With the collapse of climate protection legislation in Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, acting under a mandate from the US Supreme Court, is stepping in to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing climate change.  At the end of 2009 it issued an “endangerment finding” that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” New regulations are scheduled to go into effect early in 2011.

While American labor unions have been heavily involved in the discussion of climate legislation and green jobs, since the defeat of climate legislation few have publicly raised their voices yet on EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses.  Here are five reasons they should support it.

1. Labor has identified “green jobs” as the key to its future.  But recent experience shows that there is no way to grow green jobs without putting the pressure on to reduce emissions ““ that’s why green jobs have been growing so slowly in the US.  EPA regulation is a powerful tool to do that.  Only with such pressure will the many players in the US economy use whatever subsidies and public investments are made to actually create green jobs by transitioning to a lower-GHG basis.  Compared with overall spending in the economy, spending on environmental protection and clean-up employs more than twice as many workers in construction (11 percent versus 4 percent) and 25 percent more in manufacturing (20 percent versus 16 percent). Plant closings and layoffs in response to environmental regulation are very rare, affecting only 1/10th of 1 percent of all layoffs nationwide. Science-based targets and timelines are essential to spur investment and create green jobs.

2.  US standards are necessary to keep other countries from capturing the entire climate protection industry.  In the absence of carbon reduction policies, US companies have little incentive to invest in low-carbon energy technologies like wind and solar.  As a result, corporations have actually been taking manufacturing jobs away from the US and moving them to countries like China that are investing heavily in carbon-reducing technologies.  A strong domestic clean-energy industry will only develop when we have a strong domestic demand for clean energy.  Right now EPA regulation is a crucial means to achieve that.

3.  EPA regulation will strengthen domestic manufacturing.  A recent study by the World Resources Institute shows that new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions will lead to corporate investment in energy efficiency.  That in turn will lead to energy cost savings for American manufacturers.  Not to mention new jobs created by that investment.

4.  Climate change is already threatening millions of American jobs.  A study from the University of Maryland concludes that, “The true economic impact of climate change is fraught with ‘hidden’ costs.”  These costs will vary regionally and will put a strain on public sector budgets. For example, even under current conditions, the combined storm impact for the nation since 1980 has surpassed $560 billion. More frequent and intense storms would raise the price tag even higher.  A recent study of the economic effects of climate change on California found that 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.

5.  Climate-destroying greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced to the level climate science says is acceptable ““ the consequences of not doing so are just too devastating.  With labor-supported climate legislation defeated, EPA regulation is the primary means available now to get started.  While the cuts mandated by the EPA are far less than those in labor-supported climate legislation, and far below targets established by climate scientists as necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change, they do provide an opportunity to start moving in the right direction.  For the sake of its members, their communities, and their children, organized labor must help take the lead.

Of course, the fossil fuel lobby, climate change deniers, and right-wing ideologues are trying to scare American workers that climate protection will mean vast loss of jobs.  But most studies indicate exactly the opposite: money invested in the transition to clean energy will produce far more jobs than continuing to expand the use of fossil fuels. For example, a research group at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst estimates that $150 billion in clean-energy spending will generate 1.7 million new jobs.

With so much to gain from effective climate protection, American labor should strongly support EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses.  We should be insisting that EPA regulation maximize the creation of new green jobs.  And we should be taking the lead in recommending ways to protect any specific groups of workers from being inadvertently harmed along the way.  Labor should insist that every worker who may be adversely affected by climate change policies receive a package like the “GI Bill of Rights” that provides guaranteed income during transition, pensions, health care, and education and financial support for new careers.  And we should insist that communities dependent on fossil fuel-related jobs in regions like Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Gulf Coast be targeted for massive community and regional development programs focused on new, renewable forms of energy.

Only if organized labor constructively engages with the EPA regulation process are we likely to have a result that protects both workers’ jobs and the health and welfare of workers, our children, and our communities.