It is a sticky wicket and Hassan Yussuff knows it.
The secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress is talking about the labour force and its role in the environment, and Alberta’s oilsands crop up — the much-disparaged oilsands that also provide employment to tens of thousands of people.
It’s a conundrum.
“These things are never easy,” says Yussuff. “But conflict is also unnecessary. We have been consistent in saying that we need to slow down the pace of development there … because of its incredible impact on the environment locally and nationally.”
If workers can be assured that by slowing the pace of development, technology can be improved to limit the effect on the environment, he says, “they will recognize that change needs to happen.
“What they are not prepared to see is shut the industry down.”
Yussuff was one of dozens of speakers at Work in a Warming World, a conference held at the University of Toronto’s Woodsworth College from Friday to Sunday.
The conference brought together academics, environmental groups and trade unions to debate the impact of climate change on labour practices: how we work, what we produce and where we produce.
The gathering was among the first of its kind, and came on the heels of a blockbuster report in September by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said the planet was on course to becoming two degrees Celsius warmer. It also predicted heat waves will occur more frequently and will last longer; wet areas will get more rainfall, dry regions will get less; and sea levels could rise by almost one metre by 2100.
All of that will affect work in different sectors, in more ways than we can imagine, says Carla Lipsig-Mummé. She is a professor of work and labour studies at York University, and director of the conference.
How labour will change — and it is already changing — “depends on what climate you are in, (what) sector you are in, but also what actions are being taken by government in terms of regulating and by work groups like unions in terms of what they negotiate collectively for their workers,” she said.
A warmer planet directly affects postal workers, landscape workers, construction and sanitation workers, “and that means they need different kind of protection,” says Lipsig-Mummé. “These jobs will have to be done radically differently.”
At the other end, global warming can wipe out jobs completely, she says.
“You see that in low-lying areas in poor countries in Asia. You see it in areas that are being desertified in Africa. It’s not just the work that is wiped out … but livelihood in the community.”
In Bangladesh, considered ground zero for climate change, millions of farmers on the coast have left their villages and moved to the capital city of Dhaka because rising sea levels have devoured farmland and monsoon rains, on which farmers depend, are unpredictable.
They live in slums, pull rickshaws or do construction work.
Some jobs, on the other hand, will become more important as the earth grows warmer.
As an example, Lipsig-Mummé says, accountants now do risk assessments and evaluations of greenhouse gas reductions. “Carbon tax, like the one in B.C., has to be audited for their environmental responsibility, and accountants have added a topic to their work,” she notes.
Alex White, a board member of Greenpeace Australia Pacific and the Wilderness Society (Victoria), says emergency workers such as firefighters, police officers and paramedics face genuine dangers in a warming climate.
This year, bushfires arrived early in Australia after unseasonably hot weather. Front-line officers are the first to respond to bushfires, which White says are not only starting earlier but also burning hotter and longer. This year has been one of the warmest on record in Australia.
Even after a bushfire is subdued, danger still lurks in asbestos that must be cleared from the burned homes, says White.
A changing climate has made our lives more complicated, says Yussuff, but he adds it needn’t be a struggle between jobs and the environment.
“As I see it, there is potential to create thousands and thousands of well-paying green jobs … there is transportation, retrofitting of homes, energy efficiency,” he says.
“The statistics speak volumes.”