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Today (15 October) is Blog Action Day – a day when bloggers from around the world commit to promoting a single cause (climate change this year) and thus raise awareness of that cause.

Climate change is, simply, the greatest ethical, political and policy problem of our age.

Climate change is something that is close to my heart, and is a policy problem that I consider regularly, especially in my work and studies. I have written about climate change often on this blog. I have also been trained as part of The Climate Project to give Al Gore’s climate change presentation.

As a diabolical policy problem, climate change is a challenge which is easy for our political leaders to do very little. It is easy to “green wash”, or to take only some action to mitigate climate change. There is enormous efforts put in by polluters to muddy the debate about mitigating climate change, to create uncertainty, fear and doubt.

This post will be principally about what unions can do about climate change, and what they are already doing.

Unions are well placed to be global leaders in changing perceptions on climate change. In Australia, there is a lot of research which backs this up.

  1. Australians by and large want there to be action on climate change (around 90%) and many are willing to personally do something about it – if they are convinced that what they are doing has an effect.
  2. Australian union members by and large trust their union on workplace matters.

This means that if unions turn issues such as climate change into a workplace issue, then many of their members will be willing to take action.

The benefits are obvious. Firstly, unions can lead positive mitigation action on climate change through persuading workers to change their personal activities (turning off computers, car pooling to work, etc) and empowering workers into having employers change their policies and practices to be more sustainable (purchasing 100% renewable energy, only using recycled paper, carbon off-setting flights, retrofitting buildings to be energy and water efficient, etc).

Secondly, for unions there are many benefits. By turning members into climate change activists, the union increases its overall number of union activists. While a member may be inactive when it comes to negotiating a new collective agreement, that same member may be willing to stand up to an employer over the purchase of a fuel efficient car fleet. Once a member has been engaged, enabled and activated on one issue (climate change), it is far easier to make them active on a range of other issues (such as workplace rights, health and safety or collective bargaining).

Finally, unions need to be seen as leaders in the climate change debate. Not a debate over whether climate change is real. But rather how our society, community and economy can transition from carbon intensive to low-carbon (or zero carbon). It is union members who will bear the brunt of mitigation and adaptation policies. It is union members, in TAFEs and universities, who will train and retrain workers in carbon intensive industries, or a new generation workforce in clean energy jobs. Union members in ambulances and hospitals will deal with increasing numbers of climate change related illnesses (tropical diseases in temperate areas, heat stroke from unseasonally hot days). It is union members who will have to adapt our mass transit to cope with heat waves. The TUC in the United Kingdom has done some great work on the Just Transition concept in relation to climate change.

The role of unions on climate change is clear. Unions need to shape the future for their members, rather than wait around for changes to be made to them.

Thankfully, unions are responding. The ACTU and a number of unions (including my union) are running a climate change campaign, promoting clean energy jobs and working to engage thousands of unions members on climate change.

The personal action campaigns are a first step – by no means the last. I strongly believe that political action and political will is required to seriously address climate change (that is why I am a member of the ALP).

Nevertheless, personal action campaigns are important. The vast majority of Australians, although they want action on climate change, do not know what they personally can do to help. By engaging them at a personal level, unions can help lift them to a more politically aware level. We cannot expect union members to all be politically aware or active. Most Australians are not.

Running a personal action campaign not only builds union activists and helps make workplaces more sustainable, but also increases the political awareness and engagement of members.

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