Building a clean energy economy that works

Repower LA workers do an energy audit.
© Repower LA

By Dean Hubbard, Director of the Sierra Club's Labor Program.

To prevent irreparable disruption to our climate and human civilization, we must get to 100 percent fossil fuel free energy production, and we must do it quickly. This is a very tall order. A successful transition to clean energy will bring American workers along, ensuring hope for those who have been employed in the fossil fuel industry to move to better jobs with union representation.

We can only build a coalition with the power to curb climate disruption if environmentalists are fighting for economic and racial justice as hard as they are against fossil fuels, and if unions are fighting as hard for an immediate transition to a worker-friendly clean energy economy as they are to protect their members. Environmental, economic, and climate justice are inseparable.

We must pay attention to the need to ensure that those who are employed in the fossil fuel industry are ready and able to transition into good-paying clean energy jobs - whether they are working now in the coal-fields or the oil fields.

The clean energy transition is already well under way. The U.S. will only burn about as much coal this year as it did in 1993. China, which burns as much coal as the rest of the world combined, is taking steps to slow its coal consumption. New higher efficiency light duty and soon to come heavy duty vehicle standards are reducing oil consumption. And economic forces are playing a role too. Utilities, such as Xcel in Colorado, are ramping up solar and wind beyond what they’re required to do because it is cost-competitive, not only with coal and oil but with natural gas.

Regardless of the causes of the transition, we can only do it fairly and justly if we make a profound change, beginning right now, from a global economy dominated by big polluting billionaires and corporate executives who defy any consideration of the public good, towards a more sustainable economic future based upon fairer, more equitable, healthier societies.

The place to start is clean energy. Renewable energy and energy efficiency investments create far more jobs per dollar spent than fossil fuels, including natural gas (source - PDF). If done properly, the clean energy transition will lead to a massive expansion of good jobs, providing one of the biggest opportunities for growth of the labor movement over the next generation. But workers, communities of color, indigenous people, women, and people of emerging nations must both lead and be the primary beneficiaries of this change.

To give just one example, the Sierra Club worked with the Moapa Band of Paiutes in Nevada to build the largest tribal solar plant in the nation, with union allies for the city of Los Angeles to buy power from that plant, and with both of those allies to make sure a state decision to phase out two major coal plants included a commitment to 350 megawatts of new renewable energy.

At the same time, through the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), we joined forces with local community members and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to build RePower LA, a program in which low-income residents lower their neighbors' utility bills and receive a living wage as they make businesses and homes more energy efficient, train for jobs with the local utility, and get on a path to union membership.

The Sierra Club, like other big environmental organizations, has made mistakes when it comes to workers and front-line communities, but we are learning quickly what it looks like when workers and communities both lead and benefit from the clean energy transition -- and we're ready to fight for that progress. Only then can it be called fair and just.

Building a clean energy economy that works
Why Greens Should Support the Fight for Economic and Racial Justice

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