Educators have a special responsibility in the labor struggle to mitigate the harm that climate change is causing our communities.

Three caucasian men and two caucasian women at table in a conference room posing for a photo.

(L-R, back) John Cusick, Illinois Federation of Teachers Legislative Director, Hallie Trauger and Jackson Potter, Back of the Yards College Prep; (L-R, front) Mark Stoch, Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 571 and Bea Lumpkin, CTU retiree. (Photo provided by Cusick.)

In June, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey led CTU volunteers to the Labor Network’s National Convergence for Sustainability conference in Chicago. They Union group was joined by members of other Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) locals: 571, 1211, 3939 and IFT Legislative Director John Cusick.

Educators at the conference agreed that we have a special responsibility in the struggle to mitigate the harm that climate change is already causing our communities. We also need to be well armed with the facts to help our students think scientifically and to understand the basic science of climate change. Attendees planned to meet again this summer and exchange materials for teaching climate change. A resolution on climate change will also be under consideration at the IFT convention in October.

Climate change already has done a lot of damage to the environment. Greater emission of greenhouse gases is responsible for the increase in extreme hurricanes, wildfire, drought and flooding, and also for increased stress on the agricultural sector, and health impacts like heat stroke and the spread of infectious diseases. A recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that humanity has less than 12 years to accomplish massive reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and methane to avert the worst effects of a climate catastrophe.

This reduction will require closing coal and other fossil-fueled power plants and replacing them with wind, solar and other renewable, clean energy sources. Climate advocates and environmentalists want to end the use of coal as a fuel, but do so in a way that minimizes the impact on coal miners and their families. These people must be guaranteed a decent income while new, good jobs are created for them.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers Union, pointed out that in the past, when steel and auto plants closed, there was never a proper and just transition for workers. Roberts suggested that climate activists join miners in fighting together for black lung benefits and enforcement of mine safety laws.

As expected, the Just Transition workshop attracted the largest audience. Attention focused on H.R. 109, the Green New Deal (GND) resolution, filed by Rep. Alexandra Octavio-Cortez and 100 other members of Congress. H.R. 109 sets policy to overcome two interacting crises. In addition to the climate change crisis, we are suffering a vast political-economic crisis resulting from extreme inequality. As an example of that inequality, the three richest men on earth own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population.

The listed goals of the GND begin with, “Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions [by 2050] through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.” In the process of fighting climate change, millions of new jobs can be created. Job-creating projects include retrofitting existing buildings to make them more energy-efficient, national investment in public transit (including high-speed rail) and massive investment in infrastructure and clean manufacturing. To achieve these interconnected results, the GND calls for a massive mobilization on the scale of World War II.

In a statement issued after the June conference, the Labor Network for Sustainability called on all of the unions in our country to get involved in shaping the kind of infrastructure project we need, in order to best serve the needs of working families. A call for “Solidarity for Climate Action” by the BlueGreen Alliance issued this summer provides detailed information on the kind of investments and the kind of infrastructure that workers need.

CTU members are part of the BlueGreen Alliance, started by United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club. The BlueGreen Alliance now also includes the American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union, Union of Bricklayers, Utility Workers Union, Union of Concerned Scientists and more.

On the last day of the Labor Network for Sustainability event, one caucus raised the demand with delegates for more people of color and more women on the planning committee and speakers list. With unanimous support, the Labor Network leadership agreed to make immediate changes so its leadership will represent voices of people from communities most affected by climate change.

In this regard, the Green New Deal resolution sets an example in its concern for equality and the interests of indigenous people. These concerns are essential to building the kind of united labor-community movement that can win the kind of fundamental changes we need to save humanity from runaway climate change.

Bea Lumpkin is a longtime union activist and CTU retiree. She’s also 101 years old.