Climate activists, labor agree: ‘Our movements have to be intersectional’

The AFT brought together an engaging town hall panel on April 13 to discuss advancing a labor-climate agenda. The panel included actress and activist Jane Fonda of Fire Drill Fridays; Varshini Prakash, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement; and Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The discussion was led by AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Climate Justice town hall

“Climate issues impact everything we do, and so does justice,” said Weingarten. “Justice is the lens by which we do all of our work. Climate justice is racial justice, it is worker justice, and it is gender justice.” The impact of climate is why organizations are working to build a climate-labor coalition, she said.

“We are at the crossroads of standing up for a stronger, fairer democracy; a cleaner, more livable planet; and a more just, sustainable economy, … of helping build toward a world where all of this can thrive,” said Weingarten. “Our movements have to be intersectional because one justice movement doesn’t survive without the other.”

Weingarten noted that everyone plays a role in making the climate agenda a reality, but it’s essential to go beyond rhetoric. “It can’t be a word or saying; it has to be an actionable agenda with real steps to make the planet habitable.”

The climate issues are urgent and can be addressed, especially with the Biden administration’s desire to focus on jobs and infrastructure. “When we talk about the THRIVE Act, people see the connection,” said Weingarten. “We can change this; we already have a president who wants to.”

“We’ve arrived at this moment where climate change is now front and center to the White House’s agenda because of the tireless work of young people who are standing up and speaking out, fighting like their futures depend on it because they do,” said the EPA’s Regan. “We need to continue to invest in the next generation of environmental stewards. The classroom is such a critical place to begin to nurture that curiosity to challenge and inspire our children and give them the knowledge to make a change in their own communities and beyond. Environmental education is essential to the EPA’s mission. Our kids spend 30 hours a week in the classroom. We need to ensure that all of our children, regardless of race or ZIP code, have safe, healthy places to learn. It’s a top priority for me and the Biden administration.”

Fonda pointed out that 2.8 million people have died from COVID-19 in the last year, but at that same time, 8.7 million people have died from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuel. “We don’t feel the same urgency that we do around climate that we feel around COVID because it’s invisible,” said Fonda. “The climate crisis is beyond urgent. Climate is the overarching existential crisis that all the other crises are nestled into. As the climate crisis worsens, all the other crises are amplified. And if we don’t move quickly, the climate crisis may move beyond our control.”

“We don’t have the luxury of solving these crises one at a time, and we don’t have to,” said Fonda. She added that the THRIVE Act will create millions of good union jobs, build a climate-resilient and equitable economy, invest in communities of color, and transition our country toward a clean, renewable energy economy.

For the THRIVE Act to succeed, “We need to responsibly phase out of fossil fuels with the same level of ambition in which THRIVE invests in the economy of the future,” said Fonda.

Weingarten agreed with Fonda, noting that “creating jobs and curbing climate change is not an either-or. The THRIVE Act does both.”

Prakash, a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, which worked to create the THRIVE agenda and the Green New Deal, was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about the climate agenda. “Sunrise formed to give young people a voice and path to channeling the injustices in their lives and transform them into political power,” she said. Prakash said they can take all of the anger, grief and hope to the doorstep of the most powerful people in the world and pressure them into delivering the change they deserve. “There is no path toward a more sustainable, safe, clean future than to have the rights of workers front and center,” said Prakash, who added that we can’t do any of the things we need to do without creating millions of good union jobs. “I’m excited to be at this moment in history where things feel possible.”

[Adrienne Coles]