Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why Strong Labor Protections Are Key To Fighting Climate Change

By Aishani ShuklaPublished January 10, 2022

Windmills and Solar Panels By Green Hills
Labor protection provisions must be integrated into energy sector reforms to curb climate change in a sustainable manner.

Global warming continues to accelerate at an alarmingly high rate, with rapidly rising sea levels and strong natural disasters imperiling the existence of urban and rural communities alike. In order to mitigate this threatening force, bridging partisan divides and coalescing at local, national, and international levels to support a transition to clean energy is more important than ever. In the United States, the Biden Administration’s recently-passed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan puts forward a compelling vision of a ‘greener’ economy. The plan’s provisions sustain prevailing wages for infrastructure and clean energy and. supports the complete modernization of electrical grids by 2035 and investments in electric vehicles and other emission-reducing modes of transportation. Undoubtedly, this plan represents an important step in the American government’s willingness to not only acknowledge the urgency of climate change but also to engage workers in solutions to the climate problem on a large-scale. 

However, the American Jobs Plan also highlights the inherent conflict between simultaneously advancing the interests of workers and moving towards a ‘clean economy,’ a conflict that threatens to curtail legislative efforts to halt global warming. In a statement made in response to the plan, the United Mine Workers of America argued that the plan supports a “'just transition' wishful thinking common in the environmental community.” Indeed, the plan does not acknowledge the fact that many green energy jobs currently do not have labor protections, including the solar and wind industries, where only about 5% of workers are unionized. It also fails to lay out the process of creating jobs in communities that are vulnerable to losing power plants or coal jobs, as well as the process of establishing renewable tax credits for strong labor protections. To actualize a shift to a fully clean economy, it is necessary to engage community groups and workers in every step of the transition away from a fossil-based economy. Despite the negative ramifications of fossil-fuel industry jobs on the climate, the loss of these jobs also has negative implications for the workers and communities who have relied upon their presence for decades.

The American Jobs Plan is indicative of a broader battle between clean energy and fossil fuel interests to control the narrative on jobs. As proponents of the clean energy sector point out, decarbonizing the economy is anticipated to create more jobs per energy unit compared to those in fossil fuel organizations, while also paying more than the national median wage. Yet, workers in the wind and solar industries still make about $10,000 less annually than workers performing mining and fracking work in fossil-fuel industries, such as  the natural gas industry. Therefore, the transition away from a fossil fuel economy and towards an economy dependent on clean sources of energy is further complicated. On one hand, it is crucial to ensure a comprehensive energy transition without delay to begin bolstering the green energy sector. On the other hand, many newly-created clean energy jobs are either not in the same place as the fossil fuel jobs that have been lost, or they do not require the same skill set, leaving many workers blindsided by fossil fuel phaseouts in their hometowns. 

Nevertheless, the creation of clean energy jobs has the potential to be an incredibly effective and long-lasting way of combating climate change, so long as investments are made in the communities where workers in oil, gas and coal jobs are being displaced. In traditional coal mining communities in Appalachia, for example, targeted investments must be made to create alternative jobs that are well-paid and have strong labor protections to economically diversify these communities. Luckily, there is already change being made on these fronts. For instance, the Colorado Office of Just Transition is the first state agency of its type to deal with the displacement of workers in fossil fuel industries across small towns in Colorado. This agency identifies the timeline of job layoffs and facility closures in coal-related industries and their impact on communities, workers, and businesses to facilitate the creation of effective energy transition plans. The Colorado Office of Just Transition illustrates the potential for other states and regions impacted by fossil-fuel job eliminations to ease the transition of involved stakeholders to a greener economy. At both local and national levels, it is imperative that proposals to create green jobs not only consider labor protections and climate change but also actively work to include workers and their communities in a transition to a cleaner economy.