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GOODEN: We must think green

July 17th, 2008: Geelong Advertiser
Comment b y Tim Gooden

AT the beginning of his draft report on climate change Prof Ross Garnaut points out global warming can only be beaten if each country puts long-term gain ahead of short-term gains. The idea that survival depends on co-operation is nothing new to working people and unionists.
It has been the heart of unionism ever since workers found that we have to unite to defeat those who wish to divide and defeat us.

Of course, that's not the approach of the rich corporations and nations, like the United States, determined not to concede any economic edge to rivals in Europe or Asia. The Federal Opposition runs the same line. Brendan Nelson is calling for a delay in implementing carbon trading for fear of ``damaging our economy''.

And Nelson has allies on the Labor side of politics, like Paul Howes, the Australian Workers Union national secretary.

After the Garnaut report was released, Howes said: ``The Federal Government should be prepared to drag out (its climate change) timetable, if necessary, to ensure that there aren't any errors in the design of their emissions trading system.'' But Garnaut himself says: ``To delay is to deliberately choose to avoid effective steps to reduce the risks of climate change.'' Howes' idea of a trade union response to Garnaut is basically to argue for the commercial interests of the corporations in the industries where the AWU presently has members and union coverage.

This is the worst possible approach for the trade union movement to take. It can mean we downplay the urgent nature of climate change and leave the serious thinking about achieving climate sustainability to those who want working people to bear the economic burden of the shift to a carbon neutral economy. But climate sustainability can only come by replacing jobs in polluting, carbon-intensive industries with `green jobs' based on renewable technologies _ even if that brings reduced union membership in some industries.

Global warming is union business. How is it to be done? We in the unions must develop positions on how to fight global warming while defending the living standards of working people. The first job is to get the message out about how serious the global warming crisis actually is. All workers need to be as informed about climate change as they were about John Howard's Work Choices laws. That way we can have an informed debate about which policies address the seriousness of climate change while protecting the interests of workers.

For example, what answers are we to give to the following vital questions?
What targets are adequate for meeting short term and medium term greenhouse gas reduction goals? Twenty-five to 40 per cent cuts by 2020 or more dramatic cuts now aimed at long term safe and sustainable levels.

Can any carbon trading scheme, as proposed by Ross Garnaut, reach such goals? To date the price of carbon under all existing trading schemes is too low to force industry to abandon polluting practices quickly enough to have any real impact.

What are the alternatives? Could we adopt a `polluter pays' principle? Polluting firms could be given deadlines to convert to sustainable practices and, if they can't their workers are retrained on full pay for new, sustainable industries.

Can the transition be left to private industry? Many argue the climate crisis is so great, and the transition needed so vast, that something equivalent to a war effort against carbon pollution is required. Clearly public agencies must be entrusted with guaranteeing adequate targets.
One thing is certain, the critical force in shifting to a carbon-free economy will be working people aware of the issues and determined to play a role in avoiding climate catastrophe.

The trade union movement needs to get serious now about becoming a force for progressive campaigning and policy around climate change.

Tim Gooden is secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council
and a member of the Socialist Alliance

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