Unions call for democratic control of energy as IPCC warns of “widespread and profound impacts” of climate change

Sean Sweeney, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy

On November 2, 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Synthesis Report, the final in the “Fifth Assessment Report” process. It builds on three reports released by the IPCC since early 2013.

The IPCC is a senior UN panel made up of thousands of climate scientists and this report marks its fifth ‘assessment’ since 1990 of the state of the climate and the present and future impacts of global warming.

The Synthesis Report reiterates what the IPCC has been telling us for a decade or more: “Climate change is being registered around the world and warming of the climate system is unequivocal. Since the 1950s many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years in the Northern Hemisphere. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years”.

The report may be the same as previous IPCC reports in terms of the main messages and conclusions, but one thing is different. The 20 years of political inaction around climate, with its sad mixture of back-slapping and back stabbing by negotiators at scores of summits and meetings, has now created a situation where only bold and transformative interventions offer any hope of controlling runaway global warming. Even relatively conservative commentators and analysts now accept this to be true. Among the most important of these interventions involves expanding and deepening social ownership and democratic control of the world’s energy systems—energy democracy. This is needed in order to facilitate an energy transition from fossil-based power to renewable energy, a transition of sufficient speed and scale to be able to seriously address the climate crisis.

Among those embracing energy democracy are a growing number of unions working in partnership with allies in different social movements. Not all unions are convinced that energy democracy is either desirable or possible—especially given the political and economic power of the oil, coal and gas companies. And those unions either supporting the idea or at least open to it are engaging in serious discussions regarding what energy democracy would look like and how it could, alongside addressing pollution and emissions, also seriously address energy poverty, create jobs and advance equality. But everyone involved in the trade union debates on climate change accepts that ‘business as usual’ is simply not an option and the energy system has to be transformed within two or three decades. The IPCC’s report has again sounded the alarm about climate change, but we cannot evacuate the building because we have nowhere else to go.

Emissions going up, not down

The IPCC’s report issued a dire warning about the upward trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions levels. Emissions from fossil fuel use have risen a staggering 61% since 1990. The IPCC re-stated the need for a rapid reduction in order to attempt to control global warming and reduce climate disruptions. “Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming,” it said, “increasing the likelihood of widespread and profound impacts affecting all levels of society and the natural world.”

To stay within 2 degrees Celsius of warming (the accepted international target) emissions “should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally” before 2050 and “to zero by 2100,” says the Synthesis Report. However, it is today widely accepted that 2 degrees Celsius can no longer be considered ‘safe’ given the impact of less than 1ºC of warming that we are presently witnessing. Therefore 1.5 ºC should be recognized as the new international target. In either case, fossil fuels must, says the IPCC, be phased out completely.

Routine Reactions?

Reactions both to the report and to the challenge it poses have thus far followed a fairly familiar pattern. Political leaders are again being urged to act, to show political will, and to do what they have palpably failed to do in past. The last time the IPCC issued a Synthesis Report was following its Fourth Assessment Report (FAR4) in November 2007, almost exactly seven years ago. The word ‘unequivocal’ was used then too–-and the 2007 report also pointed out in strong terms that the economic and social costs of doing nothing would be severe, far more severe than would be incurred if decisive action were taken in order to confront the crisis. At a meeting in Valencia, Spain, on November 4, 2007, IPCC scientists said reductions in greenhouse gases had to start immediately to avert a global climate disaster which, it warned, could leave island nations submerged and abandoned, reduce African crop yields by 50 percent, and cause a 5 percent decrease in global gross domestic product. IPCC Chair Dr. Rajendra Pachauri was clear: “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late…What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

The Impact of Lost Time

But the defining moment passed; 2012 has come and gone—and emissions have kept on rising. China’s emissions have grown 44% since 2008, and India’s by 41%. Indeed, the policy implications of the failure to act on climate needs to be fully grasped and the appropriate conclusions drawn. Price Waterhouse Cooper’s (PWC) annual Low Carbon Economy Index notes the delay has made the 2ºC almost impossible to achieve. Carrying the somber title Too Late for Two Degrees? the PWC report focuses on the rate of change of global carbon intensity. According to PWC, “This year (2013) we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2ºC warming target has risen to 5.1% a year, (every year) from now to 2050.” Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C therefore “appear highly unrealistic.” The report concluded, “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions” (emphasis added). In this short video, PWC’s Jonathan Grant says, “Unless there is a radical policy shift we are on track for a warming world and I think business needs to prepare for that.” The PWC report concludes, “businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world – not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.”

Trade Unions are Offering Real Solutions

The need for a radical policy shift leading to radical transformations must therefore be central to trade union climate and energy policy. Unions and their allies simply cannot, and do not, accept a 6°C world or even a 4°C world. To tie these numbers (as the PWC report does) to ‘pessimistic scenarios’ is to contort the meaning of the word pessimism. These levels of warming will make large parts of the earth uninhabitable and the other parts simply miserable.

In terms of mitigation, a 5.1% annual reduction in carbon intensity is technically possible, but any chance of coming close to reaching this annual target will be contingent upon unions and their allies being successful in building a transformative social movement aimed at confronting ‘business as usual.’ More warming is indeed inevitable, but only the most naïve and gullible among us will be reassured by the idea that businesses and political leaders will be able to “plan for a warming world,” especially given the fact that they can not even slow down the global rise in emissions in the first place.

A planned, coordinated and equitable approach to a societal ‘just transition’ will require more social ownership and democratic control of key carbon-intensive sectors like electrical power generation, transport systems, food and agriculture, and in parts of the buildings and construction sector. Health and public services need to be fully staffed and resourced in order to deal with climate related occurrences, including the spread of disease and extreme weather events. This extension of economic democracy and an expansion of the public sphere is therefore a key component of the radical shift we desperately need – a shift that can allow humanity to intercept and reverse the dynamics of endless ‘growth’, accumulation and irresponsible consumption in a way that can effectively address poverty, powerlessness and inequality.

Encouragingly, support for public ownership and democratic control of energy is growing among unions and social movements. For example, in its statement for the December 2014 UN climate talks in Lima, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) notes how “Democratic ownership of energy is needed if we are to achieve ambitious climate action. Energy, along with other common goods that belong to humanity (air, water) must be brought, administered and kept under public control. Energy companies need to be restructured in order to allow for broad democratic control and oversight, including a strong scheme of workers’ participation.” The ITUC is not alone in recognizing the need for bold policy interventions to address the climate crisis, particularly in the energy sector, which is responsible for most of the world’s annual emissions. Unions in all sectors are reaching this conclusion, such as those in health care, public services, transport workers, and also unions in power generation. At its recent national conference in Las Vegas in late September 2014, the 180,000-member National Nurses United unanimously adopted a resolution on climate justice that committed it to “join with unions and other social movements and organizations in the effort to promote public ownership and community-level control of electrical power generation and the effort to transition away from fossil fuels.” Representing more than 50 million workers, in May 2014 the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas called for the ‘democratization of energy’ and the need to protect “the commons of humanity -biodiversity, water, seeds, forests, energy and knowledge (that) should not be subjected to private profit, but instead should be used responsibly for the common good.”

Economic democracy was once a key trade union objective, and stood at the center of the trade union vision for a better world. In the context of climate change, it has never been more important than it is today. But taking on the fossil fuel corporations and democratizing energy will of course require clear plan of action backed up by a sustained and determined effort over a period of years. In this respect, much work needs to be done among unions in all countries and regions and at all levels of the movement. The fact that many mainstream environmental organizations and policy groups are also reluctant to champion economic democracy as an essential component of a climate justice agenda is also a challenge that needs to be addressed, especially in the global North. In a recent report urging the U.S. reduce emissions 40% by 2035 (based on 2005 levels) the liberal policy group Center for American Progress concluded, “Our policy agenda must ultimately be effective in mobilizing clean energy investments by private business owners. There is no other way in which the United States can realistically achieve its 20-year CO2 emissions reduction target.” Such a conclusion seems unaware of the fact that most of the investment in renewable energy taking place globally, however inadequate, is actually being generated by the public sector, according to a 2013 study by the Public Services International Research Unit. The growing trade union commitment to energy democracy, and economic democracy more generally, must involve engaging our allies in the environmental movement that still foster illusions in the capacity of private markets to drive the energy transition.

The IPCC’s Synthesis Report should not be one-day news story but, in Dr. Pachauri’s words, a ‘defining moment’ in terms of helping to further shape a trade union agenda that says a clear ‘No’ to a 6°C world and a clear ‘Yes’ to the kind of policies, anchored in the principle of economic democracy, that can empower workers and communities to address the climate crisis and its civilizational implications.


By |2016-11-01T02:27:30+00:00November 7th, 2014|News|Comments Off on Unions call for democratic control of energy as IPCC warns of “widespread and profound impacts” of climate change