Throw a stick at COP 21 and you’re likely to hit something bearing the word “renewable,” written in one language or another. The expansive Climate Generations Area, an official portion of the La Bourget compound open to the general public, is somewhere between an Ikea and a high-production-value science fair. Flanked by booths hosted by a spread of global organizations—from the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance to the Surfrider Foundation—the conference center is full of corporate-sponsored solutions and borderline gimmicky items like bike-powered “power stations” for charging cell phones.
But how can those following the talks start to parse out genuine from greenwashed solutions at COP21? At the Trade Union Forum on Climate and Jobs on Dec. 3, an unlikely international group of greens—trade unionists—came together to make their pitch for one option: energy democracy.
The concept of energy democracy is rooted in calls for democratic rights, a well-funded public sphere, and renewable energy. According to the International Labor Organization, a just transition away from fossil fuels and toward a greener economy means the process must include all stakeholders: The inevitable impacts on society and jobs must be shared by all of us.
Peter Knowlton, general president of the United Electrical Workers (UE) and a veteran of the anti-nuclear movement, likened the coming transition away from fossil fuels to the periods before and after the Second World War.
“When the U.S. entered into the war, within a period of three months they had completely transformed the auto industry into a war machine,” he said, noting that just 150 cars were produced in the United States from 1942 through 1945. “An entire industry was transformed overnight, from one of producing peacetime vehicles into a war machine. From our perspective, this is the kind of effort that is going to be required in the United States and elsewhere in order to save ourselves from ourselves.”
Where the “just” came in, though, was after the war. Federal funding spurred creation of a peacetime economy reliant on high-paying, unionized work. Toward the end of the Vietnam War years later, unions including the UE came together to demand a “Peace Dividend,” diverting military spending post-war into federal benefits and job-creation programs. Then chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee John Stennis (D-Miss.) argued that as much as $10 billion could be reallocated from the defense budget “as soon as the shooting stops.”
Today, the transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to one based on renewables is already underway. Although they may disagree on terms and timelines, even more conservative factions at this year’s climate talks agree on the need to collectively wean ourselves off fossil fuels. This week, France pledged to back renewables in Africa to the tune of $2 billion, and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition—convened by billionaires Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson—is looking to start a “new economic revolution” toward wind, solar, and other alternative fuel sources. Big business especially is scrambling to account for the potential $6 trillion loss markets could face from the burst of the carbon bubble; it’s part of the reason corporations are footing 20 percent of the COP21 bill.
Advocates of energy democracy, however, are skeptical of such top-down, market-friendly approaches to phasing out fossil fuels—no less so than of those eager to crowd out unions. Moderator Sean Sweeney, of the international coalition Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, cited a quote from the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), established by the Iron Lady herself in 1974. “It’s impossible to integrate large amounts of intermittent renewables into a private sector system and still expect it to function as such,” a recent CPS report states, concluding that “you can have renewables, or you can have the market. You cannot have both. If renewables are a must have, then nationalization is the answer.”
More than a specific transition program, Sweeney emphasized, energy democracy is “a principle of public and democratic control” that will vary from country to country and region to region. It’s also about more than simply ensuring that jobs in the renewable sector are unionized. Yuna Song, of South Korea’s KPTU-Public Policy Institute for People, stated that she considers energy cooperatives a “dangerous” option, advocating instead for a “nationally owned, but democratically operated” energy system involving a range of stakeholders to oversee not just individual utilities, but national energy policy.
In the United States, meanwhile, Sweeney and Knowlton agreed that energy municipalization and community ownership, where towns and cities buy out their utilities, have been some of the most hopeful forces driving a just transition forward; Boulder, Colorado, and California’s Local Clean Energy Alliance provide two noteworthy examples. At the behest of campaigners, even larger-scale, government-supported efforts for locally owned renewables are underway in Germany.
One thing all the panelists agreed on was the importance of bolstering both union and broader democratic rights, which are under threat from privatization and repression in Europe, Asia, and North America alike. As Song said, “In order for us to have real social, democratic control of our energy system, we have to…strengthen our unions and create a spot for ourselves at the table.”
When I spoke to Knowlton for a few minutes after the panel, he emphasized the need to protect energy workers as their current jobs are necessarily shuttered—and how excited members of his own union were to take action on climate change. “I don’t know a coal miner,” he said, “who would prefer to work underground as opposed to above ground. The problem is that in the states of Kentucky and West Virginia there are no other jobs.”
Circumventing the old trope of jobs versus the environment, the energy democracy framework treats the climate crisis as a chance to create better jobs and rebuild the public sphere in places wracked by austerity. “It’s not that [workers] are going to be losing a job. They’re just going to be losing this type of job and take another that is safer for them; that is more healthy for the planet and for their families, and pays the same wages and has the same benefits,” Knowlton said. “What worker would not want to make that transition?”
Still, calls for energy democracy remain politically and geographically distant from Le Bourget’s Blue Zone, where diplomats have been working late into the night to hammer out the draft text of a potential deal. Hopeful solutions may not abound in the depths of Le Bourget, but the panelists and crowd yesterday put more stock in the ongoing work of movements and civil society groups happening outside.
“What we may come out with from Paris is civilizational surrender to what is happening to the climate [and] to a system of growth, accumulation, and profit that will condemn future generations to a life of misery,” Sweeney reflected on COP21. “And we have to be clear that there is no solution except for, in key sectors, to assert public and democratic control.”
Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based writer covering climate and American politics. She is a fellow at the Type Media Center and a contributing writer for The Intercept.