[Fifth in the series “Labor goes to Copenhagen]

The effort to address the worst environmental catastrophe in human history is coming in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Business and governments have used economic adversity as an excuse to limit efforts to address climate change.   As representatives of unions from around the world join the climate conference in Copenhagen, they are advocating a very different approach: a “global green new deal” which uses massive investment in climate protection to create millions of new green jobs and jumpstart the global economy. 

In the depths of the Great Depression, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated launched the New Deal ““ a set of government programs to provide employment and social security, reform tax policies and business practices, and stimulate the economy.  It included the building of homes, hospitals, school, roads, dams, and electrical grids.   The New Deal put millions of people to work and created a new policy framework for America democracy.

Unions from around the world, represented by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), have worked with the UN to develop a strategy for utilizing the current crisis to reconstruct a greener and more just global economy.

This approach has been endorsed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  At the Poznan climate change conference a year ago he said that the financial crisis requires massive global stimulus, and that a big part of that spending should be investing in a green future.  “An investment that fights climate change, creates millions of green jobs and spurs green growth.”  What the world needs, in short, is a “Green New Deal.”

The ITUC partners with the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) in the Green Economy Initiative, which advocates “mobilizing and re-focusing the global economy towards investments in clean technologies and “˜natural’ infrastructure such as forests and soils.”  According to UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, the financial, fuel, and food crises result in part from “speculation and a failure of governments to intelligently manage and focus markets.”  Enormous economic, social and environmental benefits are likely to arise from “combating climate change and re-investing in natural infreastructures ““ benefits ranging from new green jobs in clean tech and clean energy businesses up to ones in sustainable agriculture and conservation-based enterprises.”

According to UNEP, the objectives of a “Global Green New Deal” should be to create jobs and restore the financial system and global economy to health; to put the post-crisis economy on a sustainable path that deals with ecological scarcity and climate instability; and third to end extreme poverty.  It spells out investments and policy reforms to achieve these goals.

The ITUP has also partnered with UNEP on a “Green Jobs Initiative” whose program is summed up in the report Green Jobs: Toward Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low-Carbon World.  It describes the role of green jobs in “averting dangerous and potentially unmanageable climate change and protecting the natural environment” while  “providing decent work and thus the prospect of well”being and dignity for all in the face of rapid population growth worldwide and the current exclusion of over a billion people from economic and social development.”  It describes how green jobs are already growing in many parts of the world, but that many of them will not become good jobs unless deliberate policies are followed to make them so.

Indeed, the world labor movement emphasizes that addressing both the problem of climate change and the problem of economic decline require government leadership and cooperation among governments.  As the ITUC’s statement to the Copenhagen climate conference put it,

“Economic transformation can not be left to the “invisible hand” of the market.  Government-driven investments, innovation and skills development, social protection and consultation with social partners (unions and employers) are essential if we want to make change happen.”

“As the Stern Review reminds us, climate change represents the biggest market failure in history.  We cannot rust the same failed market mechanisms to successfully steer out of this crisis.  The problem has to be solved through regulation, democratically-decided and implemented public policies and most importantly political leadership.”