Equitable Climate Policy Is Equitable Economic Policy 

By Christian Collins 

CLASP recognizes the important ways in which climate change impacts the people and policies we advocate for. This blog is the second in a series exploring the intersection of environmental justice and economic security for people living with low incomes. Explore the series here.

Earth Day this year came at a pivotal time, as lawmakers continued working on economic legislation that could include investments in workers and climate amidst the recovery from COVID-19 and the environmental crisis that is already particularly harmful to communities of color. The greed that fuels harmful environmental practices by corporations is the same greed that harms labor rights and worker protections—and the establishment of healthy and safe workplace environments has long been recognized as essential to the fight for a greener society.  

Due to historic and structural racism, the effects of climate injustice disproportionately harm communities of color. Workers of color—especially Latinx, Indigenous, and Black workers—are far more likely to work in environments and regions projected to see reductions in available labor hours due to extreme temperatures. They are also more likely to be exposed to pollution and toxic waste that bring greater risk of contracting long-term illnesses or work-related disability. Worker movements, labor unions, and collective bargaining agreements have worked to combat racial and gender disparities. Expanding this focus to environmental justice is essential for establishing a just economic system that benefits the entire nation. 

Aligning Economic & Environmental Justice 

Action to merge the economic and environmental justice movements can follow three different pathways of equal importance: union attention, job creation action, and workforce action. Labor unions are in a unique position to lend support to the national environmental justice movement by already having significant experience in people-centered policy and legislative advocacy. Unions can further contribute using a practice gaining popularity: bargaining for the common good. Collective bargaining can protect workers from harmful workplace conditions and be used as a tool of environmental justice to advance cleaner, safer, and more sustainable workplace operations. These unified campaigns are versatile and have already been used to champion causes, such as increased access to affordable housing and educational opportunities, and can build upon examples already being used to include green provisions in bargaining.  

Transitioning to a more sustainable society will be incomplete without the creation of climate-friendly jobs that provide living wages, increased workplace health and safety protections, and training opportunities to provide more workers the knowledge needed to obtain these new jobs. Worker advocacy and action to support environmental justice is just one aspect of transitioning to a greener economy. Policymakers must also act. Infrastructure investments can be used both to protect our country against future climate events and to address economic inequities by providing jobs that pay living wages. Successful examples include using local- and state-level project labor agreements to ensure creation of union jobs in the clean economy, and establishing apprenticeship programs to provide more pathways to employment in high-quality energy efficiency jobs. The Biden Administration and Congress have policy tools available to drive activity in environmentally friendly sectors, including using federal subsidized employment to promote economic growth.  

The worker and environmental justice movements have already come together for joint legislative action with climate provisions included in a budget reconciliation framework that would create 2 million more jobs in energy supply sectors by 2030 compared to relying on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act alone. Congress authorizing funding through reconciliation to address climate change and create quality jobs would center marginalized communities in economic recovery and provide a firm base for transitioning the national economy into one that is more environmentally friendly. Clean energy as an industry can contribute to the same marginalization of certain communities that takes place in other industries, and federal investment in sustainable jobs that support climate infrastructure would provide economic empowerment to these communities that is not found in the private sector.  

A Cleaner Economy Must Be a More Equitable Economy  

It’s incredibly difficult to justify not taking action to promote a cleaner environment, as even the fossil fuel industry itself is already recognizing the need to transition to cleaner environmental practices. A smooth transition to a greener economy requires dedicated effort to eliminate harmful environmental practices of corporations and protect workers and their families from being left behind as the nation adjusts to the new realities of the planet’s climate. Worker justice is an essential aspect of climate justice and vice versa. That’s why collaborative efforts to advocate for the good of workers can help build the just and sustainable economy this country needs to combat climate change.