Speech by Campaigns Director Caitlyn Vernon to Unifor, Sep. 2015

It is an honour to be here with you today, on unceded Coast Salish territory.

I’d like to first express my deep respect and gratitude to the labour movement, for uplifting us all, through many long years of struggle. Thank you.

And in particular, I would like to commend Unifor for the strength and leadership you bring to the challenge of climate change. It has been a real honour to stand shoulder to shoulder with you as we learn to work together.

Sierra Club BC is an environmental organization with almost 50 years of history. We work to protect and conserve BC’s wild places, and keep fossil fuels in the ground – for example opposing the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines. And we promote green job alternatives and the shift to a low carbon economy.

We have an environmental education program in the schools, our work is based in science, we recognize aboriginal title and rights. And we have a commitment to building alliances and working in solidarity across various movements – for example with First Nations and with labour.

Climate change is game on. We are feeling the impacts all around us, in the drought, fishing closures and wildfires this past summer.

The science predicts that here in B.C., grasslands will expand, there will be less water for agriculture, the ocean will acidify – making it harder for shellfish to form their shells, large old growth coastal trees won’t grow back.

When I think about climate change I think about the environment, but I also think about jobs, and the economy.

Because it’s not a question of jobs versus the environment – it’s a question of what kinds of jobs, and who gets to decide.

Maybe it’s because I grew up on picket lines as well as in the woods, but I really believe that social justice cannot be separated from environmental justice. We can lobby all we want for environmental protections, but no policies or protected areas will hold up over the long term unless the people who live there have sustainable livelihoods. And if we have secure jobs but can’t drink the water or eat the food, if our kids can’t go outside to play, is that really security for our families?

Talking about jobs versus the environment perpetuates an economic model that isn’t working for people, or for the planet. The more I think about it, jobs vs environment feels like a strategy to divide us, to pit us against each other, while someone else runs away with the profit and leaves an ecological mess behind.

Are we going to keep letting them do that?

Our economic model assumes that endless growth is possible. But we live on a finite planet, with limited resources. There is only so much that we can take from the earth, or dump back as waste, before the ecosystems stop functioning, and stop providing us with the water and food we rely on.

We need an economy that operates within ecological limits, where wealth and resources are distributed more equitably. And where both people and the planet are put before profit.

Never has this been so urgent as it is now, as together we face the challenge of climate change.

Economists are warning of a carbon bubble, and stranded assets in the fossil fuel industry. To support workers in these sectors, we need to get out in front of the upcoming changes, and build the post-carbon economy that we already know is possible.

Unifor is demonstrating bold leadership in this direction.

Brothers and sisters, we will continue to look to you for leadership. The role of unions and workers couldn’t be more important. You have the skills, the courage, the creativity and the organizing expertise that is so very needed. Together we can and must build a post-carbon economy that supports workers and sustains the environment we all depend on.

We are talking about a big shift – some call it a great turning – and our task is to ensure job security and healthy families along the way. To do this we need all hands on deck.

A couple years ago I was in Fort McMurray for the tar sands healing walk. Led by First Nations, we walked past the tailings pond and smokestacks, our lungs hurting along with our hearts, as we bore witness to the dead zones we’ve created on the land. We walked for hours. And all through those hours, truck drivers honked their support as they went past. Workers waved from the windows of their buses. It felt like an outpouring of support from the workers who make their living from the tar sands.

I tell this story because it so clearly demonstrates how we are all in this mess together, whether we are the ones digging holes in the earth, or the ones trying to stop them. And it is only by working together that we will find solutions that work for everyone, and for the earth.

Sierra Club and Unifor are part of Green Jobs BC, an alliance between labour and environmental organizations. We are finding common ground, and promoting policies that support the good green jobs we can all say yes to.

Because here’s the thing. The challenges we are up against are very real, but so are the alternatives. Whether we are talking about local energy generation or mass transportation, the alternatives to fossil fuels are known, are possible, and will create more jobs. All that’s lacking is the political will.

We can look to Germany for inspiration. They went from 6% of their energy from renewables in 2000 to 23% in 2013, through a generous and well-designed incentive program that created an industry that employed 300,000 people.

Germany also pushed forward a massive retrofit program in the early 2000’s that not only created 140,000 jobs, but made Germany the leader in green architecture, design, and energy-efficient products, which they now sell all over the world. It’s worth noting that Germany is a world leader in solar without being a particularly sunny place.

We can create good green jobs through renewable energy, transportation initiatives, and energy efficiency retrofits. And it’s not just about creating new jobs – we also need to better value existing low carbon jobs in other sectors, many of which are held by women and people of colour.

So how do we get there?

We can shift subsidies away from fossil fuels and towards renewables and energy efficiency.

For every million dollars invested, instead of only 2 jobs in oil and gas we could create 15 jobs in clean energy.

We can raise the carbon tax and invest in transportation.

We can build alliances between workers and environmental activists, and take to the streets to ensure we have good policies in place to support all workers in the shift to a post-carbon economy.

We can build alternatives in our own communities, with locally-controlled regional energy projects.

This is no small challenge, but I don’t think I’m in a room of people who shy away from taking on big challenges.

Climate change is the fight of our generation and it is a labour issue just as much as it is an environmental issue.

We face a choice about what future we want to live in, and the time to choose is now.

We might not always agree with each other, but we can always learn from one another.

By building a green economy and doing something about climate change, I hope we can build a world in which we respect the earth, and respect one another as well.

Thank you.