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It is a false choice. It must be both, or it will ultimately be neither. Climate change is considered the most serious environmental issue facing the world today. However, we can only solve it by considering all of the dimensions of sustainability – environmental, economic, and social.
Sustainability includes environmental protection, human rights, and labour rights, and economic development. It is the balance between the environment and the social imperatives of sustainability that gives the labour movement its credibility on sustainability matters. It is the integration of environmental, social, and economic concerns that will move the world to a sustainable future.
Labour’s demand must be for a Just Transition that ensures not only the creation of large numbers of greener, more sustainable jobs; but a plan to keep workers, their families, and their communities – and our unions – whole through the transition is respect for labour rights.
Much of the solution lies at least in part in global governance. Financial markets must be regulated, and the environment must be better protected. With a few exceptions, our experience with the ideology of deregulation and privatization has been overwhelmingly negative.
The necessary foundation for a socially sustainable world is respect for the dignity and human rights of workers. The starting point for an understanding of human rights is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and for labour rights, it is the International Labour Organization (ILO) Labour Standards, especially the ILO’s Core Labour Standards.
On close examination, it is quickly apparent that the greatest threat to working conditions and workers’ rights in today’s energy industries is not a climate policy. By far the threat to quality sustainable employment and workers’ rights continues to be globalization, technological change, and the replacement of high-quality jobs with contract and other forms of precarious employment.
In many parts of the world, the mining and oil industries have an unfortunate reputation for ruthless treatment of workers, local populations, and indigenous peoples, violations of human rights, and labour rights. The same multinational companies sometimes present quite a different face in the developed world than they do in their operations in the developing world. This behavior too has had little or nothing to do with climate change policies.
This is not to say that workers do not have legitimate concerns about how measures to protect the climate will be implemented. The desire to fight global climate change will play an important role in the evolution of working conditions and labour rights.
It is not only important to create new, greener jobs – high-quality, unionized ones – we must also make existing jobs greener and create a ‘ Just Transition’ with sound policies and solid social programs. This will need progress on many fronts. Conservation alone will not win the day, we will also need advanced technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration/storage, nanotechnology, ‘green chemistry’, and biotechnology. Without a deliberate plan for a Just Transition, there will be an unjust one. Working people and their families will pay yet again for the mistakes of the rich.
At COP-26 in Glasgow, Scotland that a fair, ambitious, and legally binding agreement on global greenhouse emissions is necessary, but that the legitimate concerns of workers for social justice and long-term employment must be addressed for it to gain the necessary support. Despite our best efforts, COP-26 produced only a political face-saving document. Workers’ concerns must be carried into future climate negotiations.