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Biden shows we don’t have to choose between climate action and jobs

Combined with similar commitments by our major trading partners in China, Japan, South Korea and the EU, we’re about to witness the greatest stampede of global capital into clean energy projects that the world has ever seen.

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What has not been understood in Australia is that the Biden climate plan has at its core the creation of hundreds of thousands of well-paid and secure jobs that are necessary to solve the climate crisis. Far from accepting a jobs-versus-environment trope, the President tackles it head on, stating: “When I think of climate change, I think about jobs. Good-paying, union jobs that put Americans to work, make our air cleaner, and rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure.”

This explicit recognition of the insecurity workers can feel when they hear about energy transitions is important and essential to bringing communities along the decarbonisation journey.

The Biden administration’s secretary of transportation nominee, Pete Buttigieg, is pledging to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, calling it a “generational opportunity” to create new jobs and stem climate change.

The Biden administration’s secretary of transportation nominee, Pete Buttigieg, is pledging to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, calling it a “generational opportunity” to create new jobs and stem climate change. Credit:Bloomberg

Even more important, though, is buttressing this story with policy and resources to safeguard workers and communities who risk being left behind. Again, the Biden climate plan appears to have the substance to support the rhetoric.

Here’s a few examples of how the new President is presenting his climate vision.

One of the US’s top carbon emitters is the coal-fired power station, Plant Scherer, in Juliette, Georgia.

One of the US’s top carbon emitters is the coal-fired power station, Plant Scherer, in Juliette, Georgia.Credit:AP

On infrastructure, Biden promises to build a resilient economy and a “new class of well-paying jobs and job training around climate-resilient industries”. Think coastal restoration and resilient infrastructure design, construction and evaluation. He specifically gives the examples of “bridges that withstand high winds and roads that don’t wash out during storms and floods” and “tree plantings on a large scale to combat urban heat and its associated negative health impacts”.

As a renowned railway buff, with the nickname ‘Amtrak Joe’, the President promises to “spark the second great railroad revolution” for both passenger rail and freight.

In the power sector Biden promises to “generate clean American-made electricity to achieve a carbon-pollution-free power sector by 2035” while “creating millions of jobs with the chance to join a union”. In so doing Biden makes a commitment to fossil fuel sector workers that has been missing from the Morrison government.

He notes that “coal miners and power plant workers took on dangerous jobs to power our industrial revolution and the decades of subsequent growth. As economic trends continue to shift our country away from coal as an energy source, we have an obligation to help these workers and their communities succeed.”

How will the Biden administration help oil workers?

How will the Biden administration help oil workers?Credit:AP

This acknowledgment and debt of gratitude to fossil fuel workers is supported by commitments to guarantee coal miners pensions and health funds, ensure companies invest in arresting black lung disease and establish a new taskforce on coal and coal power plant communities to plan and invest in their futures and help create “high-paying union jobs based on the unique assets of each community”.

He commits to new regulations to force comprehensive rehabilitation of previous mines and oil and gas wells, a program which will create 250,000 jobs in fossil fuel regions repairing damaged landscapes.

Far from being an adversary, unions are considered as a conduit to a better life and more secure, better-paying job in the Biden plan. The Morrison government, with its ideological attacks on unions and labour standards, should take note.

The Biden climate plan will not come cheap, with the President promising a $US2 trillion accelerated investment in his first term. Much of that funding comes from existing US government procurement program expenditure of $500 billion every year. This procurement budget “will be aligned with 100 per cent clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.” All procurement contracts will require decent labour standards and “guarantee a chance to join a union and bargain collectively”.

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No doubt the new President will encounter obstacles to his climate plan. However his positive vision provides a powerful example of how to lead on climate and bring communities along for the ride.

For Australians, fatigued by shrill claims that climate action will cost jobs, ‘end the weekend’ or be a ‘wrecking ball to our economy’, it’s a wake-up call. Our trading partners are embracing the clean energy economy and creating well-paid and secure jobs in the process. It’s time for us to join them.

Michele O’Neil is the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

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