Vatican urges Catholics to drop investments in fossil fuels, arms

FILE PHOTO: People walk on St. Peter’s Square after the Vatican reports its first case of coronavirus, at the Vatican, March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican urged Catholics on Thursday to disinvest from the armaments and fossil fuel industries and to closely monitor companies in sectors such as mining to check if they are damaging the environment.

The calls were contained in a 225-page manual for church leaders and workers to mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ landmark encyclical “Laudato Si” (Praised Be) on the need to protect nature, life and defenseless people.

The compendium suggests practical steps to achieve the goals of the encyclical, which strongly supported agreements to contain global warming and warned against the dangers of climate change.

The manual’s section on finance said people “could favor positive changes … by excluding from their investments companies that do not satisfy certain parameters.” It listed these as respect for human rights, bans on child labor and protection of the environment.

Called ‘Journeying Towards Care For Our Common Home’, one action point called on Catholics to shun “shun companies that are harmful to human or social ecology, such as abortion and armaments, and to the environment, such as fossil fuels”.

Another section called for the “stringent monitoring” of extraction industries in areas with fragile ecosystems to prevent air, soil and water contamination.

Last month, more that 40 faith organizations from around the world, more than half of them Catholic, pledged to divest from fossil fuel companies.

The Vatican bank has said it does not invest in fossil fuels and many Catholic dioceses and educational institutions around the world have taken similar positions.

The document urges Catholics to defend the rights of local populations to have a say in whether their lands can be used for oil or mineral extraction and the right to take strong stands against companies that cause environmental disasters or over-exploit natural resources such as forests.

SOURCE

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens

As Energy Prices Tumble, Developing Countries Trim Subsidies

Trying to cut spending as the pandemic reduces tax revenue, governments are finding it easier to lift restraints on what consumers pay for fuel.

Credit…Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic has sent economies into recession and reduced government revenue, so some countries are taking a politically perilous path: removing restraints on electricity and petroleum prices.

Nigeria and Tunisia have lowered fuel subsidies in recent weeks, and India has raised taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel. Sudanese officials plan to replace some subsidies with direct cash payments to the poor. Venezuela, where the economy was collapsing before the pandemic, has partly reversed decades of gasoline subsidies. And the state-owned electric utility in Dubai is seeking to raise rates for the first time in a generation.

In contrast to the recent past, elected leaders are facing little political blowback for taking away subsidies and raising taxes. That’s because the prices of oil, natural gas and other fuels have collapsed in recent months. In addition, driving, flying and industrial activity have dropped off sharply.

But that could change once world energy prices shake off the pandemic’s effects.

Energy subsidies are often taken for granted outside the halls of power. But they constitute vital policy choices that weigh on government budgets and economic development.

“Governments are caught in a dilemma,” said Jim Krane, an energy expert at Rice University who has studied subsidies. “Do they want to protect the poor who may have lost their jobs and incomes, or do they want to take action against the pernicious long-term cost to their budgets?”

Countries with weak social-service and tax systems often resort to subsidies because they are a relatively easy way to deliver affordable electricity, cooking gas and petroleum. But many economists say this largess primarily benefits well-off families, because they have the biggest cars and homes. The poorest people in the developing world frequently do not own cars and may live in villages that have access to power for just a few hours a day, if they are connected to the grid at all.

Still, any price increase hurts people earning subsistence wages. And cuts in subsidies have prompted political protests, riots and strikes from Iran to Indonesia.

In October, for example, Ecuadoreans marched in the streets after the government slashed fuel subsidies to save $1.4 billion a year. As gasoline prices rose by 25 percent and diesel prices doubled, truck drivers, Indigenous people and other groups paralyzed the country for 11 days and forced the president to leave the capital, Quito. The protests ended when the government reversed course.

Protests in Quito in October against fuel price increases imposed to help secure an International Monetary Fund loan.
Credit…Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Demonstrators broke into a government building in Ecuador in October. Decisions to raise fuel prices have been politically fraught.
Credit…Rodrigo Buendia/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Rene Ortiz, Ecuador’s energy minister, said energy subsidies were a “flag” waved by politicians and activists to win votes. “That flag attracts the poor people, who think if subsidies are taken away they will become poorer,” he said in an interview. “It’s a myth that won’t easily go away.”

It is little wonder that few countries have eagerly followed the advice of the economists at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other organizations to cut subsidies.

Experts say government spending on fuel and electricity makes it harder for officials to spend on health care and education. It also encourages people to use more energy than they need, increasing air pollution and traffic congestion. In addition, some benefits of low energy prices are frittered away when smugglers resell fuel in another country where prices are higher.

Energy subsidies in more than 40 countries totaled $318 billion last year, according to the International Energy Agency — half for oil and petroleum products, and the rest for electricity, natural gas and coal. The countries with the biggest subsidies last year were Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Roughly 10 percent of global consumption of fossil fuels was subsidized, according to the energy agency.

Value of fossil-fuel consumption subsidies in the top 10 countries, 2019 By The New York Times | Source: International Energy Agency

 

To cushion the pandemic’s economic blow, countries like Indonesia, South Africa and Ghana recently increased electricity subsidies.

“The overwhelming priority for governments given the Covid-19 pandemic is to try to mitigate the impact, and so governments are trying to make sure the incomes of households are protected to some degree,” said Tim Gould, head of energy supply and investment at the International Energy Agency.

But Mr. Gould added that the collapse of energy prices gave governments “a golden opportunity.” Lower prices make it easier to cut subsidies without inflicting much pain on the poor, especially in oil-exporting countries with reduced revenues.

“As you move from the immediate emergency phase into the stimulus and recovery stage, there is a real opportunity to make sure the pricing signals are the right ones,” he said.

The last time oil prices plunged, in 2014 and 2015, countries like India, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reduced subsidies. Some, including India, compensated the poor with direct cash payments.

The moves made fiscal sense, but countries like Kuwait and Oman reversed course after protests. Others, like Russia, which has subsidized fuel since the Soviet era, did not enact proposals to raise energy prices.

Subsidies are just one way governments hand out money to the energy industry. The United States does not directly subsidize the retail price of gasoline or electricity, but it offers tax breaks to fossil-fuel and renewable-energy companies. Gasoline and diesel taxes are also lower at the pump in the United States than in European countries.

More governments may reduce energy subsidies if oil and gas prices stay low.

The biggest test could come in Nigeria, where cheap gasoline and diesel fuel are considered sacrosanct because the country is the biggest oil producer in Africa. When Goodluck Jonathan, the president at the time, scrapped energy subsidies in 2012, he faced two weeks of protests and riots as prices surged before he reinstated half of the previous subsidies.

The current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is calculating that this time will be different. He has deregulated prices at the pump, in a move designed to save his government $2 billion a year. With global oil prices down by roughly 40 percent since the beginning of the year, the decontrolled price at the pump is several cents a gallon below the controlled price Nigerians paid as recently as last month.

“He removed the subsidies because they are not necessary anymore,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group in Washington. “If oil creeps up again, there will be pressure on Buhari to reinstall the subsidies. Nigerians may not get the democracy they want or the security they want, but they expect cheap oil.”

SOURCE

Clifford Krauss is a national energy business correspondent based in Houston. He joined The Times in 1990 and has been the bureau chief in Buenos Aires and Toronto. He is the author of “Inside Central America: Its People, Politics, and History.” @ckrausss

We’re going to need a Marshall Plan to rebuild after COVID-19.

This is war, and it will take a public-led reconstruction plan to rebuild our economy and create opportunities. The debt will soar, but it must.

Economic policy-makers have been understandably focused on addressing the immediate economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic: developing new income supports for the millions who will need them, stabilizing the credit system and channelling emergency aid to hundreds of thousands of firms that will otherwise collapse in coming months.

At the same time, however, we must start thinking about what comes next. Yes, job one is providing a financial bridge so businesses, workers and households can survive the coming frightening months. But job two is getting ready to kick-start production once the immediate health crisis has passed — and we’re finally allowed to leave home again and go back to work.

It is already clear that the unprecedented speed and depth of this downturn will require equally unprecedented measures to get the economy back on its feet. In essence, we are fighting a war: a war against disease and its effects on our society and economy. Under government’s powerful leadership, we are rightly throwing every possible resource into that war — including invoking direct tools of command and control that fell out of favour during the last generation of market-worshipping policy.

Get ready for a double-digit decline in GDP this year (the steepest contraction ever), the collapse of thousands of firms and even entire industries, and unemployment spiking above 20 percent. There is no possibility that this kind of shutdown could be fixed through the normal, gradualist dynamics of a “typical” recovery, led by an incremental rebound of confidence, investment and spending. And the traditional tools of countercyclical monetary and fiscal policy won’t be capable of leading the recovery. Monetary policy, indeed, has already lost most of its effectiveness: with interest rates near zero, and borrowers fearful of what lies ahead, interest rate cuts will have virtually no impact on real economic activity in the coming year or longer. Fiscal interventions, too, must go far beyond countercyclical “pump priming” and instead take on responsibility for directly leading recovery, investment and growth.

In short, fighting this coronavirus is like fighting a war. And to recover after that war, we will need to study the lessons of previous post-war reconstructions.

Think of post-pandemic rebuilding like a modern Marshall Plan (replicating the enormous, government-funded effort to rebuild Western Europe after the Second World War). We’ll need a similar commitment to all-round reconstruction. We will need equally massive fiscal injections. And we will need a similar willingness to use tools of direct economic management and regulation — including public service, public ownership and planning — to make it all happen.

For many years to come, Canada’s economy will rely on public service, public investment and public entrepreneurship as the main drivers of growth. They will lead us in recovering from the immediate downturn, preparing for future health and environmental crises and addressing the desperate conditions in our communities. The chronic weakness of private business capital spending in recent years was already indicating a growing need for public investment to lead the way. After COVID-19, it is impossible to imagine that private capital spending could somehow lead the reconstruction of a shattered national economy.

What form will this public-led reconstruction plan take? There are many priorities for public resources and economic leadership. Any and all of them would create needed jobs, provide essential services and rebuild our capacity to work, produce and spend:

      • Healthcare services and facilities. Canada’s public health infrastructure has responded courageously to the demands of COVID-19, but the crisis highlights long-standing weaknesses in our health system. We will need to invest tens of billions in repairing and improving health facilities (including related services like aged care and community health), training and employing more healthcare workers — and being better prepared for the next pandemic.
      • Transportation. Airlines and other public transportation providers have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. They will need injections of public capital and other direct measures to recover and rebuild.
      • Public infrastructure. Underinvestment in public infrastructure since the 1980s has badly undermined Canadian productivity and well-being. This is the time to commit to a sustained public investment program: increasing public capital spending by at least half (from under 4 percent of GDP today to 6 percent or higher).
      • Other public services. All attention is on healthcare services at present, for good reason. But other public services are also in need of investment and expansion: including aged care, early childhood education, disability services and vocational training. As the post-pandemic economy works off an enormous overhang of underutilized labour, expanded public services will be an engine of growth, not just a “cost.”
      • Energy and climate transitions. With the price of Western Canada Select oil falling to close to zero (and no reason to expect any sustained rebound to levels that would justify new investment), it is clear that fossil fuel developments will never lead Canadian growth again. Politicians and their “war rooms” can rage at this state of affairs, but they can’t change it: they might as well pray for a revival in prices for beaver pelts or other bygone Canadian staple exports. However, the other side of this gloomy coin is the enormous investment and employment opportunity associated with building out renewable energy systems and networks (which are now the cheapest energy option anyway). This effort must be led by forceful, consistent government policy, including direct regulation and public investment (in addition to carbon pricing). Another big job creator, already identified by Ottawa and Alberta, will be investment in remediation of former petroleum and mining sites.

In short, there’s no shortage of urgent rebuilding tasks in our economy and our communities. The case for mobilizing resources to meet those needs, under the leadership of governments and other public institutions, is compelling. We can put people to work, repair the damage of this crisis (and better prepare for the next one) and deliver essential and valuable services. All we need is a different model of organizing and leading economic activity — and some modern-day C.D. Howes – to help us imagine and implement that vision.

Some policy-makers and politicians will dust off standard arguments about the dangers of big government. They are silent for now: I don’t hear anyone calling for “small government” or “low taxes,” when society is suddenly and clearly dependent on government’s capacity to act for our very survival. But once the immediate emergency passes, traditional fear-mongering about deficits and debt, red tape and market distortions will get louder. Those arguments should be rejected.

Yes, deficits will be huge in the coming years. Expect federal deficits of $150 billion or more this year and next, with more red ink at the provincial level. Public debt will soar past 100 percent of GDP within a couple of years. Indeed, anything less than that would be a sign that government is literally not doing its job to protect Canadians from this crisis.

Far from worrying about that debt, we should in fact celebrate it. And we should be ready to issue more of it to finance post-pandemic reconstruction — just as we did after the Second World War. In the context of a shattered economy, public debt is just the flip side of public investment. And we will need lots of that.

Interest rates, already at rock bottom before the crisis, have plunged below 1 percent (even for 30-year bonds). That is negative in real terms — and hence, quite literally, government saves money by borrowing (paying back less in real terms than it borrowed). And once the dust settles on the immediate crisis, we can invoke alternative strategies to manage that debt, including deferrals, refinancing and monetizing (through quantitative easing and similar tools).

Great crises are frightening and dangerous. But a crisis can also be an opportunity. The capacity of Canadians to work, produce and care for each other will survive this pandemic. All we need is leadership and purchasing power to put those capacities to full use. Investing in public service, infrastructure and reconstruction will make our economy stronger and more resilient: creating jobs and incomes, providing needed care and services, generating taxes. And building a healthier, safer, sustainable world.

SOURCE

By Jim Stanford   Jim Stanford is economist and director of the Centre for Future Work.

Majority of Canadians Say Gig Economy Workers Should Be Able to Unionize and Get Benefits, New Poll Finds

“Younger people are more open to the idea and interested in the idea of unionizing these gig jobs”

New public opinion polling finds widespead support for the right of ‘gig economy’ workers to join unions and receive benefits like workers in other industries.

A new report from Vector Research as part of the Union Opinion Project has found more than half of all Canadians (52%) agree gig economy workers should be allowed to unionize, bargain collectively and negotiate contracts.

Another 60% of Canadians also agree companies like Uber should be required to provide workers with benefits like medical insurance, sick leave, paid vacations, retirement plans and workers’ compensation.

But among gig workers themselves those numbers soar — around three-quarters of Canadian gig workers agree they should be allowed to form unions (70%) and receive benefits from the companies they work for (76%).

Vector Research

One of the main obstacles facing gig economy workers relates to the industry’s slippery use of language that miscategorizes workers as “independent contractors.”

“Canadians have the wrong image of gig workers and think they have clients, not bosses,” the report states. “Usually gig workers use their own equipment, set their own schedules and don’t receive an hourly wage or salary,” the report adds, pointing to examples like drivers for “a ride-hailing service like Uber.”

The poll found 73% of respondents are buying into the gig industry’s misleading language claiming their workers are more like “independent contractors” then they are like “employees.” Nearly half (45%) of gig workers polled think of themselves as “employees” of app-based services.

Vector Research

Earlier this year, gig workers for Foodora won a landmark decision from Ontario’s Labour Relations Board affirming their right to join a union.

The Labour Relations Board rejected Foodora’s argument that workers were merely “independent contractors,” stating: “In a very real sense, the couriers work for Foodora, and not themselves.”

Adrian Macaulay, a research associate with Vector, noted the polling also indicates the vast majority of gig workers are aged between 18 and 34, and that young gig workers are the most keen to organize.

“Younger people are most likely to be working in these jobs, or to have worked in the gig economy in the past year, and they believe that the future of working is gig work,” Macauley said. “Younger people are more open to the idea and interested in the idea of unionizing these gig jobs.”

Patrick Johnson, secretary treasurer of UFCW 1518, told PressProgress the results contradict claims from companies that gig workers prefer working as independent contractors.

“This poll proves that was never the case, and that gig workers should have every right to collectively organize,” Johnson said.

“Like other workplaces, gig workers are dependent on the company for access to work, and the gig company determines all of the working conditions,” he added. “The current relationship favours the employer and leaves the workers in a precarious situation with no stability and no benefits.”

Although Foodora announced it was shutting down its Canadian operations shortly after losing the Ontario Labour Relations Board decisionn, results released this week showed 88.8% of Foodora couriers voted in favour of unionizing with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers.

“Gig workers have made it clear that the status quo does not work, and that change must happen,” CUPW National President Jan Simpson told PressProgress.

“Many tried to convince Foodsters that organizing was not possible, yet they persisted, and they have paved the way for all precarious workers to gain rights and unionize.”

Members of the Union Opinion Project include the United Steelworkers, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Nurses Association.

SOURCE

 

Liability: how a new court ruling could put Canadian miners in the dock

Canadian Malartic Mine is located in Quebec, Canada. Credit: Canadian Malartic

Nevsun Resources was a Canadian diversified mining company that was acquired by the Chinese Zijin Mining Group in 2018. One of Nevsun’s principal assets, the Bisha zinc-copper mine in Eritrea, is the subject of the case Nevsun Resources Ltd. v. Araya. Construction began on the Bisha mine in 2008, using workers from the country’s National Service Program. The plaintiffs, three Eritrean workers who arrived at the mine between 2008 and 2010, allege that they were forced to work at least 12 hours a day, six days a week, in temperatures close to 50°C. The plaintiffs also allege that they were subject to abuse while working at the mine.

The decision means that corporate entities in Canada may now find themselves beholden to customary international law, an unwritten area of law that previously only had jurisdiction over the actions of nation states. For Canadian mining companies, it means that they may now be liable for the actions of their subsidiaries operating abroad on issues such as labour standards and human rights – even where no written legislation exists to regulate those issues. There’s a significant amount of concern surrounding the decision, which has left corporations in the dark over what they may now find themselves legally responsible for.

Understanding the Nevsun decision

“There’s no allegation that Nevsun was directly involved in the conscripted use of the labour but the contractors that built the mine were partly state-owned or controlled by the Eritrean military, it’s alleged, and therefore, the allegation is that Nevsun benefited from the use of slave labour,” Robert Wisner, litigation partner and international arbitration co-chair at McMillan LLP told MINE.

The plaintiffs allege that Nevsun bears vicarious liability for the human rights violations at the Bisha Mine, operated by Nevsun’s subsidiary, Bisha Mining Share Company. Previously, claims of this nature had little success in the Canadian judiciary, which has jurisdiction over parent companies resident in Canada, but also has discretion to decline to exercise their jurisdiction in favour of the plaintiff’s home jurisdiction. In other words, claims such as these would have to be pursued through the legal system of the country the alleged offence took place in.

A 2017 decision by the British Columbia Court of Appeal in Garcia v. Tahoe Resources, however, held that in countries with barriers to justice, or generalised allegations of corruption or bias against the judiciary, Canadian courts could find a “real risk” that plaintiffs would not obtain justice in their home jurisdiction. Wisner noted that the Canadian judiciary’s willingness to broadly condemn a foreign judiciary contrasts with a more careful approach of courts in the United Kingdom or the United States.

What makes the Supreme Court’s recent decision against Nevsun significant, though, is that a plaintiff may pursue litigation in Canadian courts for an alleged breach of customary international law by a corporate defendant.

Wisner explains: “Customary international law is by definition unwritten law, as opposed to a treaty between two states. It is one of the two main sources of international law, which are treaties and custom – that being widespread practice of states that is acknowledged to be followed out of a sense of legal obligation. And the classical understanding of customary international law is that it is the law that governs relationships between states.”

“What’s novel about the case is that the Supreme Court said these are not just obligations that are imposed on states, they can be imposed on corporations as well. And that if a corporation breaches this obligation it can be liable in damages to a plaintiff.”

The decision makes for an uncertain future

Customary international law, in essence, is made up of general customs that nation states adhere to out of a sense of legal obligation rather than any written treaties. Examples include the doctrine of non-refoulement – not returning asylum seekers to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution – and granting immunity to visiting heads of state. Customary international law is significant because it binds all nations, whereas a treaty is applicable only to nations that have ratified or acceded to it.

The Supreme Court’s decision that customary international law can be applied to private corporations potentially opens the door to a litany of litigation against Canadian companies for the activities of their international subsidiaries. And beyond human rights and near-universally accepted norms against forced labour and slavery, the Nevsun case’s decision to apply customary international law to corporations could extend to unexpected areas. As global awareness of the need for action on climate change grows, it’s possible that notions of environmental standards could become something akin to customary international law.

“There are certainly some arguments the plaintiffs could make that there’s a basic customary international law duty to take adequate precautions in terms of environmental matters, and to avoid using property in a way that creates harm to neighbouring landowners or residents,” said Wisner.

Canadian companies may also need to further consider the activities of their domestic operations. While the decision in Nevsun prompts a need for further consideration of operations in foreign countries, Wisner says customary international law could be applied to operations inside Canada too.

“Although [mining companies] need to consider it in terms of their operations abroad, they may also need to consider it in their operations in Canada, because there’s nothing that restricts the Nevsun case exclusively to the foreign operations of Canadian mining companies. In theory, there could be a claim in Canada as well,” he explained.

The decision leaves a lot up in the air, with the Supreme Court allowing cases like this to proceed through Canadian courts, but without specific guidance on which areas of customary international law corporations may find themselves beholden to – or what types of claims can be brought against them. According to Wisner, it’s an issue that will have to be ironed out in the courts.

“What the Canadian Supreme Court has basically done is essentially, without any statute in place, authorised the development of these things as part of the common law,” said Wisner. “And so there will be, I think, a period of considerable uncertainty for some time, where mining companies will need to consider fuzzier, softer kind of legal standards, notions about the development of customary international law which, by definition, is unwritten and therefore this content needs to be ascertained from more obscure sources than is typically the case.”

Corporate Social Responsibility policies could protect miners

While the exact scope of liability will be set out by future judicial decisions, there are ways Canadian mining companies can reduce the risk of being subject to one of those judicial decisions. Nevsun Resources Ltd. v. Araya alleges that Nevsun is vicariously liable for the actions of its Eritrean subsidiary operating the Bisha mine, and while the case has been given the go ahead by the Supreme Court, there has been no declaration that the separate legal status of Nevsun and its subsidiary should be disregarded.

The principle of separate corporate personalities remains important. Wisner says that, from a legal perspective, separate corporate personalities still provide some protection to parent companies. It’s important that corporate formalities are still followed and that those actions are taken in a way that doesn’t confuse the different legal entities that might be involved in the chain of ownership.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – self-regulatory measures undertaken by private businesses that aim to contribute to wider societal goods of philanthropic or charitable nature – could be a key aspect of mining companies’ operations in light of the ongoing judicial uncertainty. While mining companies often adopt CSR policies pertaining to environmental sustainability or philanthropic efforts in local communities, Wisner warns that simply adopting a CSR policy isn’t enough.

“To some extent, merely adopting a policy without actually undertaking to enforce the policy can almost be worse than having no policy at all,” Wisner said. “Adoption of the policy has been alleged in some cases to show as proof that there was a duty of care owed to the neighbours of a foreign mining property and that the Canadian parent company had some obligations to take precautions.”

It’s important that mining companies audit their CSR compliance. Similar to environmental impact studies, CSR should be part of the process of project development. Indeed, considering CSR policies in conjunction with the project development process, or as supplement to environmental impact studies, could be important as a measure to fully consider the social and human rights impacts of mining operations – issues that can often be more ambiguous than assessing environmental effects.

SOURCE

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Defending Land and Water from Mining Profiteers in the Time of Covid-19

For Indigenous people, seeds are more than food – they’re ‘members of an extended family’

About 1,000 kilometres south of the North Pole lies Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. Home to roughly 2,600 people, it also has another, larger, more famous population: that of 1,057,151 seeds.

This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), an effort to preserve seeds from around the globe that could eventually be lost as a result of natural or human factors. The vault’s inventory includes everything from African varieties of wheat and rice to European and South American varieties of lettuce and barley.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 75 per cent of genetic diversity has been lost because of farmers transitioning to varieties of high-yield, genetically uniform crops.

In 2015, groups belonging to Parque de la Papa, a Peruvian organization that aims to preserve agricultural diversity and Indigenous culture, deposited 750 seeds of differing varieties of potatoes in the Svalbard seed vault, the first Indigenous group to do so. Last February, the Cherokee Nation became the first U.S. Indigenous group to make a deposit.

In fact, Indigenous people have long preserved seeds because they have important cultural ties within the community.

“There’s this very strong relationship that people have with seeds,” said Alejandro Argumedo, director of programs at the U.S.-based Swift Foundation, which aims to preserve biocultural diversity. “In the place where I come from, for instance, seeds are considered to have feelings and heart. And so you’ve got to treat them with lots of love.”

It’s a deeply reciprocal relationship, he said.

“There’s this big difference between just looking at seeds like biological materials that are important for farming,” said Argumedo, who is Quechua from Ayacucho, Peru. “Indigenous people see them more as members of an extended family and to which you have to [tend] with care. Because there will be a reciprocity — they will be providing you … food, will be caring about you.”

Argumedo cites the “qachun waqachi” potato variety used in a marriage ritual, where the bride (“qachun” in the Quechua language) gently peels the potato to show her love and caring for her husband-to-be as well as for Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth.

“The ritual articulates the Andean belief that love and respect between humans depends on and is nurtured by the land and epitomizes the commitment of couples to protect their seeds and food systems,” he said.

Terrylynn Brant, a Mohawk seed keeper from Ohsweken, Ont., has dedicated her life to this effort.

“I do a lot of work that supports other faith keepers in the work that they do. I support healers, seers, people like that … because sometimes people need to use a certain food for a certain ceremony,” she said. “I treat [seeds] with honour and respect.”

Argumedo said that the preservation of specific seeds is important in Indigenous communities where rituals require the best, purest form of seed.

“People are more interested in different features or characteristics of the seed. So people do selection for cultural reasons. And many of those traits are associated with taste, are associated with the colour and shape, because they will be used in rituals or social gatherings to create community cohesion,” he said.

“And if you want to have a better relationship with your neighbours, you better have the right seeds, because you will be offering it as a way of respect.”

Hannes Dempewolf, senior scientist and head of global initiatives at Crop Trust, a German-based organization that’s involved with the Svalbard seed vault, said there’s another important reason for preserving genetic diversity of seeds.

“Every seed, every variety is unique in itself,” he said. “They have a unique set of genes that we have no idea what they could be useful for in the future.”

SOURCE

— Nicole Mortillaro

The Case for a Wealth Tax in Canada

We need progressive tax reform to ensure that the burden of the pandemic is fairly shared. A recent Abacus Data poll found that most Canadians agree that the fiscal burden of the crisis should be fairly shared, and that those with the most should pay the most. Indeed, 75% of respondents favoured a tax of 1-2% on large fortunes, (44% strongly support and 31% support) including 69% of even Conservative voters.

Today, only a handful of advanced economies levy an annual tax on wealth. Though inheritance taxes are still quite commonly levied on large fortunes being passed from one generation to another, the tax “burden” in most advanced economies has shifted from taxation of capital and the affluent to taxes on labour and ordinary working families over the past three decades or so.

This paper makes the case for an annual wealth tax to add to our fiscal arsenal and to achieve greater equality.

Our latest survey shows that the majority of Canadians are looking for a COVID-19 recovery plan that is fair, inclusive and compassionate, leaving no one behind, and 3 in 4 of them support a wealth tax to do so. Share these results with your representatives by sending a letter now.

Download The Case for a Wealth Tax in Canada – Report

Democratizing Energy to Counter the Climate Catastrophe

Youth climate activists have been striking to demand immediate climate action from political powers. They conjoined the issues of climate and labor by calling for a global climate strike in September, 2019, in which a historic 7.6 million schoolkids, (grand)parents and workers from 185 countries participated. Over 70 trade unions around the world supported the strike and the number of climate groups that are demanding a just transition for fossil fuel workers are also steadily increasing.

The European landscape of climate activism is becoming densely populated. Numerous communities are defending nature together with their livelihoods. Initiatives like Ende Gelände practice civil disobedience to mobilize large numbers of European activists for climate justice. In most recent manifestations, such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, many pupils and students are active, who also brought their families and teachers onto the streets.

Some, like the Shell Must Fall alliance, are more explicitly tying corporate power to the climate crisis that has long been destroying communities and the biosphere, particularly in the Global South. Or take the overlap between climate activists and the Gilets Jaunes protesters; who successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of lower and middle-class folks across France to fight Macron’s so called carbon taxes, following an extractivist logic in favor of the rich and paid for by the poor. The message: climate action must have economic justice at its heart.

Last year, the progressive alliance for a Green New Deal for Europe started turning these demands for climate justice into radical policy proposals. Within months the European Commission (EC) endorsed a European Green Deal, which is supposed to re-evaluate EU’s policies in light of the climate and ecological emergency. However, the EC’s focus on economic growth has proven to prioritize private profits (i.e. privatization) over social and environmental concerns. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, some calls for a Green New Deal are now being reformulated to the need for a green and just economic recovery from the pandemic.

Recovery responses by the European Union and member states remains to be seen. But what is clear is that any future policy will have to achieve a just and democratic energy transition. To do this, we need to address the fact that market competition and big business have been blocking the efforts of (local) authorities and communities that drive the energy transition. By reclaiming energy grids and services, and creating democratic public ownership models citizens and cities have been able to take climate actions that put people and planet first.

For the labor and climate justice movements to win anything close to a just recovery and a Green New Deal, we need to collectively stand up against market solutions and build on the diverse forms of energy democracy that are already being developed across Europe.

FAILING MARKET SOLUTIONS

The first half of 2019 was the worst for clean energy spending in six years, with investments dropping globally. There has been a slowdown in the shift to renewable electricity across the EU since 2014, with annual investments in renewables reducing by 50 percent between 2011 and 2017. The European Commission warned its member states that their energy and climate plans are unlikely to meet the EU 2030 targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Half of EU countries will probably not even meet their 2020 target for renewables.

As Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) explains in much more detail, leaving renewable energy to the market implies that small energy companies have to compete with the big multinationals for subsidies and delivering supply. This approach has failed to bring the necessary investments. Ever since 1996 the EC has been pushing for energy liberalization. The promise was that this would increase competition. However, by 2009 only five big energy companies were dominating the European market.

This market approach is not only leaving many Europeans in energy poverty, it also has also failed to deliver an energy transition on the scale and with the speed that is needed. For the last two decades, it was not competition but public policy and state aid, often in the form of Feed-in-Tariffs (FiTs), that drove the growth of solar and wind electricity. FiTs are fixed remunerations that are paid to renewable energy producers for each unit of energy produced and injected into the electricity grid. This caused renewable energy prices to drop while people’s energy bills have been increasing, as it was users — lower income users in particular — that paid for these subsidies. In Italy, for example, 85 percent of the FiTs’ benefits went to large producers and Italian users had to foot the bill. Or take the Netherlands, where the vast majority of public resources spent on climate and energy policy goes to corporations. Only one fourth of the money benefits households, of which higher income ones receive as much as 80 percent.Because of the initial growth of solar and wind renewables, many European governments became convinced that the energy transition was no longer dependent on subsidies and decided to partially or completely revoke their FiT schemes. However, without state subsidies and with lower prices for renewables, markets do not deliver the high returns that private investors are looking for. Moreover, across Europe FiTs have been replaced by competitive bidding, further benefiting the large and established companies. As a result, smaller energy cooperatives have had to close down in Denmark and Germany, which shows where current policies could lead us. Generally, investments in renewables in European countries continue to plummet.

In the meantime, Europe’s civil society has been doing a whole lot of advocacy to push the EC to acknowledge the rights of citizens and cooperatives in its Clean Energy Package. But as the EC continues to put all its faith in market rule and competition, it reduces EU citizens to their market value. The package requires EU countries to implement legislation that protects the right of citizens and so-called energy communities to produce, sell and store their own energy. Although this may benefit the more affluent European citizenry, these “market rights” turn users into market players which have to compete with each other while being outcompeted by the energy incumbents. Labor and climate justice movements need to jointly push back against market ideology so that our policies no longer treat the climate and energy transition as a class privilege but rather as a human right.

DEMOCRATIC PUBLIC OWNERSHIP

To kick-start the energy transition, let alone a just one, we must stop wasting time and public funding on the private and incumbent companies seeking guaranteed profits. Instead, we must take the whole energy sector out of the market and into democratic public ownership. From South Africa to the United States, campaigns that aim to prevent or reverse energy privatizations and build or transform public enterprises in an equitable and ecological fashion are in full swing. This is because energy privatizations — as well as Public Private Partnerships and outsourcing models — have led to worsening labor conditions, massive price hikes and a dire lack of investments.

In South Africa, a coalition consisting of trade unions and civil society organizations are fighting to save and transform the electricity multinational ESKOM. The government wants to break up and sell off its generation, transmission and distribution sections. Because this notorious World Bank policy of “unbundling” is known for ushering in private companies, the international coalition is proposing to build a new ESKOM that is “fully public and serving the people” in order to develop its renewable potential in ways that create jobs and improve everyone’s life quality.

In his Green New Deal proposal, former US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called for realizing full public ownership over renewable energy and the entire power system by favoring “public power districts and municipally- and cooperatively-owned utilities.” This declaration is on the one hand a response to the horrific Californian wildfires caused by the negligence of the American investor-owned utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). On the other hand, this response builds on the growing number of citizen campaigns — from San Francisco and Lancester to Hermiston and Minnesota — that successfully pushed their local authorities to provide publicly owned electricity from renewable sources. Popular pressure from across US cities and counties have been a precondition for Sanders to put country-wide public ownership of electricity on the agenda.

European civil society can learn from the South African and US campaigns as we face similar bottlenecks. Firstly, it points us to the necessary strategy of proposing pathways to transform Europe’s corporatized state-owned electricity companies — such as EDF (France), RWE and E.ON (Germany), Iberdrola (Spain), ENEL (Italy) and Vattenfall (Sweden) — into democratic public entities as they currently behave, domestically and internationally, like predatory multinationals. Secondly, it shows that the localized and country-wide demands for publicly owned energy systems should not oppose but strengthen each other. Thirdly, Sander’s proposal shows that social movements can effectively put public energy ownership at the center of the Green New Deal, which is promising as this is exactly what the Green New Deal for Europe coalition has been doing by calling for public investment and ownership across energy generation, transmission, distribution, management and conservation.

It is clear that we need to develop encompassing proposals for carefully planned energy transitions that are country and continent-wide. But for these to be endorsed by politicians and policy makers, grassroots organizing is essential. This will only reach a tipping point when residents are experiencing the benefits that the many forms of public ownership can bring. Turning back energy privatizations and setting up your own municipally-owned energy company — in other words, (re)municipalization — is a key strategy for building more just local economies and democratizing our energy systems.

In 2017, the Transnational Institute reported in Reclaiming Public Services that since the start of the 21st century, 311 energy services and infrastructures have either been reclaimed (189) or newly built (122). By 2019, the figure of reported (re)municipalizations has risen to an impressive 374. Remunicipalizations are popular across the political spectrum because in the long-term public ownership tends to be more affordable for both local authorities and residents than privatizations. Private providers are usually more expensive because of high fees that consultants and lawyers charge to design the contracts; the profits and dividends that have to be paid to shareholders; and the interest fees that tend to be higher for private companies.

To show the variety of municipal energy ownership models, and ways in which it can deepen democracy, let us zoom in on towns and cities in Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, as they have been developing essential pro-public expertise to tackle the climate crisis.

GERMANY: PARTICIPATE IN ENERGY GOVERNANCE

Wind farm in GermanyWindmills in eastern Germany. Photo by Till Westermayer / Flickr

The German energy transition was enabled by an alliance between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, introducing FiTs in 2000. But the Big Four energy companies failed to shift to renewable energy by adjusting the grids for decentralized generation. This coincided with many grid concession contracts that were expiring in the previous two decades. The anti-nuclear and renewable energy movements pushed hundreds of municipalities to reclaim the grids and create their own local supply company. Exemplary remunicipalizations have happened in Wolfhagen and Hamburg.In Wolfhagen, as the contract with private operator E.ON expired and after three years of tough negotiations, the municipal council managed to remunicipalize its electricity grid in 2006. The impact has been extraordinary. The yearly profit brought prices down, started funding the local kindergarten and led to a near doubling of the number of staff. Then, after a fierce public debate about the need to go 100 percent renewable, the town did not have to turn to big private investors. Residents were able to organize themselves and set up a citizen cooperative in order to raise the millions needed to pay for the wind turbines. This public-citizen partnership led to improved local economic democracy as the cooperative became the owner of a quarter of the assets of the municipal energy company and now has two seats on its board.

The Hamburg government created the public energy supplier Hamburg Energie but was not willing to remunicipalize the energy infrastructure. Activists in the city then successfully organized a referendum in 2013 to reclaim the city’s electricity, gas and heating grids. By 2016, the city completely bought back the electricity grid, and in the first year of the remunicipalization this already saved €34.5 million. It also created the Energy Advisory Board, as part of the public energy agency, with 20 local representatives from the social, science, industry and business sectors. Their meetings are open to the public, giving citizens the opportunity to ask questions and submit proposals. In 2018 the gas and heating grids were also reclaimed.

UK: NEW PUBLIC ENERGY ENTERPRISES

One in every ten citizens of the UK is facing energy poverty, with thousands of people dying because of underheated homes every winter. In recent years, citizen mobilizations have led to the creation of a public energy company in Nottingham and a community benefit organization in Plymouth. Their purpose is to offer more affordable tariffs, providing energy efficiency services and supporting renewable energy generation.

Plymouth Energy Community (PEC), a member-owned energy organization, was created in 2013 with the support of the City Council. The city provided a grant, loans and staff expertise so that the organization could strengthen local capacities to “create a fair, affordable, low-carbon energy system with local people at its heart.” In 2014, PEC Renewables was launched, which funds, installs and manages local renewable energy generation schemes. By 2019, PEC supported more than 20,000 households to save over £1 million on their energy bills, while clearing over £26,000 of small debts. PEC has also built a solar farm on a plot of contaminated land, which combined with the rooftop panels on schools and community buildings, has enabled the city to produce enough clean electricity to supply 2,000 homes. Revenue, that is expected to reach up to £1.5 million and will be reinvested in carbon and energy poverty reduction projects.

Robin Hood Energy is a municipal energy supplier — and Living Wage employer — in Nottingham, where it was created in 2015 to fight energy poverty and take on the Big Six energy companies with its transparent pricing and its ban of private shareholders and director bonuses. By now, they are partnering with nine other UK cities to offer certified green energy at reduced tariffs to households across the country. The supplier provides  energy to 130,000 users, has 200 employees and already made a saving of £200,000 pounds, which it is fully reinvesting in more affordable and renewable energy services.

However, for these municipal and community-owned companies to succeed and not outcompete each other, the whole energy system needs to be reclaimed. Last year, the UK Labour Party published a report that called for the creation of a National Energy Agency. This agency would own the transmission lines and be in charge of planning and setting decarbonization targets. Regional authorities would own distribution grids. Municipalities and communities would be able to locally produce renewable energy and supply residents. This scaled and integrated approach would be able to serve the entire territory, on the basis of collaboration instead of competition.

SPAIN: CITIES AND CITIZENS JOIN FORCES

In 2015, Spanish citizen’s platforms, building on the 15M movement in which millions of residents occupied cities’ squares and brought progressive “municipalist” candidates to power. With 15 percent of the population living in energy poverty and electricity prices increased by 83 percent since 2013, fighting the private power system and building energy democracy is a key priority for these municipalist city councils.

The solutions that are being developed range from setting up new municipal electricity companies (Barcelona, Pamplona and Palma de Mallorca), involving residents in writing more just energy policies (Cádiz ) and getting united in the Spanish Platform for a New Energy Model, in which municipalists can exchange lessons and best practices. Numerous cities are now also contracting renewable energy cooperatives, such as GioEner and Som Energia, with some municipalities agreeing to pay the electricity bills for the poor families in their area.

Moreover, the Network for Energy Sovereignty developed 19 policy recommendations for Spanish municipalities to more systematically engage citizens in energy decision-making. For example, they propose ways so that women, in particular single mothers who are hardest affected by the fossil fuel model, can lead the climate and energy transition towards an ecofeminist economy.

In 2018, the governing citizen platform Barcelona en Comú created the new energy retail company Barcelona Energia to buy energy directly from renewable sources. In 2019, the municipality created a participatory council that is open to users and citizens’ groups and authorized to submit proposals on the strategic direction of the company, give input on issues, such as tariffs and investments, and help shape education policies. The city launched a “solar” tariff to promote self-sufficiency and an “efficiency” tariff, based on the level of energy use. The new public company is supplying the municipal buildings and can serve 20,000 households.

Once in power, the municipalists of Cádiz created two permanent citizen working groups: one to fight energy poverty and the other, to achieve the energy transition. The latter pushed the city administration to generate solar power and switch entirely towards renewable electricity. The former organized residents who face energy poverty to co-design a social discount program, which would guarantee electricity access to over 2,000 families in need by reducing bills by up to 80 percent. Moreover, due to improved communication between the city council and the semi-public electricity company, 55 percent of the company’s revenues are now being reinvested to cover the costs of municipal energy use and pay for the social discount. This has prevented disconnection for thousands of homes every year.

KILL THE ENERGY CHARTER TREATY

Corporate power will continue to fuel the climate crisis, especially since many big energy companies still have the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) on their side. The ECT is the world’s biggest international agreement, curtailing the democratic powers of more than 50 countries. The treaty’s investment protection mechanism ⁠— also known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement ⁠— enables powerful energy companies to sue countries for outrageously high sums of money. For example, three foreign investors have used this mechanism to pressure Bulgaria to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for decisions that would limit their profits and combat energy poverty. Moreover, the German multinational Uniper recently announced to sue the Netherlands for almost 900 million euro under the ECT for its decision to phase out coal-fired power plants. It is crystal clear that the ECT provides corporations with the power to halt the energy transition.

Given the persisting powers of fossil fuel companies, it should not come as a surprise that in 2018, global carbon emissions hit a record high, use of fossil fuels grew with the demand for gas, oil and coal all increasing, and the energy demand was growing at its fastest pace this decade. In the meantime, the pandemic has resulted in a drop in greenhouse gas emissions, but this impact will only be marginal if governments are not effectively pressured into a green and just recovery.

Stop corporate lobbies from exploiting the coronavirus pandemic

Justin Trudeau: no public money for big polluters

The annual Politics and the Pen, held at the Chateau Laurier, attracts loads of lobbyists. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

When Canada’s Lobbying Commissioner reported that, under COVID-19, lobbying in March reached the highest level in recent history, I did some digging. [1]

What I found in the Federal Lobby Registry shocked me. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, corporations causing the climate and nature crises have been aggressively lobbying Cabinet Ministers (and their staff) working on Canada’s recovery plan. [2]

When the pandemic hit, you took action that helped stop an initial bailout for Big Oil.Then you advocated for a green and just recovery with your MP. If Cabinet has time to meet with corporate lobbyists, it has time to hear the needs of the electorate to which it is accountable. Tell Cabinet to listen to people, not polluters, by organizing a public consultation on what a green and just recovery should look like.

While we’ve been worrying about keeping our families healthy, looking out for our neighbours,and taking action to support the movement for Black lives against police violence, big business has been looking out for number one.

In less than 3 months, oil, petrochemical and plastic lobbies have had 400+ communications with senior government officials behind closed doors — that’s more than 5 meetings per day. [3]

Their not-so-secret agenda? Trying to use the coronavirus pandemic to win billions of dollars in public money, and weaken or delay action on climate change and nature protection. [4] Demand equal voice now: add your name to call on Cabinet to organize a public consultation on what a green and just economic recovery should look like.

Corporations acting in self-interest will further fuel the climate emergency, biodiversity crisis, and devastating wealth inequality that threaten our future. We can’t count on them for solutions when they are profiting from this broken economic system. Together, we can make our voices louder than corporate lobbyists’ toxic agenda.

Cabinet Ministers can take an immediate step in this direction by organizing a public consultation with us, the people in Canada, on how to address the climate and nature crises while addressing the social inequalities exposed by the pandemic. Email Cabinet now.

Thanks for everything you do.

Jesse, Communications Officer, Greenpeace Canada

[1,2,3,4] https://www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/act/dont-let-corporate-lobbies-decide-our-future/

Pandemics, policing, and a just transition

We are witnessing the unexpected convergence of demands for environmental justice, public health, and prisoner rights.

Banner photo: Black Lives Matter Protest June 6, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Credit: Geoff Livingston/flickr)

These are difficult and trying times.

We are all experiencing great anxiety associated with living through a global pandemic and a time of massive racial unrest, protest, and racist police violence.

The horrors of the COVID-19 virus have been compounded and multiplied by the virus of white supremacy. The murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, David McAtee and so many other Black people have reminded us that some of this nation’s denizens are singled out for punishment, torture, and death for no reason other than the color of their skin.

These challenges are hitting home for many of us who are ill or taking care of loved ones who are ill, immune-compromised or otherwise vulnerable during this pandemic. It hits home for those of us who are at risk of police violence. And it hits home for those of us who are simply concerned about the health and wellbeing of our families and our communities.

Many of us are on the frontlines, providing mutual aid to people in need of food and basic services in the absence of a functioning federal government and health care system. Many of us have been protesting in the streets for racial justice in nations around the world that perpetrate unrestrained violence against many of its citizens simply because of their racial-ethnic heritage.

And still more of us are sending various forms of support to communities around the U.S. and the world during this time of great need and deprivation.

It may not feel like it but there are signs of progress. The status quo of environmental harm, mass incarceration and police brutality is under the microscope, and people who have long chosen to ignore these social ills are being forced to reckon with them. We are seeing the advancement of ideas and policies that would have been unthinkable before these dual crises.

But the next steps will be crucial and—whether re-purposed police or fossil fuel workers—must have equity at their core.

Coronavirus, climate change and contamination

We know that some of the very same communities hit hardest by COVID-19 are impacted most heavily by police violence in particular and by institutional racism more broadly.

In recent months, we have seen that the rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are much higher than for whites because of higher rates of pre-existing conditions, lower quality medical care (when accessible at all), and the more general stresses and health toll associated with living in a racist society that places a much lower value on the lives of people in these demographic categories.

Similarly, the scourge of environmental racism and climate injustice disproportionately harms Black and brown communities, Indigenous communities, and immigrant communities because government and corporate institutions know that these populations offer the path of least resistance, have fewer connections to the corridors of political and economic power and influence, and are broadly viewed by this nation’s majority as less than deserving of adequate environmental and public health protections.

These populations have contributed the least to the problem of global climate disruption but are on the front lines of this crisis as they are more likely to: live near coal-fired power plants, which are the leading contributor to climate gas emissions and produce widespread asthma and other respiratory illnesses; suffer from extreme temperatures in urban heat islands; pay more of their income toward energy bills; and experience the brunt of agricultural losses and food shortages associated with climate-related events.

The George Floyd mural in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Credit: Lorie Shaull/flickr)

The prison pandemic 

Some scholars have reframed police brutality as an environmental justice concern because it negatively affects the health of individuals, families, and entire communities, as assaults on our bodies by agents of the state reflect the ways that the state also launches assaults on our air, land, and water. Thus, in COVID-19 and police brutality, we have two intersecting public health crises that unjustly harm certain communities, while other populations enjoy the unearned privileges of breathing cleaner air, drinking cleaner water, and not worrying about whether the presence of a police officer might mean a death sentence.

The crises of COVID-19 and police brutality are coming together inside the nation’s prison system as well. Racist “over-policing” and racial profiling in communities of color, and institutional racism in the court system have resulted in a national prison population that is majority Black and brown, and low-income.

There is now clear documentation that the U.S. prison and jail system is inherently unsafe and unhealthy even during the best of times. Water systems in carceral facilities across the U.S. are infamously contaminated, mold and polluted air are extremely common, and many prisons sit atop or adjacent to hazardous waste sites. This means prisons are sites of extreme environmental racism and injustice.

As if that were not enough, the design and layout of prisons and jails makes it impossible to practice the physical distancing required to slow community transmission of COVID-19, which means that being sent to one of our nation’s carceral facilities constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and deliberate indifference to the health and well-being of our fellow community members.

Police at a Black Lives Matter Protest on June 2, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Credit: yashmori/flickr)

“Equity and democracy are good for people and the environment” 

As a scholar concerned with environmental injustices that are rampant across the landscape, I have to ask, to what extent might the current crisis offer a way of thinking creatively about what environmental justice might look like?

We are seeing hopeful signs already. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many states and counties to see the wisdom of decarceration—releasing prisoners and inmates who have low level offenses on their records and offering early release for prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentences anyway. Some states are considering revising sentencing guidelines so that we can move beyond policies that seek to fill up prisons and instead work to prevent people from going there in the first place.

Many communities are also seriously considering defunding and divesting from their police departments. Just six months ago, these ideas and practices were nearly unthinkable, but when crises emerge, they often present opportunities to implement changes that were previously off the table.

The fact that decarceration and police defunding are gaining mainstream acceptance is amazing, if only because these are pages taken directly from the playbook of prison abolitionists who have, for decades, advocated these practices as major steps toward removing prisons from society altogether. In these policy discussions we are witnessing the unexpected convergence of demands for environmental justice, public health, and prisoner rights.

Another significant front in the movement for environmental and climate justice is the idea of a “fair and just transition” for those workers in industries that are the biggest polluters.

For example, any vision of moving toward an ecologically sustainable society should beg the question as to what would happen to the millions of people who hold jobs in fossil fuel, petrochemical, and related industries that have proven anti-ecological consequences? Do we simply throw them out of work or make hollow promises of job training for employment in unspecified sectors? Or do we actually plan for and invest in good-paying, safe, union jobs in industries that are designed to address our social and environmental challenges?

That is the promise of the Green New Deal (both the federal version and the many local models around U.S. cities, counties, and states). Here’s an idea: why not also apply the concept of a fair and just transition to the police and prison corrections officers? In other words, if policing and prisons are sites of environmental racism and injustice, then why not treat those workers the same way environmentalists envision treating the workers in other environmentally troubled sectors?

The current national discussion about defunding and divesting from police departments is edging toward this idea but hasn’t quite grasped it because it tends to advocate simply taking the money away from law enforcement and investing it in other worthy sectors like education, healthcare, and green industries.

We need more teachers, more nurses and mental healthcare providers, and more workers building renewable energy and public transportation grids, and affordable housing.

So, what would make those proposals to defund and dismantle police departments much more robust and politically feasible would be to offer law enforcement—and prison workers—the opportunity to transition into those more socially and environmentally sustainable jobs.

Fortunately, empirical research demonstrates quite clearly that communities that are more protective of human rights and civil rights for marginalized populations are also much more likely to have strong environmental and climate protections.

In other words, equity and democracy are good for people and the environment.

I suggest that we guard against tyranny and work toward justice for communities on the frontlines of the pandemic and environmental injustice (whether at the hands of the police or polluting firms), and create fair and just transitions for those of us whose livelihoods are rooted in those industries whose time is up.

SOURCE

David Pellow is a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara.