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AFL-CIO chief urges talks about 'the future of coal'

Read the speech here CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Workers and environmental activists need to get together for serious discussions about the future of the coal industry, the president of the AFL-CIO said Thursday in a major speech about global warming.

Richard Trumka, former president of the United Mine Workers, said action is needed to reduce greenhouse emissions, citing scientific studies that "tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change -- with catastrophic consequences for human civilization."

But Trumka also said that coal miners and many other workers fear what environmentalists call the "green economy." He called for a "just transition" to a low-carbon emissions economic system.

"We live on one planet, and we share a common humanity that requires respect for each others' families and communities," Trumka said. "In particular, we need dialogue between environmentalists and workers and communities about the future of coal."

Trumka delivered his speech at the United Nations, during a conference called the Investor Summit on Climate Risk & Energy Solutions. The event was co-sponsored by the United National Foundation, the U.N. Office of Partnerships, and Ceres, a group that works with investors to have companies consider sustainable practices.

Coal is one of the nation's largest sources of global warming pollution, representing a third of U.S. greenhouse emissions, equal to the combined output of all cars, trucks, buses, trains and boats. Most scientists recommend the nation swiftly cut carbon dioxide emissions, reducing them by about 80 percent below 2000 levels by mid-century to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

But many coalfield politicians either dismiss the science or argue that any consequences of rising temperatures are too far off to worry too much about.

Trumka, though, said he's seen the evidence himself in the rural areas around his native Nemacolin, Pa.

"To those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now -- I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly," Trumka said.

Trumka said the labor movement favors addressing climate change, and knows that doing so will involve creating new jobs to retrofit factories and power plants, to modernize transportation systems and make dozens of other changes that will reduce emissions.

But Trumka said the nation must also find a way to deal with what he said is a fundamental unfairness of dealing with climate change.

"Half of the electrical power in the United States comes from coal," he said. "This has been true for years. People I grew up with dig the coal that lights the lights and heats the buildings all across this country today. The world we know exists because coal miners go down to the mines. But the carbon emissions from that coal, and from oil and natural gas, and agriculture and so much other human activity-- causes global warming, and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now."

At the same time, Trumka said that environmental group campaigns that talk about ending all coal production and burning frighten the people in the coalfields where he grew up.

"When these folks hear "End Coal," it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are," he said.

"The truth is that in many places -- and not just places where coal is mined -- there is fear that the "green economy" will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society -- another economy that works for the 1 percent and not for the 99 percent."

Trumka said his organization "believes that honest, constructive dialogue between workers and their communities and environmental advocates, between investors and companies can forge pathways to fair and politically sustainable change-and that without it, we will not move forward."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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