Public Release: 

Climate Change Will Affect Nation's Workplaces

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. -- If workers aren't prepared for the impact of climate change on work, there's stormy economic weather ahead, a report from the Cornell University Work and Environment Initiative predicts.

"Climate change will present both dangers and opportunities," said Edward Cohen-Rosenthal, director of the Cornell institute and a co-author of the report, Labor, Climate Change and the Environment. "There is room for serious concern about the impact -- with up to 1.6 million jobs lost, according to some estimates -- if we don't address the economic issues head-on. The same precautionary principle that guides climate change is required for dealing with new job opportunities and transition in industries and communities that will be hardest hit."

The Work and Environment Initiative (WEI), a program of the Cornell Center for the Environment and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, examines new ways to improve environmental performance at work and to increase "green" employment opportunities. The climate change study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Center for Excellence for Sustainable Development.

WEI Director Cohen-Rosenthal was the U.S. delegate for workers and their unions at the United Nations' "Earth Summit + 5" meeting last June. He said President Clinton's request at the UN meeting -- for labor to be a full partner in the decision-making process for climate change policies -- should be taken as an opportunity to affect positively the future for all American workers and employers.

"Workers and unions are already paying attention and engaging in activities that can help improve the environment. That makes sense because workers and their unions will be significantly impacted by climate-change policies, both in the U.S. and on the international level. Beyond their interests for self-preservation, unions can make real contributions toward ensuring economic and environmental sustainability."

"The next century will see a transition to a new economy with greater globalization of markets and more attention to resource efficiency and environmental impacts," Cohen-Rosenthal said. "Regardless of the international negotiations over global warming, the strategies that prepare America for success in the next century must anticipate these changes, and the labor movement can be a leader in this process."

The report, "Labor, Climate Change and the Environment," identifies numerous examples in the U.S. and internationally where unions have developed positive partnerships to improve the environment. Among the 36 recommendations in the report are these:

  • Encourage more union and worker participation in redesign of technologies and production processes to reduce greenhouse gases, contribute towards sustainable development and help protect worker, community and ecosystem health.
  • Focus on retaining jobs in existing industries by reorienting the technological capacity towards new, cleaner technologies and products, and grow new, good-paying "green" jobs in emerging sectors.
  • Work with federal, state and local governments and industry to develop programs for safe shut-down of polluting or aging industries, or to implement remediation projects that give priority employment to displaced workers.
  • Encourage establishment of significant funds for sustainable community redevelopment efforts in areas that are especially hard hit by climate-change policies.
  • Establish adequate training and relocation assistance for affected workers and provide income maintenance so that no American workers will be left behind in the transition.
  • Improve the overall energy efficiency and environmental performance of residential, commercial, industrial and public buildings in consultation with building trade unions and contractors.
  • Following the "product stewardship" lead of the UAW, other unions and their management counterparts should examine the entire production chain of their particular industries to increase environmentally responsible manufacturing throughout the lifecycle of goods and services.
  • Require eco-auditing that examines environmental and energy efficiency with union and workforce involvement in companies with more than 15 employees.

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