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A world beyond tar sands: the fight for climate jobs

By: 
Jesse McLaren

June 17, 2015

The IPCC report from last year said that climate change would produce “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” if not reduced, and a report in the journal Nature this year showed that 85 per cent of tar sands must remain in the ground to avoid a 2 degree rise.

As the Globe and Mail explained, “Domestic estimates of Alberta’s oil reserves come in at about 168 billion barrels, with hundreds of billions more available for extraction if future oil prices make the resource more attractive. The study uses a more conservative estimate of 48 billion barrels as the current reserve and then finds that only 7.5 billion barrels of that, or about 15 per cent, can be used by 2050 as part of the global allotment of fossil-fuel use in a two-degree scenario." The Council of Canadians have done the math: “The proposed Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Energy East, Trans Mountain and Arctic Gateway pipelines. Together, those pipelines would move about 3.45 million barrels of oil per day or about 1.26 billion barrels a year. If all of these pipelines were to become operational, they would exceed the 7.5 billion barrel limit noted in this British study in less than six years.”

So this is an urgent question, and what happens in Canada will have a major impact on the global climate. As NASA scientist James Hansen explained: “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” But this risk is not evenly distributed. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans it disproportionately affected poor and racialized communities. Hurricane Sandy and typhoon Haiyan’s destruction in Haiti/Philippines is linked to the history of colonialism and imperialism in the region. Tar sands disproportionately affect indigenous communities, including the Athabasca Chippewyan First Nation at ground zero, Aamjiwnaang First Nation surrounded by refineries in Chemical Valley, and Chippewas of the Thames whose territory Line 9 crosses (and who are appealing its reversal).

Tar sands economics

For years we’ve been told to ignore climate change and communities affected because of the economy. But the falling price of oil from $100 to $60/barrel has burst that bubble. The profit-squeeze on the tar sands is, unfortunately, not because oil demand has been decimated by a shift to a green economy or massive demilitarization.

Oil prices have fallen because the US has massively increased natural gas from fracking; Saudi Arabia has refused to cut its output to maintain prices; and economic stagnation around the world has also reduced demand. None of these on their own promote alternatives and low prices won’t automatically put an end to the tar sands. Despite myths of the “free market,” the tar sands only emerged with government intervention—both Tory and Liberal. As the Globe and Mail explained: “In the mid-1990s, with oil prices at depressed levels, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien had to provide tax breaks to rescue the industry, in particular the two major oil sands producers, Suncor and Syncrude Canada Ltd. It wasn’t until international crude prices began to soar in 2003–reflecting war in the Middle East and the rise in China’s demand–that the oil sands sector found firm economic footing and expansion began in earnest.”

Contrast that investment with climate jobs. According to a recent report by Clean Energy Canada, there are now more people employed in green energy than in the tar sands, but still no interest from the federal government: “Every major industrial sector in Canada—from the aerospace industry to the oil sands—has gotten off the ground with support from the federal government. But in the clean-energy sector, the federal government is really missing in action.”

While manufacturing has been devastated by economic crisis and austerity, jobs on tar sands and pipelines have been held up as the solution. But now the oil squeeze has led oil companies to balance their books on workers: Shell fired 300 workers in January, Cenovus fired 800 workers in February, Husky Energy fired 1,000 workers in March, Suncor fired 1,000 workers in April, and Bombardier announced 1,750 layoffs in May. The nature of these jobs has also been exposed: exploiting temporary foreign workers and creating isolating and dangerous jobs. According to Greenpeace, Fort McMurray has highest suicide rate men 18-24; five times more drug offences, 89 per cent higher rate of assault; and 117 per cent higher rate of impaired driving—and this was before the recent layoffs.

Tar sands politics

This economic shock has contributed to a political shock of an NDP majority in Alberta on platform to raise royalty rates and corporate taxes, support a $15 minimum wage, invest in healthcare and education, and consult with First Nations. There was a wave of joy across the country. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation wrote that they “are ecstatic with the results of the last nights election ushering in a new NDP majority government in Alberta.  It is clear that Albertans also want change and we are encouraged this government will take the time to do the proper assessments that evoke that change. As First Nations we are optimistic to finally have a government that recognizes and respects Indigenous rights and territories and look forward to sitting at the table with this new government to find effective ways to implement and respect Aboriginal rights across multiple sectors.”

But Notley’s first phone calls was not to First Nations but to “partners in the energy industry” to reassure them “they’ll come to realize that things are going to be just A-OK.” As the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said, “We’re looking forward to working with her on the building of Energy East, the Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion into Vancouver.” The NDP is not against tar sands (and neither is green party). They both support more domestic refining that continues tar sands and makes no difference to climate change or Indigenous communities. As one article explained, “Notley isn't broadly anti-pipeline. She supports Kinder Morgan's proposal for a TransMountain line from Alberta to British Columbia as well as the proposed Energy East pipeline to the Atlantic, which would be bigger than Keystone XL and bolster the oil-sands industry. The one pipeline she's soured on, the Gateway project to British Columbia, has little chance of being completed anyway, thanks to fierce opposition from First Nations."

The NDP support the tar sands for two reasons. First because they orient to the Canadian state that exists to manage Canadian capitalism. Their slogan is that “a better tar sands is possible,” not “shut down tar sands,” and there’s nothing we can do to change the NDP’s reformism. But secondly, the NDP is a party affiliated with the labour movement and reflect the union bureaucracy’s low horizons of defending dangerous jobs rather than fighting for transition to jobs that respect workers and the planet. This aspect we can change: by supporting Indigenous communities leading fight against tar sands, buildinga  labour movement that fights for climate jobs, building a climate justice movement that supports it, and demanding that the NDP reflect these demands.

Climate jobs

The movement for climate jobs has begun across Canada. There have been conferences, like 2009 Good Green Jobs for All conference in Toronto and the 2010 Jobs, Justice and Climate conference in Vancouver. There have been studies—like the 2012 Blue-Green Canada study that $1.3 billion subsidies in oil/gas could create 18,000 more jobs in wind, solar, hydro and energy efficiency; or this year’s CCPA study on just transition. There have been community initiatives like Tsleil-Waututh Nation using solar panels to power daycare and teach kids about alternatives.

There’s been growing solidarity within the labour movement for climate justice. In 2012 the Canadian Auto Workers mobilized for the sit-in in Victoria, and as an organizer explained, “The ongoing risks that these tar sands pipelines and tankers pose aren’t worth any price. Tens of thousands of unionized and other jobs depend on healthy river and ocean ecosystems.” The next year Unifor signed the Solidarity Accord with the Save the Fraser Declaration, saying “We, the undersigned, say to our First Nations brothers and sisters, and to the world, that we are prepared to stand with you to protect the land, the water and our communities from the Enbridge pipelines and tankers project and similar projects to transport tar sands oil.” Last year Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs got a standing ovation at the BC Federation of Labour when he announced he would join those getting arrested on Burnaby mountain protesting Kinder Morgan. Last year a number of labour locals sent resolutions to the OFL against Line 9, including Toronto Steelworkers, who spoke at rally. Labour unions have been part of climate marches, from New York to Quebec City, and one million climate job campaigns are emerging around the world.

This idea began in UK in 2009 when windmill workers occupied their factory. As British climate campaigner Martin Empson explained, “Many of us involved in the trade union side of the Campaign Against Climate Change had been trying to bring together the environmental movement with organised workers. But in many ways this had been an abstract argument. This wasn’t to say that Trade Unionists weren’t interested in environmental questions, nor was it to say that all environmentalists had the stereotypical view of unions as only being interested in jobs. But breaking down the barriers was slow work. That changed when Vestas announced the closure of their plant on the Isle of Wight with the loss of 600 jobs…Vestas brought together the environmentalists and the trade unionists in a campaign that made the abstract real. Workers and environmentalists uniting could be powerful and inspiring…In the context of growing economic uncertainty, we launched our pamphlet, arguing that the solution to climate change was the creation of climate jobs that could reduce emissions.”

Their pamphlet has sold thousands and launched a million climate jobs campaign. With 20 billion Euros, which could be raised by taxing the rich and reducing militarism, they are demanding: 400,000 jobs in wind/tidal, 185,000 in retrofitting, 310,000 in buses/trains/bike lanes, 35,000 education. In 2011 the One Million Climate Jobs campaign spread to South Africa, calling for: 150,000 jobs to create 50 per cent of electricity from wind/solar; 27,000 jobs to make industries energy efficient; 120,000 jobs to reduce energy use through retrofitting; 70,000 jobs to shift 10 per cent of car commuter to transit; 500,000 jobs to produce food through small-scale organic farming; and 400,000 jobs for water/soil/biodiversity restoration.

Now the campaign for One Million Climate Jobs has spread to Canada with the Green Economy Network. As their materials describe, $4.65 billion dollars (half what Harper gave the military in the latest budget) could create 92,000 public sector jobs in wind/solar/tidal/geothermal; $25 billion (less than half what Harper gave in corporate tax cuts) could create 100,000 jobs to build a high-speed rail network that would cut emissions.

Climate action

As Naomi Klein wrote in This Changes Everything, “Today's climate movement does not have the luxury of simply saying no without simultaneously fighting for a series of transformative yeses -- the building blocks of our next economy that can provide good clean jobs, as well as a social safety net that cushions the hardships for those inevitably suffering losses...There is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives. Just the glimpse of another kind of economy can be enough to energize the fight against the old one.”

There are a few upcoming events to fight the old economy and build the new

* July 4 we > tar sands actions across the country

* July 5 March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate in Toronto

* July 10-11 climate justice discussions at the Toronto People’s Social Forum

* September 4-5 Toxic Tour in Aamjiwnaang

* September 14 global union climate conference in Paris

These mobilizations will shape the terrain for the October federal election and December climate talks in Paris, and for the growing movements for a world beyond tar sands. As the Toronto and York Region Labour Council wrote in their statement in support of the July 5 March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate, “We don't have to choose between the economy or the environment. Real climate action means investing in mass public transit, clean energy infrastructure and affordable housing. It means expanding low-carbon sectors like health, education and sustainable agriculture. By taking real climate action, we can create an economy that is more fair and equal and offers hundreds of thousands of good new jobs. We want an economy where workers win, communities have more democratic control, and those most impacted and impoverished are the first in line to benefit. An economy that honours Indigenous peoples' rights and recognizes their role in protecting the land, air and water for everyone. An economy that respects the limits of the environment made clear by climate science.”

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