[Third in the series “Labor Goes to Copenhagen]

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-sponsored scientific body that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work, keeping global temperature within 2 degrees C of historic levels requires reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by specific targets.

The global trade union movement has committed itself to the IPPC’s science-based targets.  In its statement to the Copenhagen negotiations, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 170 million workers in trade unions around the world, said,

“We reaffirm the commitment of the global trade union movement to achieving an agreement that will limit the global temperature to raise no more than 2 degrees C. . . .  trade unions urge Governments at the UNFCCC [climate change negotiations] in Copenhagen to follow the IPCC scenario for reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 85% lower than their 1990 levels by the year 2050 and emphasize the need for interim targets for this to be achieved, including a corresponding reduction of at least 25-40% by developed countries by 2020 below 1990 levels.”

Shortly before the Copenhagen Conference was scheduled to open, Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ITUC, reaffirmed this position: “The world simply cannot afford further delays in action to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Political leadership is critically important at this juncture, and unless momentum is regained, with world will pay a heavy price.”

Not every union or federation worldwide fully endorses these targets.  For example, the Solidarity union in Poland, which has almost a million coal-related jobs, has warned that EU climate protection measures will simply shift coal production from Poland to the Ukraine.  The AFL-CIO has not endorsed the IPCC targets, and in a non-public statement distributed by the AFL-CIO at climate negotiations a year ago said that the US’s “high degree of dependence on fossil fuels generally, and on coal for electricity generation, poses unique challenges for structuring near-term climate change policies that would not unduly harm workers, the economy, and consumers.”  But even they have not opposed the consensus in the ITUC.

Indeed, a number of important US unions and labor organizations support science-based reductions on GHGs.  The Service Employees 2008 convention resolution supported “emission reduction targets based on sound science” and the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department warned of the dire consequences of failure to reverse global warming “within the ambitious time frames President-elect Obama has articulated and scientists believe to be non-negotiable.”  The Blue-Green Alliance (BGA), which includes the Steelworkers, IUE-CWA, SEIU, Laborers, Utility Workers, and American Federation of Teachers along with the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council, has supported the principle of science-based targets, though not necessarily the IPCC’s specific targets.

The IPPC called for global GHG emissions to be reduced by at least 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.  There are a variety of proposals for how these cuts should be distributed, but in any case most of them will have to be made by the developed countries, since they produce most of the world’s emissions.  When the EU proposed an interim target of a 30 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020 for developed countries, the ITUC endorsed this as a benchmark.

Updated scientific information indicates that even more rapid reductions may be necessary.  The ITUC recognizes that in the future “scientific evidence might require more ambitious actions.”  It called for any international climate agreement to include a “review clause” and a full-scale evaluation of the environmental effectiveness of the agreement.

International labor believes that that transition to a low-carbon economy must protect workers, but that doesn’t mean protecting the status quo in order to protect jobs.  As Brian Kohler, health and safety director of the International Federation of Chemical Energy and Mine and General Workers Union (ICEM), put it:  “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”