth.
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.
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%. Just last week, a New York Times article explained how big corporations are adjusting their business models to a nation in which the middle class is disappearing.
That’s not a recipe for convincing the main-street American public to support more big changes that affect the whole economy.
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—our need for decent work and pay, for access to energy and water, for healthy communities, food security and so much more.
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. And I am here to say that the discussion must begin with dialogue and negotiation with those whose lives and communities, health care and pensions are bound up with carbon-based fuels.
Simply demanding that plants, industries and projects be stopped and shut down—that poisons the well politically. People who want to stop climate change must engage with the people whose lives and livelihoods are at stake here and now, and we must join together for positive, job-creating approaches, or we will all fail.
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.
Now maybe $2 billion sounds like a lot of money. But it is literally less than the one-year increase in wealth for many of our nation’s billionaires in 2013.
This is not a question of what we can and cannot afford to do as a society—this is a question of what we choose to do or not do.
I know my friends from the environmental movement here today agree, because of the tremendous support the environmental community gave to the fight to hold Patriot Coal, Peabody Coal and Arch Coal to the promises they made to the men and women who made them rich. As someone who began his working life in a coal mine, that support means the world to me, and I thank you on behalf of coal miners everywhere who spent their working lives in hard, dangerous work and struggle today to maintain their health and a modest retirement.
But this fight has just begun, and wrapped up in it is the question of whether we can as a nation, as a democracy, take on the threat of climate change.
Because my friends, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is an alternative to injustice and tragedy. There are many, many pro-job and pro-environment investments that take us down the path to a cleaner, more prosperous future, and together we can make them a reality.
Our nation has the technology to reduce methane leaks in our natural gas system, and to create good, family-supporting jobs doing it. That’s why the AFL-CIO and the BlueGreen Alliance have formed a partnership called Repairing America’s Aging Pipelines (ReCAP), to do the work on the ground to get these programs moving. We need more ideas like this—more ideas that create jobs, make our economy more competitive and fight climate change.
We have the technology to reduce building emissions by up to half, and to put millions of people to work in the process. At the AFL-CIO, we are completing a retrofit of our headquarters, financed by the pension fund of the working men and women of the Electrical Workers. There is no reason other than the dysfunction of our financial system that we can’t retrofit every large building in America.
But as much progress as we can make in the United States, the reality is that our climate is a global public concern. Moving emissions from one country to another doesn’t help.
Now I know a lot of people in this room have been focused these last few weeks on fighting for a new trade model, and fighting to stop yet another fast track to more NAFTA-style trade deals.
And I know many people in this room are aware that language in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement threatens to undermine our ability to protect the environment in our country and globally.
But the stakes are actually much higher.
While we have much to do in the United States, the reality is that our economy is far more energy efficient in the way we produce goods and services than many of our major trading partners. For example, we run our largest trade deficit with China. China emits more than four times as much global-warming pollution per dollar of output as we do.
That means if we make carbon-based energy expensive in the United States, but have no trade rules that regulate the carbon intensity of our imports, all we will do is drive our industry to countries like China. The net result will be not just job loss in the U.S., but higher net global emissions.
So how can we possibly enter into trade agreements like the TPP or the Bilateral Investment Treaty with China that do nothing to discipline carbon emissions?
Why is the U.S. Trade Representative not pulling on the same end of the rope as the rest of the U.S. government?
Why is the U.S. Trade Representative negotiating an environmental chapter that doesn’t address our biggest environmental threat?
Why is the U.S. Trade Representative not a participant in the interagency group on climate?
And why are we negotiating more trade agreements with inadequate labor rights language and special legal rights for corporations? More NAFTAs will only further erode the public’s confidence in our government, making meaningful action on climate more and more difficult.
My friends, we often talk about climate deniers. But today we are effectively denying climate change exists with the way the rules of the global economy are being written. Together, the labor and environmental movements must demand a new trade model, a trade model that fights climate change.
Instead of the false promise that we can outsource our carbon emissions, we need a comprehensive approach to stopping climate change across our economy and across the world economy, an approach that puts us on the right path on climate, jobs and energy.
We need to think big because the problems are big. We must act based on a clear understanding of 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.
The obstacles to effective action to stop runaway climate change are not scientific or technical—they are political. The obstacles to action can be found in the myth that there is no such thing as climate change, in the delusion that in a democratic society elites can make working people bear all the costs of change, and finally in the myth that it is possible to do anything about carbon emissions if there are no border adjustments in our trade agreements.
We can overcome these political obstacles. 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 – our government -- can do nothing, and nothing will happen.
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 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.
The BlueGreen Alliance is about finding that common ground, about thinking big, about fighting unemployment and about fighting climate change. I am pleased and honored to be on this path with you. There is no other path to prosperity for us, our children and our grandchildren.