Fighting climate change will create jobs, but only if we want it to

May 1, 2016

Avi Lewis promotes the Leap Manifesto at the 2016 NDP convention in Edmonton. (Photo by Joshua Berson)

Avi Lewis promotes the Leap Manifesto at the 2016 NDP convention in Edmonton. (Photo by Joshua Berson)

We can now add political party conventions to the list of potential disasters caused by climate change. As the NDP gathered in Edmonton this April to chart the party’s future, delegates were unexpectedly hit by an unprecedented collision of oil, GHG emissions and politics. An already tension-filled convention to review a disappointing (to put it mildly) federal election campaign turned into emotional and divisive debate over the so-called Leap Manifesto. It was the disruptive power of climate change on full display. 

At the core of that debate in Edmonton is a question that actually concerns all Canadians: Will measures intended to combat climate change destroy jobs or create them? 

In some circles it’s an article of faith that fighting climate change will spur new industries and green jobs to go along with them. Others are more suspicious, wary that a green economy puts their economic well-being at risk, especially if they work in energy-intensive sectors of the economy. The real answer is somewhere in the middle. If job creation is not part of the plan to transition to a low-carbon economy we risk losing the support of workers (a lot of people), or worse—forgetting them altogether. 

The federal government is poised to make significant political and financial investments in combating climate change. Prime Minister Trudeau’s mandate letters to at least 12 of his 29 cabinet ministers included climate change–reducing measures, and the recent budget put $2 billion into a “low carbon economy fund,” announced earlier this year at a first ministers’ meeting to discuss Canada's climate change strategy. 

Repeating the “green jobs” mantra

The Vancouver Declaration on Clean Growth and Climate Change, endorsed by the federal and provincial governments in March, uses the word “jobs” 10 times in its text. Among the many working groups established by the declaration, the one covering “clean technology, innovation and jobs” will focus on how to stimulate economic growth, create jobs and drive innovation across all sectors to transition to a low-carbon economy. 

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stressed the importance of the working group in her remarks to the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit last month. “[Climate change] is not just a massive challenge, it’s actually a huge economic opportunity for Canada,” she said. “The whole world is going in a direction and we need to be part of it because those are the jobs of the future. We cannot be left behind.” 

But a green job revolution will not happen by itself, no matter how well meaning the intentions.

The York University project, Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change, recently noted an alarming gap in the government climate strategies between rhetoric and reality. A report for the project by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that while provincial governments frequently speak of “jobs and opportunities,” there are few tangible policies and programs in Canada to support job creation and professional development in the context of a green energy transition. Instead, most governments see the creation of green jobs as a consequence of transitioning to a cleaner economy rather than a policy target in and of itself. 

It’s becoming apparent that workers need to get involved to ensure that government policies include job creation as a central tenet of Canada’s climate change strategies. 

Can Canada’s unions help to build a green economy? 

Carla Lipsig-Mummé, professor of work and labour studies at York University and lead researcher of the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change project, says the answer is yes. 

“But it will require policy-makers to work closely with workers’ organizations like the Canadian Labour Congress and its broad array of member unions such as CUPE, Unifor, the Postal Workers, United Steelworkers, Public Service Alliance of Canada, United Food and Commercial Workers, and others to ensure that the false “jobs vs. environment” argument does not derail efforts to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions,” she wrote in The Hill Times

Acrimony makes for exciting news stories. But it’s just as likely the NDP convention’s battle of ideas will spill over into a broader national discussion about growth, jobs and climate change. We will all be better off for it. Now—with oil prices low, a new Paris agreement on emissions reductions, and a persistent employment problem—is exactly the right time for the government, employers and unions to achieve a just transition that brings about a green economy built on fairness and co-operation. 

Steven Staples is an elected member of the CCPA Members’ Council and president of Public Response, a digital communications and advocacy agency based in Ottawa. This article is part of a special feature on new economic directions for Canada in the May-June issue of the CCPA Monitor (available next month).