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What a Smart Concept: Rebuilding the Nation’s Infrastructure and Fighting Climate Change

The Big Picture By Glynn Wilson, Alabama Sierra Club's Political Chair

While the attention of the world was focused on the Winter Olympics in Russia in February and the weather forecasters were talking about the deep snow piling up around the United States, members of the Alabama Legislature were trying to prove how conservative and anti-environment they could be in an election year by, among other things, opposing the development of wind energy.

Meanwhile in the nation’s capital, there was a very important but little publicized gathering of Sierra Club members from around the country at the Washington Hilton who are actively networking with members of organized labor to form a more perfect union by talking up the need to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. The idea is to fight climate change and provide good, green jobs at the same time.

Speaker after speaker, from EPA’s Gina McCarthy to the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune said there is no reason we can’t protect the planet and build the economy at the same time. While we’re at it, they all said, if we could just get environmentalists and working people together in a political coalition voting the right way we might be able to save American democracy from the reactionaries too.

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“Times are changing,” McCarthy said in her address delivering the Obama administration’s position to the Blue Green Alliance. “Newer, cleaner energy frontiers are being explored. The threat of climate change is becoming more and more real to all of us.”

 

Climate impacts are not just hurting people, and the planet first and foremost, she said. “They are a threat to our economy.”

She said in spite of what people hear from certain politicians and pundits, our choice has never been about choosing the economy or the environment. “It’s always been about choosing both.”

The Blue Green Alliance is made up of more than 15 million members through 14 affiliated organizations, 10 unions and 4 major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, a founding member. It is a growing political force to be reckoned with in Washington and around the country.

The Sierra Club’s Michael Brune delivered one of the keynote addresses. (see it below)

 

“Our country — and in fact the entire world — has to achieve an extraordinary goal, and we have less and less time in which to do it. We need to recreate our economy with clean energy that takes the place of fossil fuels,” Brune said. “Everybody here knows it’s going to be a challenge to do that. But we must.”

The ultimate rewards for all of humanity when we achieve that goal, he said, will be “greater than we can imagine.”

“The Sierra Club is 100 percent committed to creating an economy that is 100 percent powered with clean energy. It will be the most important thing we’ve ever been part of. Greater than the creation of our national parks … than protecting the redwoods in North California … than protecting the Arctic … than all of the bedrock environmental laws that protect our air, water and wildlife.”

On the other hand, he said, a “failure to stop climate disruption would overshadow every one of those monumental achievements.”

“Success,” he said, “will bring lasting benefits and be enjoyed by generations. Yet if we pursue this goal blindly, we cannot succeed. If we pursue this goal without considering how it affects people as well as the planet we will have failed.”

He repeated a point made by the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka, who was there at the conference in agreement with the Sierra Club about the need to fight climate change due to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels.

“We have to fight climate change and inequality with both fists,” Brune said. “Failure to do one or the other will mean that we will fail in our efforts to achieve both.”

There was a lot of talk at the conference about the need for federal funding to support the transition of workers in industries where new technology makes old ways of doing things obsolete, such as generating power from natural gas instead of coal, or better yet, from wind and solar power.

Blue Green Alliance Executive Director David Foster led the opening panel discussion and introduced the main speakers by setting up this year’s theme, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure as the bridge between creating good jobs and addressing climate change.

A lot of the infrastructure around the country was built in the 19th century, he said. “You can’t fix a 21st century environmental problem with a 19th century infrastructure that cased it in the first place.”

“If we went out and repaired (it) all today we would be creating the 11 million jobs America needs,” Foster said. “And if we went out and fixed it today, we would be pulling the carbon out of the atmosphere that’s causing the wacky weather we live in.”

Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers Union, who actually funded a report in 1992 about the reality of global warming and how dealing with it would transform the work place in the 21st century, said the message needs to get out around the county that we “don’t have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment.”

But it is hard to get that message out, he said, when the mainstream media in America just wants to focus on the conflicts between unions and environmentalists over the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“While they’re playing games and trying to find the places that can keep us divided,” he said, the union leaders and environmental leaders he is in contact with through the Blue Green Alliance all agree on 95 percent the issues. And they are in 100 percent agreement on rebuilding the infrastructure in a way that creates green jobs.

“What’s lacking?” he asked. “Political will and mobilization. That’s why we created Blue Green. To stop the BS, to be blunt, that you can’t have good jobs and a clean economy. It’s not one or the other. It’s both or neither over time.”

Studies estimate that the cost to repair all of the nation’s infrastructure that needs it would cost at least $3.6 trillion.

“You are not going to do that in six weeks or six years,” Gerard said. “But we ought to put a program together to start retrofitting our schools and public buildings, fixing our bridges.”

Brune said while reporters will always focus on the divisions, it is the obligation of leaders to talk about the 95 percent of issues on which they agree.

He said there has been a change in the thinking at the Sierra Club over the past couple of years to get away from just opposing everything from coal and fracking for natural gas to nuclear power and instead declare what environmentalists are for. Instead of just complaining and blaming somebody else for our problems, he said, the Sierra Club is trying to add a third category.

“This could be awesome,” he said. “It’s to look at fighting climate change and protecting the environment not just as an obligation, but as an opportunity. Not as something that we’ve got to do, but as something that we get to do. Because there are millions of jobs in energy efficiency where we save money and produce jobs by making the environment cleaner.”

He cited the need to repair the pipeline infrastructure, water and gas, where carbon emissions are saved along with scarce water resources.

“We save money, put people to work and protect the environment at the same time,” he said. “We want to be 100 percent powered by clean energy. We know it will take a long time to get there. We are 100 percent committed to doing this in a way that is good for workers, communities and workers rights.”

He said the best way to bridge the differences is to be honest about it.

“We have to be bigger in our ambition, bolder in what we are shooting for, and to unite around an aggressive vision for restoring workers rights, for expanding the jobs base in the U.S. and for building an economy that works for everybody.”

Shout out to the Alabama Sierra Club and the national Sierra Club for providing the funding to pay the expenses for covering this conference. If you want to help support this kind of work in the future, please hit the new PayPal Donate button on the site and give a little. Your support is appreciated. If you can’t afford to give money, perhaps you can share the link with some of your friends who can. You can see the most comprehensive coverage of this conference anywhere, and watch the videos for yourself, here in the New American Journal.

Learn more about the Blue Green Alliance on Facebook or on their website. You can also watch videos of the conference on the "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" website here. You can also read about the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference from Glynn Wilson's website, filed under Good Jobs, here and watch his videos of the conference on youtube here.