Cornell University

Cornell Global Labor Institute

16 East 34th Street, 4th Floor, 212-340-2840

Background Information

What is Global Warming?

undefinedGlobal Warming is caused by the build up of Carbon Dioxide (Co2) and other greenhouse gases (ghgs) in our atmosphere.  These ghgs capture the heat generated by the sun in the same way as a greenhouse captures and retains heat.  This build up has led to global warming and climate change.  The primary reason for the build up of CO2 is through the use of fossil fuels- coal, oil and gas- for energy.

Robert Socolow from Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University. Photographer: Clark Jones

Irrefutable studies (as outlined Stern Report and IPCC) point to the need to reduce CO2 generated by our use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas by as much as 50-80%. Failure to make these reductions will mean that social and economic disruptions of cataclysmic proportions are virtually inevitable as the result of severe droughts, rising sea levels, etc. These disruptions can be expected to occur relatively soon. According to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, "This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime."

Despite the warnings, the U.S. is on course to dramatically increase its emissions even though roughly 25% of the world’s CO2 is already generated inside its borders. Meanwhile, the European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada are also expected to increase their CO2 output, and the same is true of China, India and other developing countries. Unions in North America have a special role to play in bringing about a dramatic change in energy policy, but trade unions everywhere must participate in this global effort.

The Promise of Renewable Energy

Studies show that big cuts in CO2 and other GHG emissions are possible, and that global warming can be controlled and managed. Most of our future energy needs could be met by renewable sources such as wind, solar, biofuels, and hydrogen.  When combined with measures to conserve energy in homes, transportation and the workplace, then a largely carbon-free future can be imagined.  Renewable energy use would also reduce air pollution and other forms of environmental degradation that affect workers’ health, and both renewable energy and conservation will lead to millions of new jobs and increase union membership in sectors like construction and transportation.  Likewise, a “just transition” policy –where workers are fully protected against loss of jobs or income during the transition away from fossil fuels –is a key component of a trade union approach both here and abroad.

Trade Unions are Responding to the Challenge

Unions all over the world, including the United States, are responding to the challenges posed by global warming and other environmental problems. Several national union federations are applying pressure on their governments and getting results.  Other unions are operating locally or are engaging individual employers.  Unions are beginning to connect organizing with global warming and other environmental issues, and are everywhere linking up with environmental groups.

Unions are also collaborating across borders. This Assembly will be the latest of a series of important historic international gatherings that began with the First Global Trade Union Assembly on Labour and the Environment in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2006. In April 2006 Sao Paulo hosted the first ever Trade Union Regional Conference on Labour and the Environment for unions in Latin America, and in July 2006 another Regional Conference took place in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The North American Assembly will be attended by many trade unionists from outside the U.S. and Canada and will coincide with the annual meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) at the United Nations. At the CSD, union representatives will be pushing for action on a range of environmental issues.

Global Call to Arms

But much more remains to be done—and done quickly. More unions here and abroad need to be engaged, issues must be clarified, differences transcended, members mobilized, and organizing and political strategies developed. Durable and effective coalitions between labor and the environmental movements—a goal of the Blue-Green Alliance between the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club —must now become a priority.

Today the fight for the environment and the fight to rebuild trade union power go hand in hand. Union density is falling in the U.S. and all over the world. By taking on this challenge, unions will not only be making a huge contribution to the effort to stave off disaster for ourselves and future generations, but we will also be reaching out to new supporters and members who will then join us in the fight for adequate pensions, universal health care, and decent wages.

As the recent Congressional elections showed, unions and working people have political power.  Now we must use this power to change our energy ecology and open up new pathways to a better quality of life for all who live and work on the planet.