What's Next for Blue-Green Relations?

New York’s Consolidated Edison is facing both workforce cuts and demands on infrastructure from stronger storms. Climate change adaptation could add jobs. (photo: Bloomberg)
This is the second entry in a series examining the relationship between environmentalists and labor unions. 

It was 1967. United Auto Workers executive board member Olga Madar went to Congress on behalf of her union and asked the federal government to curb air pollution by putting tighter emissions regulations on the auto industry. The testimony she gave could have easily come from any major environmental group at the time:

"We make little progress when we find that the gains in better health are negated when the worker leaves the plant and finds his community's living environment polluted…” she said. “[There is] an air and water pollution problem of such magnitude that it has caused some of our leading social thinkers and scientists to conclude that we are in the midst of a struggle of life and death."

Such strident defense of environmental issues was not unusual among the era’s leading labor leaders. From UAW President Walter Reuther to AFL-CIO Legislative Representative James F. Doherty, the 1960s and early 70s saw a barrage of union officials making the connection between workers’ rights and environmental activism.

Today, however, one is more likely to hear about an insurmountable rift between environmentalists and unions in the US.

Obama’s decision on whether or not to permit Keystone XL, for example, was seen as a difficult choice because, as Sheldon Alberts of Canada’s National Post wrote, “he risks alienating elements of his own political base no matter what decision he makes.” “Environment vs. jobs” had become so pervasive that observers were now slipping in proxies: “environmentalists vs. labor”.

There was ample evidence for this, of course. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, the International Union of Operating Engineers all expressed support for the pipeline. The largest contingent of pipeline supporters at the final State Department hearing in October 2011 was members of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

Environmentalists pointed to alliances with the Transport Workers Union of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union on the matter, but coalition-building between enviros and labor has been happening elsewhere too.

Days after that State Department hearing, environmentalists were meeting with oil workers with Louisiana’s United Steelworkers District 13 to discuss the “future of oil”.

“It wasn’t as confrontational as I would have expected,” said Rob McCulloch, Legislative Advocate for Transportation and Transit Issues at the BlueGreen Alliance, the organization that sponsored the event. Both sides saw common ground in fighting for workers’ health and against the replacement of their jobs by contract workers.

The BlueGreen Alliance has been putting together such meetings at the local level for years and McCulloch said it’s a great way to break the ice, build relationships and trust and ultimately create unassailable coalitions that can win on policy issues. When he visits Congress, “they pay more attention because we’re not a special interest group. We’re representing their constituents,” he said. Speaking for environmental groups or labor alone just doesn’t carry as much weight with lawmakers.

Still, there’s potential that remains untapped. After the failures of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 and the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2010, the limits of their partnership, at least on the federal level, became apparent.

There are also some issues that the two sides simply won’t see eye-to-eye on. Coal mining in Appalachia, for instance (save for mountaintop removal). McCulloch said it’s easier to start with the things you agree on to get comfortable working with each other.

Jenny Brown of Labor Notes recently wrote about the ways that 2012’s climate change impacts have strengthened the Blue-Green relationship:

The 185,000-member National Nurses Union came out against the [KXL] pipeline in early February [2013], joining the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union.
“It’s easy for us to take this position,” said Jill Furillo of the 37,000-member New York State Nurses Association. “Our members are on the front lines of seeing the effects of the environmental crisis.”
After Hurricane Sandy, New York nurses not only took care of those injured in the storm, they also evacuated patients from hospitals crippled by loss of electricity, carrying critically ill patients down dark stairwells when rising floodwaters wrecked elevators and backup generators.

In 2010, Grist’s David Roberts wrote that ‘Environmentalism’ can never address climate change and the argument still stands. Climate change will impact every sector of society and we can only build a movement if a broad constituency is embraced. A strong union presence at tomorrow’s Forward on Climate rally (the largest in US history) indicates this growth may be occurring.

Climate Change in Pictures 2012

For those of us in the US, there was no shortage of crazy climate-fueled weather stories in 2012: droughts and heatwaves, wildfires, Sandy, a melting Arctic. But like most people, I have a hard time remembering the deluge of records and events that, together, tell the story of climate change.

In the summer, I started a Pinterest page devoted to documenting climate impacts at the state level, made up of news articles, reports, blogs posts, etc. These stories and images illustrate how climate change is already impacting people and wildlife in every part of the country. Here are those that stood out this year, by region:

A WWII ship uncovered by a drought-impacted Mississippi River in December 2012 (TeamSaintLouis/Flickr)
Midwest: The drought of 2012, the worst in decades, has crippled the "Mighty Mississippi" River: it dropped 12 feet below normal in some areas, exposing sunken steamboats on the river bottom and threatening to shut down one of the world's busiest shipping routes. The drought also did a number to farmers, prompting the Department of Agriculture to declare over half the country a disaster zone and lowering the crop yield forecast multiple times. In July, stories of withered harvests were flying from farmers across the breadbasket: from corn in Illinois and wheat in North Dakota to oats in Wisconsin. In Iowa, 37,000 fish were found dead along the Des Moines River because the water got too hot.

A forest ravaged by pine beetles in Colorado (sandrift/Flickr)
West: Colorado's Waldo Canyon Fire got the most news coverage, but damaging fires burned across the West this year. Already by August 2012, the National Interagency Fire Center had declared 2012 the worst year for wildfires in terms of acreage burned. And if fires weren't bad enough, forests in the West continue to die from pine beetle infestation caused by rising temperatures. A three-year study on the Colorado River released in December found that the watershed will be unable to support the region's needs over the next 50 years. In the Southwest, giant dust storms that shut down roads and carry a "noxious mix of fungi, heavy metals, fertilizers and stockyard fecal matter" are becoming more frequent.

Northern Florida's County Line Fire - April 2012 (NASA)
South: Rising temperatures are a threat to infrastructure. In Lynchburg, Virginia, a severe storm that knocked out power to a water treatment plant released partially-treated sewage into the James River. Researchers in both Arkansas and Texas have found fewer ducks and other birds migrating south for the winter and Texas saw its worst West Nile Virus outbreak since 1999 (its 2011 drought alone also cost the state $7 billion). Along the coast, states are bracing for the next big storm; Miami, Florida is seen as being particularly susceptible. And wildfires weren't confined to the West. A wildfire fueled by drought burned 35,000 acres in Florida's Osceola National Forest.

 Breezy Point, NY after Hurricane Sandy and fires (FEMA)
East: Images of the New York subway system and the New Jersey coastline inundated by water pushed inland by Hurricane Sandy are hard to forget. The damage, which is expected to cost NY and NJ alone at least $72 billion to address, was foreshadowed months before when a US Geological Survey report said that sea levels are rising twice as fast along the Atlantic Coast as other areas. Vermont is still recovering from 2011's Hurricane Irene which wiped out 500 miles of roadways and a state hospital there. A warming ocean is leading to problems up and down the coast from a nuclear plant in Connecticut that had to shut down in August to fish fleeing north to cooler waters.

There are hundreds of other stories like these on my Climate Impacts page, from coastal erosion in Alaska and Hawaii to ocean acidification in Oregon. Keep up-to-date with the latest stories by following me here.

And for some more quick summaries of climate impacts in 2012, see the Climate Desk's Year in Review, NRDC's This is What Global Warming Looks Like (videos), Climate Central's list of 2012 extreme weather events, and World Resources Institute's Extreme Weather Timeline.

Book Review: China's Environmental Challenges


China’s environmental story is full of contradictions. What does one make of a country where the government severely limits the freedom of NGOs, yet has some of the most thorough environmental laws and most sustainably-minded leadership in the world? A place where the opening of a nature preserve is celebrated with a banquet that includes endangered animals? A country that builds the most wind turbines—and burns the most coal?

Judith Shapiro’s readable new book, China’s Environmental Challenges, untangles these contradictions and provides a snapshot of China as it teeters on the edge of unprecedented ecological limits. Shapiro was one of the few Americans to enter China before relations between the two countries were normalized in 1978 and now teaches global environmental politics at American University. In the book, she looks at how national identity, government structure and civil society play into China’s approach to environmental issues.

By now, we’re familiar with news of polluted cities and “cancer villages,” enormous factories and contentious dam projects, rapid desertification and a growing middle class eager to model the West’s worst consumerist excesses. With news like this, one gets the impression that Chinese society is a monolithic ogre blindly pulling its people, and the world, toward environmental ruin.

But according to Shapiro, the country’s domestic realities and international relations are complex.
She reveals that China’s leadership under Mao Zedong was just as undeniably brutal to nature as it was to millions of Chinese during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961): swaths of forests were felled for unusable steel smelters, sparrows were systematically killed as “pests” despite their important role in defending crops from insects, and ecologically-sensitive areas throughout the country were converted to  experimental farmland, leading to famine (Shapiro’s 2001 book Mao’s War Against Nature digs further into this period).

But China’s government has become increasingly more fractured and sensitive to environmental issues in the last few decades, just as the stakes have been raised. Echoing Jonathan Watts in When a Billion Chinese Jump, Shapiro writes that it’s not the national government, but an entrenched network of corrupt and uncontrollable developers and local officials, that are driving most of the country’s environmental problems today.  

A Factory on the Yangtze River / Wikimedia Commons
The same rich countries that lament China’s environmental record are far from blameless either. For decades, the US and Europe have displaced environmental harms to China, especially in the textile and electronics industries. Now China, with its rising economic prowess and disgruntled, savvy middle class, is exporting harms itself: to poorer areas domestically, and to Southeast Asia and Africa.

Though they’re hampered by repressive rules about activism and fundraising, Shapiro describes China’s community of environmental groups as large, active and, for the most part, respected. She delves into the contours of this community in what turns out to be the most encouraging part of the book.

Chinese NGOs have attended the last few UN climate negotiations to pressure their government and the global community to take bolder action on climate change. Famous journalists-turned-activists like Liu Jianqiang and the 2012 Goldman Prize winner Ma Jun are well-known for their publicizing environmental harms and challenging corporations and government projects.

Low estimates put the number of environmental protests at 5000 each year, many of them originating from the same middle class that fuels the country’s resource consumption. While the difference between human rights abuses and environmental damage isn’t as distinct as it might be in developed countries, Shapiro says environmental groups enjoy a greater level of freedom than other types of political organizations.

Protesting a Chemical Plant in Dalian, August 2011 (Getty)
Any hope of addressing China’s enormous environmental problems will involve strengthening this mostly feeble civil society sector, giving voice to the rural and minority populations most affected by environmental damage, and tapping into China’s home-grown notions of sustainability found in its religious and cultural traditions. With Western-style consumerism ascendant and free speech still stifled, the prospect of such a shift happening is slim, but the seeds of change do exist. One suspects that US leadership on climate change, which is currently lacking, may also influence China’s actions on the global stage.

Although Shapiro’s book is aimed at students (each chapter ends with discussion questions), general readers will find the book helpful when placing news items like the recent US-China clean technology trade tensions or friction over embassy smog reporting in context. Those wishing for more in-depth discussions on particular issues will need to look elsewhere.

It’s impossible to be a globally-minded environmentalist today without considering the role China plays. Shapiro rightly says that “it is within China that much of the future of the planet will be decided.” 

A Masculine Lens on Climate Change?


Happy Mother’s Day.

"Sea Stack" by Justine Kurland
The ecoAmerica values survey, which I usually find insightful, tweaked me the wrong way recently. The report tries to take the American public's pulse on environmental issues. One section offers suggestions on messaging for environmental advocates, including this one:
Make climate solutions masculine to garner more support

Passive energy sources may be the solution for the planet, but many Americans want action. The majority of positive attitudes on the environment and current climate change solutions, such as wind and solar energy, are viewed as feminine. Feminine issues are passive, and passive issues do not require immediate attention. Themes of sacrifice and must do – also perceived as feminine – are not bold solutions to climate change.

The majority of anti-green attitudes are viewed as masculine. Problems perceived as masculine – tough problems – require immediate, bold action. Americans with masculine, anti-green attitudes, such as resentment and excuses, want big solutions. They need to know that whatever America invests in and builds will work. They want bold solutions at scale, that are visibly active, and yield significant, visible progress. They are not attracted to solutions that cut off energy supply when days are cloudy or windless…
How to unpack this? To me, what this reveals is not a problem with how the American public views environmental issues, but how they view gender (if these findings are accurate, anyway). And are the surveyors simply passing along data, or letting their own biases about gender color the results? There’s also an unspoken assumption here: men run things, “masculinity” takes precedent in American culture; therefore, we must appeal to men.

I understand the concept of opening communication channels with and appealing to those in power. But must we downgrade “feminine” values (whether they're coming from women or men) in order to open those channels?

Far from being passive, women are not only on the frontlines of climate change, they’re also some of the most courageous advocates for “immediate, bold action”. Accepting stereotypes about what constitutes a “feminine” solution vs. a “masculine” one divides us when we need to be working together.

I was also surprised that the findings equated renewable energy with femininity. What with men occupying most of the green jobs, the Weather Channel’s new show Turbine Cowboys and the “booth babes” one finds at renewable energy conferences – the sector seems pretty masculine to me.

Maybe instead of continuing to romanticize technocratic solutions, we should recognize that so-called feminine perspectives are vital in the current crisis. How might we build that recognition? What do you think?

How to Talk to People About Climate Change

Photo: Involve 
I've made a few congressional visits in the last month and after experiencing some disconnect with staffers on the urgency of climate change (surprising, right?), I've become even more committed to nailing down effective messaging on the issue. Turns out there are a handful of organizations out there working on the same. Among them:

Climate Access: Their newsletter always comes packed with valuable articles and their webinars bring the top players in climate change communications together. I learned a lot in their previous webinar on communicating risk. The information can be a difficult to access though (ironically) because their registration process is a bit involved. Worth signing up for if you can though. Their UK counterpark, Talking Climate, is also a useful site.

Both Columbia University (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions - CRED) and Yale University (Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media) have centers devoted to the psychology of addressing environmental issues. CRED's report on climate change communication is a great resource as is Yale's Knowledge of Climate Change Across Six Americas.

International Environmental Communication Association: Just formed last year. Their previous conferences have all been held in the US, but one in 2013 is planned for Sweden.

EcoAmerica: Their tag line is "start with people" and they've got a great archive of publications with that in mind including the revealing annual American Climate and Enviromental Values Survey.

I'll close with a great slideshow produced by my friends (and fellow Tar Sands Action arestees) Sieren and Yiming on tar sands impacts. What makes the presentation so great is its balance between the science of climate change, striking imagery and personal stories. The biggest take-home lesson I've learned from all the sources above is that climate change communications have relied too heavily on data in the past, that stories and pictures are often more convincing than science. This presentation is a great illustration of what works and Yiming told me it was well-received in her own recent visit to Congress. Feel free to share!




Women and Climate Change in the Developing World

January's DC EcoWomen speaker was Suzanne Ehlers, President & CEO of Population Action International. Ehlers had a lot to say about the importance of women's reproductive rights in general, but also the connection between women's rights and environmental issues. She pointed us to this recent video produced by PAI about the ways that climate change is effecting women's lives in poorer regions of the world where access to natural resources is a daily struggle.