Can Biden unite Labour and climate activists with his American Jobs Plan ?

On March 31, U.S. President Biden announced his “American Jobs Plan,” which outlines over $2 trillion in spending proposals, including $213 billion to build, modernize and weatherize affordable housing,  $174 billion for incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles; $100 billion for power grid modernization and resilience; $85 billion investment in modernizing public transit and bringing it to underserved areas; $35 billion investment in clean technology research and development, including incubators and demonstration projects; $16 billion employing union oil and gas workers to cap abandoned oil and gas wells and clean up mines, and $10 billion to launch a  Civilian Climate Corps to work on conservation and environmental justice projects.  All of these are proposals, to be subject to the political winds of Washington, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggesting a date of July 4 for a vote on legislation.

The White House Fact Sheet outlines the specifics . Robert Reich calls the plan “smart politics” in  “Joe Biden as Mr. Fix-it” in Commons Dreams, and according to “Nine Ways Biden’s $2 Trillion Plan Will Tackle Climate Change” in Inside Climate News, “President Joe Biden aims to achieve unprecedented investment in action to address climate change by wrapping it in the kind of federal spending package that has allure for members of Congress of both parties.”   David Roberts offers a summary and smart, informed commentary in his Volt blog, stating: “Within this expansive infrastructure package is a mini-Green New Deal, with large-scale spending targeted at just the areas energy wonks say could accelerate the transition to clean energy — all with a focus on equity and justice for vulnerable communities on the front lines of that transition. If it passes in anything like its current form, it will be the most significant climate and energy legislation of my lifetime, by a wide margin.”

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes in the National Observer on April 6, summing up the dilemma:   …” Each policy has the potential to unite or divide the Democrat’s coalition of labour unions, people of colour, environmentalists and youth activists. Some policies, like the creation of a new Civilian Climate Corps …. are directly adopted from demands pushed by activists like the youth-led Sunrise Movement. Others, like investments in existing nuclear power plants and carbon capture retrofits for gas-fired power plants, will pit labour unions against environmental justice activists from the communities those industries often imperil. Uniting the environmental activists who oppose the development of fossil fuel pipelines with the workers who build them will be among the Democrats’ greatest challenges.”

Some Specific U.S. statements:

Generally favourable reaction comes in a brief statement from the AFL-CIO. The  BlueGreen Alliance states: “This is a historic first step, and yet we know this and more will be needed to deliver the scale of investment needed, particularly in disadvantaged communities and for workers and communities impacted by energy transition.”  Similarly, Kate Aronoff writes “Biden’s Infrastructure Plan Needs More Climate Spending” in The New Republic; and the Climate Justice Alliance response is titled  “Grassroots, Environmental Justice Communities call on Biden To Go Bigger, Bolder And Faster For A Climate, Care And Infrastructure Recovery Package That Meets The Moment”.

The Sunrise Movement press release commends Biden for calling for passage of the PRO Act, for clean energy initiatives, and environmental justice aspects, and has a mixed reaction to Biden’s version of the Civilian Climate Corps: “This gives our movement a starting place, and with a foot in the door we can fight to expand and strengthen the CCC over the coming years.” ….. “The plan Biden rolled out today would create about 10,000-20,00 jobs in a Civilian Climate Corps, which would train and employ young people to build clean energy and decarbonize the economy. When FDR rolled out a similar Civilian Conservation Corps, it employed around 300,000 people per year, and that was back when the US population was ~40% of its current size .”   

Will Biden’s Plan push Canada’s climate ambitions?

The CBC published “Here are four ways Biden’s big climate bill touches Canada” .  Mitchell Beer compiles reactions in “Biden Jobs, Infrastructure Plan Aims to ‘Turbocharge the transition’ off Fossil Fuels”  in The Energy Mix, including Adam Radwanski’s response in the Globe and Mail, “Joe Biden’s new climate plans should jolt Ottawa” (restricted access).   And the Canadian United Steelworkers alludes to the “Buy American” elephant in the room for Canadians, in its press release titled, Build Back Better Through Infrastructure Spending on Both Sides of the Border (April 1)  “the United Steelworkers union (USW) sees U.S. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan as an opportunity to maintain and create jobs, bolster manufacturing and make our communities safer. ….A decade ago, the USW worked with the Obama administration and the Canadian government to create a North American strategy that benefited workers in the United States and Canada…. Canada is not the problem facing U.S. manufacturing and workers. Co-operation between Canada and U.S. will build on our longstanding and productive trading relationship.”

Finally, a roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act

In 2019 at COP25, Canada’s federal politicians pledged to enact a Just Transition Act , and even included the promise in the Liberal election platform.  Yet the December 2020 federal climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, makes little mention of Just Transition, and the absence of follow-through has not gone unnoticed – for example, in a January 2021 article in the Toronto Star which asks: “The Liberals promised help for oil workers as their jobs disappear. So where is it?

On April 1, a new report,  Roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act:  A path to a clean and inclusive economy advances the issue by offering a framework and costed proposals for essential provisions.  The Roadmap is built on an overview of the international research and best practices, and makes proposals which are meant to be comprehensive and ambitious, and commensurate with the scale of the problem- costed as “in the order of $16.5 billion per year (declining over the lifetime of the transition).”

The Roadmap proposes the following components for a Just Transition Act for Canada:

• Enshrine fundamental just transition principles, rights and definitions; • Establish a Just Transition Commission to oversee and guide the government’s transition agenda; • Establish a Just Transition Benefit to support workers in affected communities; • Establish an Economic Diversification Crown Corporation to invest in job-creating projects in affected communities; • Establish a Just Transition Training Fund that ensures access for historically marginalized groups to employment in the lower-carbon economy; and, • Establish a new federal-provincial/territorial Just Transition Transfer to deliver funding for these new social programs.

The role of the Just Transition Commission is central, coordinating the activities that will be administered through federal departments, encompassing the entire Canadian economy and workforce. The commission should represent and engage with “a wide variety of stakeholders, including labour unions, civil society groups, Indigenous peoples, business associations, independent experts, and public servants from governments of all levels.  …..It should lead the development of regionally specific roadmaps for Canada’s transition away from fossil fuels—plans that map out a timeline for the wind down of fossil fuel production and the scaling up of alternative industries for affected provinces and communities. It should propose and monitor policies related to decarbonization and workforce transition to ensure the principles of a just transition are respected at all stages of implementation. The commission should play a role in developing skills inventories and recommending investments in training for affected regions and workers. It should also work with employers and workers to facilitate job shifting and job bridging to avoid layoffs wherever possible.”

Regarding a Just Transition Benefit for individuals, the authors state:  “Unlike some existing transition supports, eligibility for this benefit should not be conditional on direct employment in an emissions-intensive industry. Instead, anyone suffering a significant drop in income due to the wind down of fossil fuel production in a qualifying region should be able to claim it. The benefit should be available, for as long as necessary, to help displaced workers to seek re-training and/or re-employment.”

Regarding proactive economic diversification, the report notes that “the amount spent by Canadian governments on economic diversification in the context of decarbonization is woefully inadequate” and calls for the creation of  a new federal Economic Diversification Crown Corporation, distinct from the existing Western Economic Diversification Fund or the Canada Infrastructure Bank. It would play “a crucial and distinct role in accelerating economic diversification away from fossil fuels through direct public ownership of new infrastructure …At least initially, new public investments in economic diversification must be on the scale of the industries being phased out—in the order of $15 billion per year at first and declining as the transition unfolds.”

Regarding training, the report calls for the legislation to “create a Just Transition Training Fund that has the explicit purpose of training new workers from historically marginalized groups for good, green jobs in a lower-carbon economy. Offering preferential support to certain groups, including women, Indigenous peoples, disabled people and people from racialized communities, is consistent with the principle of employment equity and protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”  The report calls for “ a significant portion of the Just Transition Training Fund should be allocated directly to expand training infrastructure, including through public colleges, labour union training centres and on job sites across the country.”

Roadmap to a Canadian Just Transition Act:  A path to a clean and inclusive economy was written by Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood and Clay Duncliffe, and co-published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis and the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) Research program . Mertins Kirkwood summarizes the contents in an Opinion piece in the National Observer .

Canada’s Supreme Court affirms federal government’s constitutional right to enact carbon pricing legislation

On March 25, the Supreme Court of Canada released a majority decision stating that the federal government of Canada was within its constitutional rights when it enacted the 2018 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act — which required the provinces to meet minimum national standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The decision enables the federal government to move on to more ambitious climate action plans, since it ends a two-year battle with the provinces, and affirms the importance of the climate change issue. The majority decision states that national climate action “is critical to our response to an existential threat to human life in Canada and around the world.”   Summaries and reaction to this hugely important decision include an Explainer in The Narwhal , and “Supreme Court rules federal carbon pricing law constitutional” (National Observer) . Mainstream media also covered the decision, including a brief article in the New York Times which relates it to U.S. policy climate.

The Canadian Labour Congress issued a press release “Canada’s unions applaud Supreme Court decision upholding federal carbon pricing” – pointing out that the carbon tax is only one piece of the puzzle in reducing GHG emissions. Unifor emphasized next steps, calling on the provincial premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the federal Conservative leader, to “stop complaining” and devise their own climate action plans. Similar sentiments appeared in the reactions of other advocacy groups: for example,  Council of Canadians;  the Pembina InstituteClean Energy Canada, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) .

Political reactions

The reaction and explanation of the case from the federal government is here. The CBC provides a survey of political reaction here. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were the three provinces who lost their Supreme Court case: in a press release,  Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney pledged that his government will continue to “fight on”, and will now begin to consult with Albertans on how to respond to the court’s decision – as reported in the National Observer, “Alberta has no carbon tax Plan B, was hoping to win in court: Kenney” (March 26) . Kenney further stated,  “We will continue to press our case challenging Bill C-69, the federal ‘No More Pipelines Law,’ which is currently before the Alberta Court of Appeal.”  [Note Bill C-69 is actually titled An Act to enact the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act… and was enacted in June 2019]. Ontario’s “disappointment” is described in this article in the Toronto Star and Saskatchewan’s government reaction is described here by the CBC .   A sum-up Opinion piece appears in The Tyee: “Sorry Cranky Conservatives! Carbon Pricing Wins the Day” (March 29).

Only 18% of global Recovery spending in 2020 was green

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released Are We Building Back Better? Evidence from 2020 and Pathways for Inclusive Green Recovery Spending,    on March 10.  It estimates that in 2020, the world’s fifty largest economies announced USD14.6tn in fiscal measures to address the pandemic economic crisis, and states: …. “Excluding currently uncertain packages from the European Commission, 18.0% of recovery spending, and only 2.5% of total spending, is expected to enhance sustainability. The vast majority of green spending has come from a small set of high-income nations” with France, Germany and South Korea highlighted for their relatively high percentage of green recovery spending.  Canada’s spending is small, with only brief references which state that we have focused on “cleaning dirty energy assets”, and have made fossil fuel investment. (no details or examples given).  It is notable that the report covers 2020, so that U.S. spending is also low, though hope is expressed for the Biden/Harris administration.  Notably, the report looks to the future: “….. the largest window for green spending is only now opening, as nations shift attention from short-term rescue measures to recovery. Using examples from 2020 spending, we highlight five major green investment opportunities to be prioritised in 2021: green energy, green transport, green building upgrades & energy efficiency, natural capital, and green research and development.”    

Each of those topics is analyzed, with some exemplary policies highlighted. Some overarching issues: “Of particular note, despite continuing high global unemployment and widespread damage to human capital, spending on worker retraining in 2020 was small and almost exclusively non-green. Nations transitioning to a low-carbon economy must invest in human capital to enable and match future growth priorities. Structural changes in major sectors, including energy, agriculture, transport, and construction, require shifts in the structure and capabilities of the domestic labour force.”

Also, regarding “green strings”: “Although some dirty rescue-type expenditure may have been necessary to ensure that lives and livelihoods were saved, many of the largest of these policies could have included positive green attributes. For instance, airline bailouts in nations all over the world, including South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States could have included green conditions. Green conditions tied to liquidity support, like requirements to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or mandates to increase sustainable fuel use, can ensure short term relief while also promoting investment in long-term technological development and acting as a strong guide in national efforts to meet climate targets.”

The report is supported by the United Nations UNEP, the International Monetary Fund and GIZ through the Green Fiscal Policy Network (GFPN). The data was collected by the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project and is now available through the Global Recovery Observatory, a new database which will be updated regularly (most recently at the end of February).

The report cites many other studies and reports, notably: “Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?” by Cameron Hepburn, Brian O’Callaghan, Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, and Dimitri Zenghelis, which appeared in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy in May 2020.    .

The Lancet publishes a damning review of Trump’s legacy, including damage to occupational health and the environment

A special issue of the prestigious British journal The Lancet was released on February 11, titled Public policy and health in the Trump era, with an Editor’s introduction which captures the broad scope and tone:

“President Biden must contend with the continued COVID-19 pandemic and economic fallout in addition to Trump’s corrosive legacy. Each roll-back from regulation
and every retreat from global cooperation that defined the Trump era has become an action item on a daunting but crucial list: racism, income inequality, immigration
protection, universal health coverage, nutrition, the environment, workplace safety, reproductive rights, antiscience, and isolationism.”

Discussion of  “The environment, workplace, and global climate” starts on page 27, with a list of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks related to air pollution and emissions, and toxic chemicals and occupational hazards. It states that Trump used the Covid-19 pandemic as a “cover” for rollbacks, and comes to some shocking conclusions, based on official data:   “Between 2016 and 2019, the annual number of environmentally and occupationally related deaths increased by more than 22000, reversing 15 years of steady progress”,  and  “The Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks have increased disease, injury, and death among workers in the USA. Its weakening of mine health and safety standards and mine enforcement programmes has led to increased injury deaths among workers employed in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction .… and increased mortality from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis … Despite rising deaths from work-related silicosis, the administration terminated a silicosis prevention programme launched during the Obama era.”

The Report concludes with a long list of recommendations for Executive Action (which includes rejoining the Paris climate agreement) and for Legislative Action, including: “Implement the Green New Deal, end subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels, and ban coal mining and single-use plastics.”  The all- encompassing scope of the review is reflected in these concluding paragraphs:

“The path away from Trump’s politics of anger and despair cannot lead through past policies. President Biden must act for the people, not for the wealthy and the corporations they control. Resources to combat climate change, raise living standards, drop financial barriers to higher education and medical care, meet global aid responsibilities, and empower oppressed communities within the USA must come from taxes on the rich, and deep cuts in military spending…. For health care, overreliance on the private sector raises costs and distorts priorities, government must be a doer, not just a funder—eg, directly providing health coverage and engaging in drug development rather than paying private firms to carry out such functions.”

This report was authored by a Lancet Commission on Public Health and Policy in the Trump Era,  comprised of thirty-three experts from medical, public health and law schools, universities, Indigenous communities, clinical settings, public health agencies, unions, and legislative bodies, in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. The Commission website states: “Convened shortly after President Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the Lancet Commission on public policy and health in the Trump era, offers the first comprehensive assessment of the detrimental legislation and executive actions during Trump’s presidency with devastating effects on every aspect of health in the USA. The Lancet Commission traces the decades of policy failures that preceded and fueled Trump’s ascent and left the USA lagging behind other high-income nations on life expectancy.”