Labour activists raising environmental justice issues in Canada’s climate change policy

ourtimes cover-Chris JawaraThe featured article in the Winter 2018 issue of Our Times is  “A Green Economy for All” , which describes the action-research project Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities: An Environmental Justice Perspective.   The ultimate goal: to equip Black trade unionists and racialized activists in Canada with the tools they need to influence the public policy debate over climate change, to ensure that the new green economy does not look the same as the old white economy.   With important inspiration from the Idle No More movement and the Indigenous experience in Canada, the project began with research into what has already been written about environmental racism in Canada, along with  a participatory social media campaign using the Twitter hashtag #EnvRacismCBTUACW,  to solicit more information about lived experience.  The project has now reached its second phase, designing and facilitating workshops to develop activism around the issue.  The first of these workshops  was presented to the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT) in December 2017.  Facilitation questions, case studies and workshop information will be made publicly available, with the goal of engaging other social and political activists, as well as the labour movement.

The Environmental Racism: The Impact of Climate Change on Racialized Canadian Communities  project was launched in 2017 by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) project at York University,  in collaboration with Coalition of Black Trade Unionists , and is being led by Chris Wilson, Ontario Regional Coordinator for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and  PSAC Ontario union negotiator Jawara Gairey.

“A Green Economy for All”  also mentions the work of the Toronto Environmental Alliance , which produced a map of toxic concentrations in the city in 2005, and the forthcoming book  There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities,  which highlights the grassroots resistance against environmental racism in Nova Scotia, and is written by Ingrid Waldron, an associate professor at Dalhousie University  and  Director of the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities & Community Health Project (The ENRICH Project).

 

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.

Hurricane Harvey survey coverOne recent example which illustrates recurring patterns: on December 5, the  Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation in Texas released the results of a survey about the impacts of Hurricane Harvey . While most of the survey reports on  the loss of homes and cars,  it also measures employment impacts:  46%  of respondents reported that  they or someone else in their household lost job-related income as a result of the storm – through  fewer hours at work (32%), losing a job entirely (12%) or losing income from a small business or unpaid missed days (32%). And as so often is the case, income disruptions affected a greater share of Hispanic (65%) and Black (46%) residents compared to White residents (31%).

Two recent news reports highlight a more surprising story of the California wildfires:   “California Is Running Out of Inmates to Fight Its Fires” in The Atlantic (Dec. 7 2017)  and “Incarcerated women risk their lives fighting California fires. It’s part of a long history of prison labor”  (Oct. 22, 2017) . These articles describe the long-standing practice in California of using prison inmates as firefighters: in the current season,  almost 3,000 of the 9,000 firefighters battling wildfires are inmates, who get a few dollars plus two days off their sentences for each day spent fighting wildfires.

fort_mcmurray-fireThe Fort MacMurray wildfires in northern Alberta in 2016 rank as the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history, exceeding the previous record, which was the 2013 flooding in Calgary and southern Alberta.  That ranking is based on the  estimate by the Insurance Bureau of Canada   of $3.58 billion;  the Conference Board of Canada also reported on the economic impacts  (free; registration required).   Statistics Canada measured work days lost and employment insurance claims through their Labour Force Survey instrument, and so were able to differentiate effects by sector, sex and age, as location, in two reports:  Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016  (November 2016)  and “Wildfires in northern Alberta affected hours and Employment Insurance beneficiaries”, a section in the Annual Review of the Labour Market, 2016 .

Another assessment of the total financial impact of the  Fort McMurray wildfire estimated the financial impact of the Fort MacMurray fire was $9.9 billion, as reported by the  CBC (January 2017) and the  Toronto Star (January 17).  That research, by two economists from MacEwan University in Edmonton,  was commissioned by the  Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction  , but does not appear to have been published as of December 2017.  Their estimates included  indirect impacts such as the expense of replacing buildings and infrastructure, lost income, and lost profits and royalties in the oilsands and forestry industries.  And they estimate the mental health impacts and  cost of suffering of the firefighters as $3.78 million.

Excellent news reports also described the employment situation – including the government and union support for workers : “ Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo”   in the Globe and Mail  (updated March 2017); “Fort MacMurray smoke halts major oilsands project”  in the National Observer (May 7 2016),  “ Fort McMurray firefighters who slew ‘The Beast’ now battling emotional demons” from CBC News (July 3 2016) ,  and “Resilient but tired: Mental effects of wildfire lingering in Fort McMurray” in The National Observer (Dec. 18 2017).

An Employment Fact Sheet  from  ProBono Law website  answers FAQ’s regarding workers’ rights in Alberta as of May 2016 – such questions as: .  “If business operations are badly affected and an employer has no work for some or all employees, does the employer have to pay them …?” (No); “An employee’s home was badly affected by the fire. Are they entitled to paid or unpaid leave to sort out the personal problems caused by the fire?” (No, employees are not entitled , but some employers do offer such leaves as part of their benefit plans or will offer them if asked.) Future recourse regarding leave provisions may be available as of January 2018, when the Alberta Employment Standards Code is amended to provide new Personal and Family Responsibility Leave of  up to 5 days of job protection per year for personal sickness or short-term care of an immediate family member, which includes attending to personal emergencies.   And failing that, there is always the hope, as described in the Toronto Star, that “Workplaces are adapting to climate change by offering paid extreme weather leave”  (November 14).

Parliamentary committee recommends a legislated right to a healthy environment in its review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act

On June 15, the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development tabled its report, Healthy Environment, Healthy Canadians, Healthy Economy: Strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999,   and the French version, Un Environnement Sain, des Canadiens et une Économie en Santé : Renforcer la Loi Canadienne sur la Protection de l’environnement (1999).

Called a “ground-breaking”  report by the David Suzuki Foundation, this review of  the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)  makes 87 recommendations to modernize the law.  The Ecojustice blog ,  “Much to celebrate in committee report on Canadian Environmental Protection Act”  summarizes some of the recommendations, including  the  introduction of national drinking water and air quality standards; “stronger enforcement provisions to ensure polluters are held to account; improved transparency, public reporting and consultation requirements; and faster timelines to ensure regulatory action is taken swiftly once a toxic threat is identified”.  Most important, however, is the recommendation that the Act recognize and protect the right of every person in Canada to a healthy environment – a right recognized in 110 other countries.

The reaction  from  East Coast Environmental Law also notes this right to a healthy environment, and emphasizes the environmental justice implications:  “ The Report… suggests that the importance of environmental rights to Indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations should be emphasized.  … The Report acknowledges that environmental burdens aren’t shared equitably by communities across Canada, …… it also makes a number of recommendations that address environmental injustice. For example, it recommends that the Act be expanded to include an obligation to protect the environment in a non-discriminatory way; that it enhance the procedural rights that protect access to information, access to justice, and public participation in environmental decision-making; that it address the inequitable burden of toxic exposure in Canada; and that it recognize the principles enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The response from the David Suzuki Foundation also summarizes the recommendations, and makes clear that these are not yet law.  The  Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and eventually Cabinet, will consider the report, with legislation expected in the fall.   Ecojustice calls it “ a once-in-a generation opportunity to dramatically improve our most important environmental law.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada has compiled links to a history of CEPA . The Standing Committee website is here, with links to witnesses and the 68 briefs received.

 

$1.5 billion will buy new renewable energy projects, good green jobs, and environmental justice in New York State

On  June 2, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that his state would invest $1.5 billion in renewable energy projects through the Clean Climate Careers Initiative.  The program has three elements:  “supercharge” clean energy technologies, create up to 40,000 clean energy jobs by 2020, and  achieve environmental justice and Just Transition for underserved communities. Both the Governor’s press release and one from the Worker Institute at Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations School attribute the inspiration for the new renewable energy initiative to the  “Labor Leading on Climate” program at the Worker Institute.

The  Institute has just published Reversing Inequality, Combatting Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State (June 2017),  in which Lara Skinner and  co-author J. Mijin Cha argue for an “audicious”  job creation plan which would create decent green jobs in the building, energy, and transport sectors.  The report provides case studies and specific proposals to reduce GHG emissions – for example, to retrofit all public schools in the state to reach 100 percent of their energy efficiency potential by 2025, reduce energy use in all public buildings by 40 percent by 2025, install 7.5 GW of offshore wind by 2050,  rehabilitate New York City public transit, and construct and improve the existing high-speed passenger rail corridor between Albany and Buffalo, and between New York City and Montreal.  The report also includes a recommendation to establish a Just Transition Task Force – a recommendation incorporated in Governor Cuomo’s plan.

In the plan announced  by Governor Cuomo, $15 million has been committed “to educators and trainers that partner with the clean energy industry and unions to offer training and apprenticeship opportunities, with funding distributed to the most innovative and far-reaching apprenticeship, training programs and partnerships.  ”  The state is also committed to the use of a Project Labor Agreement framework for the construction of public works projects associated with the initiative.

A Working Group on Environmental Justice and Just Transition has been appointed and staffed, with a first meeting scheduled for June.  It will advise the administration on the integration of environmental justice principles into all agency policies, and to shape existing environmental justice programs.  The press release includes endorsements from the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and unions, including: Greater New York Building Construction Trades Council, New York State AFL-CIO, New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, IBEW Local 3, Transport Workers Union, Utility Workers Union Local 1-2,  United Association Plumbers & Pipefitters, and the past Secretary Treasurer of Service Employees International Union.

Governor Cuomo’s  Renewable Energy initiative was announced one day after Donald Trump’s  withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and after the Governor had signed an Executive Order  reaffirming New York’s  commitment to the Paris goals, and had launched a Climate Alliance with the states of California and Washington.

Still advocating for Environmental Rights as Human Rights. Evidence from Alberta, and innovative proposals for Nova Scotia

The Pembina Institute recently compiled three case studies related to energy development in Alberta, in an effort to document the adverse effects on individuals, communities and regions that result from weak environmental laws or regulatory enforcement.  The Environmental Law Centre in  Alberta also  published a series of reports in late 2016, including a module, Substantive Environmental Rights , which discusses environmental rights as a human right. Since 2014, the Blue Dot campaign, led by the David Suzuki Foundation and Ecojustice ,  has been advocating for environmental rights to be enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.

Now, from the Pembina Institute comes The Right to a Healthy Environment: Documenting the need for environmental rights in Canada.  It consists of:  Case Study #1:  Individual impacts of intensive hydraulic fracturing activity in rural Alberta   ;  #2 Community impacts of air pollution in urban central Alberta (related to coal-fired electricity plants), and #3 Regional impacts of oilsands development in northern Alberta   (which examines the rights of First Nations).

In Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Environmental Rights Working Group of the East Coast Environmental Law Association  released their proposed and innovative  Nova Scotia Environmental Bill of Rights  on April 21 2017.  The bill states that the people “have a right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”, and that the “primary responsibility” to protect and conserve that environment falls to the province.  It also states that “there is a history of environmental racism in Nova Scotia that has disproportionately and negatively affected historically marginalized, vulnerable, and economically disadvantaged individuals, groups or communities, particularly Indigenous People and African Nova Scotians”.  The bill is based on the Precautionary Principle, the Polluter Pays Principle, the Non-Regression Principle, the Intergenerational Equity Principle, and the Principle of Environmental Justice and Equity.  Nova Scotians go to the polls in a general election on May 30; a guide to the policy positions of the Liberal, Conservative and NDP parties is here at the CBC website.  According to the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, the provincial NDP party has pledged to support an Environmental Bill of Rights .