Cornell University

December 14 2009

Next Steps

Union and environmental leaders urged to merge goals

Lara Skinner, Global Labor Institute research associate, describes her experiences at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Saturday, December 19

Many trade unionists were turned away at the doors of the Bella Center, site of official negotiations during the climate change conference in Denmark.

Lines backed up through the designated waiting area, spilled into the streets and stretched to the train station Dec. 15.  At times, the trains wouldn't even stop at the Bella Center Station.

Demonstrations erupted to protest exclusion of non-governmental organization delegates from the official negotiation site.  The delegates included representatives of trade unions, environmental groups, indigenous organizations, women’s organizations and other groups.

After learning only a fraction of delegates from non-governmental organizations would be able to enter the center when heads of state arrived Thursday and Friday, many of us from the United States labor delegation arrived at the center by 8 a.m. Wednesday to get our last chance inside.

It was a wise choice.  Equipped with our badges, we made our way through the line and the security check in under 20 minutes.

Our first meeting was a briefing with U.S. State Department staff.

These meetings do not allow for extended conversation, but they are a central way for labor delegates to meet face to face with the United States negotiators and express concerns and desires.  About 10 staff from the state department met with 15 members of the United States labor delegation.

Delegates also attended a talk by U.S. Sen. John Kerry.  While his presence at the negotiations is important, his talk lacked concrete proposals and bold calls for action that could assure us that the United States negotiators will reach agreement with the rest of the world on critical issues such as:

  • What commitment will the United States make to reduce its emissions?  Science calls for emissions of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.  President Barack Obama proposed 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
  • How much will the United States contribute financially to climate protection and adaptation in developing countries?
  • What will the United States require from developing nations, especially China, India and Brazil, regarding measuring and monitoring their greenhouse gas emissions?

Global Labor Institute team members and many United States' labor delegation members attended labor-environment events Thursday.  One, co-organized by the Global Labor Institute, was aimed at building strategy between the labor and environmental communities around the Senate climate bill.

It was agreed that the Senate climate bill needs to be the top priority when we return from Copenhagen.  If the bill is not passed within the first six months of 2010, it may have to wait until Obama's re-election, especially because many unions are focusing their energy on the proposed Employee Free Choice Act and on health care.

Most interesting to me was the call by Carl Pope, Sierra Club chief executive officer, for trade unions and environmental organizations to build a shared legislative agenda, rather than building separate agendas which they then run by each other for acceptance.  In other words, Pope called on union and environmental leaders to take the next step in their relations with each other by merging their goals into one agenda.

Our night was finished with Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Henry Waxman (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), Earl Blumenhauer (D-OR) and Sandy Levin (D-MI) dropping by the labor-environment reception with some encouraging words about their determination to pass climate legislation in the United States, get a binding agreement globally and include provisions for the labor movement.

We anxiously await final results of the Copenhagen negotiations.  By Friday, most sources reported that the negotiations were collapsing and, at the most, we would get old agreements repackaged as something new.

Trade Unionists seeking a just transition for workers

Thomas van Haaren MILR '11, a member of the Global Labor Institute team in Copenhagen, describes trade union delegation meetings and other activities related to the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Wednesday, December 16

At a meeting with trade union executives, I had the sense that the climate talks might produce the outcome many of them have been planning for years.

The concept of a just transition for workers that may be affected by climate protection policies seemed as salient as ever to some executives after their meetings with Obama administration members such as U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

Many drafts of the Copenhagen agreement include language addressing a just transition for both the developing world and the developed world.

This is, of course, exciting news for the trade union movement, which seeks to balance sustainable practices with the creation of value-added jobs.

This week, I visited side events away from the Bella Center, where government representatives have been conducting on-and-off debate since the United Nations Climate Change Conference began two weeks ago.

Denial of access to tens of thousands of registered delegates from non-governmental organizations created much frustration and chaos around the Bella Center.

Large-scale demonstrations protested the lack of transparency in the negotiations.  Forty-five thousand delegates from non-governmental organizations signed up for events in a forum that has a 15,000-person capacity.

The thousands gathered here represent for me the number of groups that care and made the commitment to come to Copenhagen to "seal the deal."

At the World of Work Pavilion, trade union representatives from as far away as Sierra Leone, Ghana and the Solomon Islands discussed real-life impacts that climate change is having on workers in their countries as non-sustainable practices continue to dominate the way of life.

Panels this week included a discussion on financing climate change and a frank discussion on the need for trade union solidarity at this critical moment.

My first experience with a United Nations conference has been an exciting one, to say the least.

I have not been able to access the Bella Center as originally planned, but the people of Copenhagen have opened their city through engaging side events to ensure that every voice is heard.

As a heavy snow falls on the city, I am reminded of the words of one of Cornell's famous professors, Carl Sagan: "There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves … for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand."

ILR senior describes events in Copenhagen

Sarah Edelson '10 reports on her work today as part of the Cornell ILR Global Labor Institute team in Copenhagen, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference continues through Friday. Jill Kubit, assistant director of the Global Labor Institute, wrote the Monday entry for a series of daily postings from Denmark.

Tuesday, December 15

This morning, I attended Klimaforum '09, also called the Peoples' Summit on Climate Change.

Running parallel to the official United Nations Climate Change Conference, Klimaforum provides a very accessible forum for discussion. I attended a talk entitled "A Sustainable Germany in an Industrialized World."

The presentation was focused around enabling and encouraging a shift towards global sustainability and how citizens can take an active role in getting there.

The panel discussion at the end of the presentation was the most interesting part of the event for me. It gave the speakers a real chance to engage with each other and the audience on the fundamental problems that nations in both the Global North and South face in terms of achieving a society geared towards sustainability.

One of the "take-away" messages from the talk was that the given condition of global politics cannot support a truly sustainable society.  A mass culture focused on consumption and excess in the Global North does not foster the political will for change; without this momentum, attempts at reform will not progress very far.

However, the prevailing sentiment of the talk was not entirely negative, because each speaker also argued that changing the orientation of the political environment towards supporting a sustainable society rests first and foremost with everyday citizens. This message was inspiring, given the pessimistic views at some climate change events.

World of Work

After spending the morning at Klimaforum in downtown Copenhagen, I took the train to the World of Work Pavilion, where many trade union events are held.

There, I attended an event about global climate change challenges and opportunities. The presentation revolved around a panel discussion anchored by transportation sector leaders; it reflected the dynamics of the sociopolitical and economic environments and the role of unions in their regions.

Tonight, I plan to attend a green jobs event sponsored by the International Labour Organization.

Changing Dynamic

Access to the Bella Center, where the official climate conference is being held, seems more and more restricted; side events such as Klimaforum and World of Work Pavilion programming seem to be gaining more popularity and relevance for delegates visiting Copenhagen. Although this changes the dynamic of the conference for many, I find it very interesting to get a broader perspective of events around Copenhagen this week, as well as a broader picture of the layout of the city and its responses to climate change.

Monday, December 14

Real Deal: Crowds rally for climate change

Cornell ILR's Global Labor Institute is in Copenhagen with a United States labor delegation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Jill Kubit, assistant director of the Global Labor Institute, today wrote the ILR team's first entry for a series of daily postings from the historic gathering.

Photo credit: (c) J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue Hundreds of thousands of people from the environmental, labor, youth, anti-capitalism, human rights and faith communities came together across the globe this past weekend to send a simple message to their governments -- the world needs a real deal.

Copenhagen, host to the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as "COP15"), drew an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people to the streets Saturday. Organizers of the global day of action also reported 5,400 events worldwide and 450 events in the United States.

These collective actions marked the brief moment between the end of first week of negotiations and the beginning of the second. By the end of this week, President Barack Obama and more than 110 world leaders will descend upon this chilly, blustery city in attempt to reach a common agreement. The next five days are critical for putting the world on a path towards drastically reducing carbon emissions and to avoiding catastrophic climate change.

I feel fortunate to witness and, through my work with the labor movement, to try -- even in a minute way)—to positively influence the outcome of the negotiations.

I am joined by Sean Sweeney and Lara Skinner, my colleagues at the Global Labor Institute, ILR graduate student Tom van Haaran, ILR senior Sarah Edelson and 15 other faculty and students from other schools at Cornell.

The ILR team joins 40 trade unionists from the United States labor movement, 350 trade unionists from the international labor movement and a staggering 38,000 people from the non-government organization, business, labor and academic communities.

What is needed?

Despite what you might have heard on CNN during the past three weeks, the global scientific community is unified around climate change. Any disagreements that exist revolve around how quickly the climate is changing, how severe the impacts will be (will it be bad or really, really bad), what reductions are needed and what solutions exist for solving the problem.

The 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change -- the scientific body of the United Nations -- concluded that in order to have a 50 percent chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, countries must collectively reduce their carbon emissions 50 to 80 percent by 2050.

Because of the United States' historical emissions, its high per capita emissions and its capacity for change, this translates to an emissions target of 85 percent by 2050 below 1990 levels and 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. On the negotiating table, the United States currently has an equivalent of a four percent reduction by 2020 on 1990 levels.

State of Negotiations

Despite the complex, technical terms in the negotiating text and discussions around how replacing a single word or phrase can completely change the outcomes of the negotiations, the major issues that still remain are fairly straightforward:

  • what kinds of reductions will be made by developed and developing countries?
  • how much financial assistance will be available for developing countries?
  • will these discussions eventually end in a legally binding agreement?

As I lie awake at 4 a.m., both excited and nervous about the enormity of the challenge ahead and still slightly recovering from sitting in the middle seat on an overnight flight several nights ago, I contemplate what this week might bring.

Will President Obama, scheduled to attend the talks Friday, be able to put forth a target and financing commitment the global community will accept?

Will the outcome of the talks move the global community towards an eventual binding agreement?

Will an agreement help spur innovation and investment in the low-carbon economy and drive job creation in the United States and worldwide?

From the labor movement perspective, will workers and communities be protected and be invited to the table to shape this massive transformation?

And, even if all of this does happen, will it be enough?

At this point, it is still 50/50.