Why Climate Change Matters for California Workers

[A Discussion Paper by the Labor Network for Sustainability; PDF version with footnotes is available here]

California is at the forefront of driving the expansion of the clean energy economy. California’s groundbreaking climate law, the Global Warming Solutions Act  — AB 32 — is the most comprehensive climate legislation enacted anywhere in the US.  But this law is at risk from political interests, backed by oil company resources, which are trying to overturn it.

AB 32 opponents are using a job-loss argument, creating a false divide between job creation and climate protection. They’ve done this is spite of the fact that green jobs have grown by 5% during a recessionary period where net jobs in our state fell. California already has 500,000 green jobs. We’ve got 12,000 clean energy businesses and we hold 40% of the US patents in solar, wind and advanced battery technology. Sixty percent of all clean energy venture capital is invested here (the runner-up state, Massachusetts, has 10%), with a large spike coming in the years after the passage of AB 32.

Climate change is a global problem. The AB 32 opponents who are working to stop the implementation of California’s climate law argue that our state shouldn’t try to address this problem on its own.  However, California is the world’s eighth largest economy, and what we do here carries global significance, both politically and economically.  We passed AB 32 in 2006.  Four years later, at the national level, it is proving difficult or impossible to pass comprehensive climate policy.  If California fails to build on our leadership in this arena, we will be playing into the hands of those, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, who are spending millions of dollars to thwart national action on climate change.

While the foot-dragging on climate protection continues at the national level, everyday’s news brings new evidence of the varied and devastating impacts of climate change happening around the world and within the borders of our own country.

In Pakistan this past summer, twenty million people were injured or made homeless by the most devastating flood of modern times.  In Russia, an unprecedented two-month heat wave doubled the death rate in Moscow and destroyed a quarter of the grain crop.  From the Andes to the Alps to Alaska, glaciers are melting and contributing to water scarcity around the world.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, “Each of the 10 warmest average global temperatures recorded since 1880 have occurred in the last fifteen years.”  2010 has the warmest January-to-June ever recorded in that period.

What about California?  A great many studies have examined the probable impacts of global warming on California’s environment and economy.  This paper will primarily focus on the impacts already happening in California, drawing largely from a report issued by the State of California in 2009: California Adaptation Strategy.  This paper, issued by the California Natural Resources Agency, focuses on the climate related environmental, economic and health-related impacts of a “do-nothing” scenario of greenhouse gas reduction.

What this and other studies are showing is that climate change is not something that will only happen far away or in the distant future.  Climate change is affecting us here and now in measurable ways.  For example, heat waves are causing power outages and filling emergency rooms.  Shrinking of the Sierra snowpack is causing a water crisis.  Money that could go for public services like education and infrastructure is instead being diverted to fire fighting and emergency medical care.

Climate change will affect us more and more dramatically year by year unless and until we take the measures needed to stop it.  Big oil companies and others opposing climate policy frequently point to the economic costs of taking action to reduce carbon emissions.  This discussion paper will focus on the costs of inaction on climate change, and project how climate change impacts will affect the economic sectors in which workers are employed. It will also focus on the macro-economic impacts of climate change on our state’s economy and budget and the implications for public sector workers.

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act ““AB 32 — represents a crucial step toward a solution.  It is serving as a model that proves to the rest of the country that climate protection can work ““ and that it can create jobs and economic advancement in the process.

Many unions at the state and national level have played important roles is highlighting ways in which the clean energy economic is a job generator. This is critical. For purposes of this paper, though, we’ll focus on a topic that is less frequently discussed. In short, how will climate change affect our livelihoods as workers and our quality of life as California residents if we fail to take meaningful steps to reduce carbon emissions?

A many-headed peril
What will be the impact of climate change on California workers if the US and other countries around the world fail to significantly reduce green house gas emissions? In other words, what happens in a “do nothing” scenario?

Climate scientists have established that climate change is caused by “greenhouse gasses,” especially carbon dioxide, which trap the sun’s heat and therefore raise the earth’s temperature.  The greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere mean some climate change is already in the pipeline.  And without comprehensive climate policy that changes our energy use at the national and international level, global warming will continue to increase.  Indeed, starting from a 2006 baseline, world energy consumption is projected to grow by 44 percent by 2030.  Average California temperatures are already rising; they are expected to rise by 2-5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and — in a do-nothing scenario — rise 4-9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

The rising temperature of the earth has all kinds of serious effects that are plaguing us now and will do so even more over the course of this century if we just continue at our present course.  In California:

  • Sea level rise: San Francisco Bay’s sea level rose by 7 inches in the 20th century.  New scientific findings indicate that in a do-nothing scenario California sea level may rise by as much as 55 inches this century, and that the amount could be much higher.  A twelve inch rise in sea levels would mean that ocean flooding that now occurs once a century will occur once a decade, risking breach of levees, flooding of agricultural land, and contamination of fresh water.  The U.S. Geological Survey classifies much of the area around Los Angeles and San Diego and around the Humboldt, San Francisco, and Monterey Bays as at “very high” risk.
  • Droughts: Precipitation is expected to grow more irregular, with greater risk of both flooding and droughts.  Droughts have already increased and are expected to increase dramatically, with critically dry years three times as frequent.  As more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, an 80% decline in the Sierra snowpack is predicted, creating statewide water shortage in late spring and summer.  Average annual water availability in Southern California may decrease by 40%.
  • Forest fires: Intensified dry seasons are leading to larger and more frequent forest fires.  The 2006 wildfires forced the evacuation of more than 900,000 people, the largest evacuation for fire in US history.  In a do-nothing scenario the number of wildfires could increase by up to 169 percent by 2085.
  • Floods: Higher sea levels and increased winter rains are likely to lead to levee failure, salt water contamination of fresh water, and destruction of habitats.
  • Heat waves: In a do-nothing scenario, extreme temperatures that currently occur every 100 years are expected to occur nearly every year by the end of this century.  The number of heat wave days in California cities will quadruple.  High ozone days could increase by 80%.

Many of these effects will reinforce each other.  For example, the combination of rising sea levels and floods from winter rains can combine to threaten levees.

These are conservative estimates; each year’s evidence indicates that global warming and its climate effects are happening much faster than previously believed. Global warming may also lead to “tipping points” like melting of Arctic sea ice or release of frozen methane from the Arctic tundra that would lead to abrupt and even more extreme climate change.

Fortunately, there is a way to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.  We can greatly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses we put into the atmosphere.  The world’s leading organization of climate scientists, the Nobel-prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that climate can be stabilized by reducing developed country emissions to 25-40 percent of 1990 levels by 2020 and 85-95 percent by 2050.  That will require big changes ““ but if labor is involved in shaping those changes, we can ensure that they are worker friendly.

What climate change means for California workers ““ some examples

What will happen to California workers if we do nothing to reduce greenhouse gasses?  We will look at the projected impacts climate change””in a do nothing scenario””will have on the following sectors over the course of this century: Agriculture, Construction, Government, Recreation, Tourism, Ports,  Airlines.

Construction workers. The rise in sea level will threaten real estate along the coast and increasing wildfires will affect the entire state.  California has over $900 billion in “near shore” homes at risk from water damage; in a do-nothing scenario housing prices along the coast are likely to plummet.  The state has five million homes worth $1.6 billion, 40% of all homes, with high or greater fire risk.  Adding fire and flood risks, $2.5 trillion of California’s $4 trillion in real estate assets are exposed to climate risk.

The result of this risk is likely to be a sharp increase in insurance premiums and a long-term fall in real estate values, especially in high-risk locations.  Areas threatened by flood and fire could become unbuildable.  Water shortages could lead to additional restrictions on building.  While the consequences are difficult to predict, massive disinvestment followed by long-term depression in the construction industry is likely.  The impact on building trades jobs could be devastating.  At the least, climate change is likely to lead to massive relocation of construction work, forcing building trades workers to migrate.

Unions affected:
International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers
International Brotherhood of Boilermakers
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
International Union of Elevator Construction
International Union of Operating Engineers
International Union of Painters and Allied Trades
Iron Workers
Laborers International Union of North America
Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association
United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry
United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers
Utility Workers Union of America

Health care workers: Climate warming is producing an increase in the number, length, and severity of deadly heat waves, increasing the incidence of strokes, heart attacks, and severe dehydration.  One study predicts up to four times as many heat-related deaths in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Sacramento, and Fresno in a do-nothing scenario.  Another predicts 600 or more extra heat-related deaths per year in Los Angeles County alone.  An 80% increase in high ozone days will multiply respiratory diseases like asthma.  Increasing forest fires increase the deadly pollutant PM2.5, fine particulates that are responsible for most of California’s pollution deaths.

In a do-nothing scenario hospitalizations and other results of climate-induced ozone and heat waves will cost $24 billion a year.  All this will put huge stress on an already stressed healthcare system at the same time that the broader negative economic impacts of climate change are likely to put pressure on health care funding.

Unions affected:
Service Employees International Union
National Union of Healthcare Workers
California Nurses Association

Farm and agro-processing workers: Climate change will make water scarce and more costly, spread pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly and the bollworm, increase plant-and-animal killing heat spells, reduce winter chilly spells many plants need, and raise the price of fuel and fertilizer.  The record July, 2006 heat wave led to a billion dollar loss for California’s dairy industry.  In one estimate, climate change will reduce California’s agricultural profits by 15%.  Climate change will also lead to big shifts in crops and locations.  Both downsizing and crop change may lead to substantial reductions in farm worker employment.  Heat waves and increased pollution will make farm labor jobs even unhealthier.  Climate-caused disruption in other countries will increase immigration to California, increasing the number of farm workers competing for jobs and thereby driving down wages and making it even harder for farm workers to unionize.

Unions affected:
United Farm Workers
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers International Union

Port and airline workers: Sea level rise, storms, and waves will threaten California’s seaports and airports.  Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland seaports handle 40 percent of US container shipping and nearly a quarter of all foreign trade.  Rising sea levels with high waves and tides are likely to damage port facilities.  Port infrastructure has several hundred billion dollars of real asset exposure to changes in sea level, tides, and wave action.

San Francisco International Airport is 13 feet above mean sea level.  Oakland International airport is nine feet about mean sea level.  Both would be vulnerable to inundation from a rise in sea level.  Crippled seaports and airports unable to support normal traffic would mean fewer jobs for port and airline workers.

Unions affected:
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
International Longshoremen’s Association
International Longshore and Warehouse Union
Seafarers International Union

Tourism and recreation workers. Nearly a million Californians work in tourism and recreation, five percent of the workforce.   Many of the 350 million people who visit California destinations each year come because of outdoor attractions like beaches, ski resorts, parks, and golf courses.  All are affected by climate change.

In a do-nothing scenario California’s ski industry is projected to collapse, eliminating 15,000 jobs in the industry and at least as many in accommodation, dining, and other service industries.  Beaches will suffer inundation from sea level rise and accelerated erosion.  Even if sea level rises only three feet or so, the best-case scenario, it would cause a 26% reduction in beach width in Los Angeles and Orange County beaches and the elimination of Las Tunas beach.  Sea level rise combined with flooding and coastal erosion could devastate Point Reyes National Seashore, including all known archeological sites of the Coast Miwok Indians; climate change is predicted to wipe out all the Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park.

Nearly $100 billion in tourism and recreation assets at risk, with projected annual cost of $200 million to $7.5 billion in climate change damage costs. Hundreds of thousands of jobs would thereby also be put at risk.

Unions affected:
Service Employees International Union
United Food and Commercial Workers
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Public sector workers. As the University of Maryland study The U.S. Economic Impacts of Climate Change points out, “The effects of climate change will likely place immense strains on public budgets, particularly as the cost of infrastructure maintenance and replacement increases.  At the same time economic losses may translate into lost tax revenue.”

Every cost of climate change in California we have discussed, from fighting forest fires to providing summer drinking water, will increase budget pressures.  So will every reduced source of tax revenue, from closed ski lodges to reduced real estate values.  The impact of these budget pressures on workers in the public sector is likely to be massive layoffs, permanent downsizings, further pressure on wages and benefits, speed-up, and deteriorating working conditions.

Unions affected:
Amalgamated Transit Union
American Federation of Government Employees
American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers
American Federation of Teachers
International Association of Fire Fighters
National Education Association
Service Employees International Union

We will all pay the cost
Every flooded city, fire-ravaged forest, and heat-aggravated illness is a cost that is charged to every California worker and taxpayer.  The damages if no action is taken will include tens of billions of dollars per year in direct costs, even higher indirect costs, and trillions of dollars of assets exposed to climate risk.  These costs will be shared in one way or another by all the people of California.  Almost everyone will get poorer than they otherwise would be.

The economic costs of climate change will be experienced partly in costs of direct damage.  An individual whose house is flooded out or a town whose roads are destroyed will bear the initial brunt.  So will those who get sick, stay home from work, or have to visit the hospital as a result of heat stroke, asthma, or epidemics.  If the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) is forced to close permanently, coastal communities up and down the state will be economically devastated.

But these direct effects are only a part of the picture.  As the University of Maryland study The US Economic Impacts of Climate Change points out, “Secondary effects of climate change can include higher prices, reduced income and job loss.”

Many products will cost more because “prices of raw materials and energy, transport, insurance and taxes” will increase.  If there is not enough electricity or water to meet California’s needs, their prices will go up.  If more properties are destroyed, the price of insurance will go up.  If farms are flooded or can’t pay for electricity, the price of food will go up.  For example, per capita residential electricity use could increase by 50% for air conditioning, putting a huge strain on the power system, costing households billions of dollars a year, and undoubtedly leading to far higher electricity costs.

Job loss may also result.  “As the costs for doing business increase, competitiveness of individual firms, entire sectors or regions may decline.  With this decline may come a loss of employment and overall economic security” and effects on “household income.”  The effects of climate change can be thought of as a “negative stimulus” to the economy, leading to reduced profitability, decreased investment, job loss, and falling wages.  The painful economic conditions California workers have faced in the “Great Recession” since 2008 may be greatly intensified by the secondary effects of climate change.

Climate change will also create pressures for higher taxes, service cuts, or both.  Fighting fires, fixing destroyed ports and airports, and providing more hospital care will all cost money.  So will efforts to adapt to climate change by such means as elevating coastal highways, expanding water storage, and investing in power plants.  One way or another the taxpayer will ultimately pay most of those costs.

What is labor’s role?
It is easy to respond to the threat of climate change with denial, evasion, or despair.  If climate change has already begun, is there any point in trying to halt it?  If fixing it requires global cooperation, why not wait till other countries all agree on what to do?  How can we ever address such a huge problem when even small changes are so difficult to make?

The threat of climate change and the steps needed to forestall it have been known for a quarter of a century.  By failing to take meaningful action at the national and global level, we have already made some of these effects inevitable.  But we can head off far worse effects if we make the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that climate science says are necessary. This will require proactive leadership at all levels of society.

The labor movement in California and throughout the country has led the way in promoting “green jobs” that can help reduce carbon emissions while also helping fix our economy.   But those green jobs will be few and far between without a commitment to converting to a low carbon, clean energy economy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.  While unions are only one among many forces needed to bring about that commitment, they can play a crucial leadership role as the voice of working people.  After all, it is our members who will face the brunt of the impacts of climate change on and off the job.

Here are some possible points that forward thinking unions might discuss:

  • Help California lead the way. AB32 and California’s other climate protection policies provide a beacon showing the pathway to a clean energy economy.  AB32 needs to be protected from attacks by dirty energy companies and climate change denying ideologues.  It needs to be fully implemented.  And it needs to be implemented in a way that shows that climate policy can advance the interests of workers. Organized labor has an essential role to play in making that happen.
  • See that climate protection creates good jobs. Labor has been fighting to ensure that California’s renewable electricity policy creates jobs and a growing renewable energy industry in California.  Unions can fight in every arena to ensure that climate protection policies realize their full potential for creating new jobs.  And it can fight to be sure those are good jobs, and that workforce job quality standards are applied.
  • Protect workers from unfair side effects of climate policies. While most studies agree that climate-protecting energy policies will produce more not fewer jobs, there may be some potential for jobs to be lost.  Organized labor should insist on a just transition in which workers who are adversely affected do not unfairly bear the burden of policies that are necessary for the well being of all.  Where there is some potential for job loss, there needs to be not only transition assistance but an equivalent to the “GI Bill of Rights” that lets those affected develop new occupations and careers. The AFL-CIO proposed worker transition protections that were successfully inserted into the American Climate and Energy Security Act (the climate bill that was passed by the US House of Representatives).  This legislation, nor any legislation that caps carbon, has not been voted upon in the Senate””hence we have no national climate policy.  But the worker transition and protection language developed for the ACES bill, and others similar policies, should be made part of any climate legislation that is developed at the state and national levels.
  • Take the lead in researching and implementing climate protection policies in their own industries. Most employers have been woefully slow introducing climate-friendly technologies and practices ““ even when these would save money in the long run.  Unions can research state-of-the-art solutions being used other states and countries, figure out how to apply them here in California, and encourage the employers and the state to adopt them in a labor-friendly way.  For example, plumbers and fitters can research water recycling and efficiency programs and push to implement them here at home.  In fact, they already are!Make climate a labor issue. Unions have long recognized that the well being of their members requires them to be involved with public policy on questions ranging from healthcare to education that go far beyond the workplace.  Unions can leverage their political power to ensure a better climate future for their members and communities.
  • Develop “climate action plans.” Cities and states around the country have laid out detailed plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Unions can do the same.  The plans can include specific measures unions identify to reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy in their own workplaces, companies and most significantly, industrial sectors.  They can then work with regional and state government to see that these ideas for carbon reduction are incorporated into their local and state climate action plans.

Conclusion: Seeking Your Input

We have sought to address the harmful and long-lasting effects climate change is likely to have on our members and their jobs, families, and communities if no action is taken to seriously reduce carbon emissions.  Policies to address those effects are at least as essential as healthcare, education, and jobs for the future of our unions and their members.  And only with the policies and resources needed to build a clean energy economy can the promise of green jobs be fulfilled.

We are interested in the actions your union is taking to build the clean energy economy, and more specifically, to push for meaningful government and civic action to address climate change. We hope to begin an ongoing dialogue with unions and their members about this critical challenge, and an initial step is asking you to go to our website to answer the following questions regarding your union’s activities.

“¢    What steps is your union taking to advance the clean energy economy?

“¢    What could your union do that you are not currently doing in this area?

“¢    What is your union doing to support policies to address climate change?

“¢    What could your union do that you are not currently doing in this area?

“¢    Are there any ideas you have regarding labor and climate change that were not addressed here? Please let us know.

“¢    How can labor partner with other organizations and movements to address climate change? Has your union been involved in any of these efforts?

Here’s how to send us your thoughts and ideas:

Visit LNS’s website and click “Send Us Your Ideas” at the top of the page;

Go to LNS’s Facebook Page and click on the “Discussions” Tab;

Email us directly: b@bsmith.org

We welcome your input.

[This discussion paper was prepared for the Labor Network for Sustainability by LNS staff members Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith and LNS board member Lisa Hoyos of the UC Berkeley Labor Center and the California Apollo Alliance.]