Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 18, 2010

An Ominous Cloud
Air travel came to a halt in much of Europe and was severely disrupted throughout the rest of the world. The cause of this inconvenience is the eruption of a tongue-twisting volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, in Iceland. This may be an early warning that much more than the inconvenience of cancelled flights may be in store. If the bigger nearby volcano Katla erupts as well, as it did 200 years ago, it could again bring a period of abrupt, unwelcome cooling in western Europe.

Perhaps this cloud has a silver lining of mitigating the impact of the global warming for which humans are responsible? Not likely. The size and relatively low sulphur content of Iceland’s volcanoes will probably mean only a regional cooling. Even the darkening caused by Mt St Helen’s in 1980--a hundred times more powerful than Iceland so far--registered only a marginal brief global cooling. More powerful yet, in 1991 Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines blasted an enormous cloud of ash over 100,000 feet in to the stratosphere which went on to circle the globe, blocking the sun. Even that event only managed to cool the global average temperature about one degree Fahrenheit–for one year.

At least the volcanic eruptions can’t be blamed on global warming, right? Of course, volcanic activity predates human appearance on this planet and will continue with or without us. But, as a matter of fact, some scientists believe the weight loss of melting glaciers caused by global warming is a factor in triggering the present blow up and threaten more elsewhere.

Carolina Pagli, a geophysicist at the University of Leeds in England, told Reuters there were risks that climate change could also trigger volcanic eruptions--or even earthquakes--in places such as Mount Erebus in Antarctica, the Aleutian islands of Alaska or Patagonia in South America.

So far the volcanic activity in Iceland has melted about ten percent of the already shrinking glacier resulting in localized mass flooding in a sparsely populated area. About 650 feet of ice remain, enough to keep the discharge in the form of steam and ash. If the melting continues, further relieving pressure, that will change over to a massive lava flow.

The reaction of world leaders to the cloud coming out of Iceland has been similar to travelers stuck in airports. They regretted missing a state funeral in Poland. They are concerned that American Air Force planes were grounded in Germany. Chancellor Merkel, returning from the “nuclear security summit,” fumed as she had to land in Lisbon instead of Berlin. But nary a word about how all this may be a symptom of climate change.

Meanwhile, the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate–a self-selected club of seventeen big polluters–is holding closed door meetings in Washington in hopes of developing a common front on climate change that won’t compromise their global economic interests. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley acknowledged “Clearly, there is still a gap between the views of the developing and developed world.”

Some of those on the short end of this gap had a gathering of their own. One country with both disappearing glaciers and active volcanoes has recently taken the lead on climate change--even before the eruptions in Iceland. Though Bolivia is a cash poor country, the Evo Morales government summoned a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba this past week. Several thousand delegates from dozens of countries attended.

The U.S. government was not among them. Instead, on the eve of the conference the Obama administration cut climate aid to Bolivia, Ecuador and other countries who have refused to sign on to the so-called Copenhagen Accord. That was the last minute backroom deal cut between the USA and China at the Copenhagen conference last December. Shocked and angry delegates refused to do more than “take note” of that agreement. Now countries are being individually polled and those who hesitate endorsing the plan of the world’s top polluters face at least loss of aid.

The best explanation I’ve heard of what went down at Copenhagen was presented to the People’s Conference by Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador. It’s available, in English, in linked YouTube videos here.

The gap of opposing visions of climate change is more than just between rich and poor countries. It is primarily one of divergent class interests between the workers and farmers of the world versus the bosses and bankers who profit from global pollution.

While prevailing winds have spared North America from the physical dark cloud from Iceland we can use the metaphor to describe the environmental atmosphere in the richest country in the world. The mainstream environmental organizations, and those union officials who are not global warming deniers, remain uncritical supporters of the White House/Copenhagen Accord approach.

Recently I spoke over the phone with a young woman calling on behalf of Al Gore’s RePower America. She urged me to join them this Thursday–which is Earth Day–at Senator McCaskill’s office. My Senator is deemed a fence-sitter on pending climate legislation and the caller thought my help could be useful in getting her on board.

I could have truthfully told her I will be on the road Thursday but instead made clear my opposition to the bill passed in the House last year. “The Senate bill will be much different,” she assured me but, when pressed, she had to admit it’s not yet known exactly what the Senate bill will offer. “It’s a beginning,” she said, “just like health care.” When I let her know what I thought of that beginning she finally gave up, though very politely.

It’s expected that the bill being crafted by Senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman will include denying the EPA authority to regulate greenhouse emissions; would eliminate some state and regional initiatives to regulate emissions; and would set a target of reducing smokestack emissions 17 percent--from the near peak of 2005--over the next ten years. It will almost certainly be laden with government handouts for nuclear power, ethanol, and “clean coal.” Little will be offered in support of truly clean renewables such as solar and wind. Initially, the bill was slated to be announced on Earth Day but now has been pushed back because “we don't want to send a mixed message,” as Senator Graham put it.

No, it’s not a mixed message at all. It’s a reaffirmation of business as usual. It’s the same kind of business as usual that leads to dead coal miners, dead refinery workers, and now threatens to kill our already wounded biosphere.

Instead of a “beginning” that accepts ultimate climate disaster for future generations some of us are promoting the beginning of a working class movement to meet this overarching crisis. Since we agree with Annie Leonard that it’s not practical for all of us to go back to living like Little House on the Prairie, we propose instead to restructure a sustainable, full employment economy run by scientists and workers.

The scientists are doing their job but the heavy lifting must be done by us. That’s what led seven initial signers to call for an Alliance for Class and Climate Justice. You can check out our web page here. We’ll have literature and a button available at the kclabor.org table at the Labor Notes Conference. We’ll be adding names of additional endorsers after the conference. I invite you to sign up.

Chairman Andy Goes Rogue
Like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Andrew Stern unexpectedly resigned his post mid-term. The former social worker, who climbed the bureaucratic ladder in SEIU just a rung behind his mentor John Sweeney, served fourteen years as the union’s President. His long time ally from social worker days, Anna Burger has been his Secretary-Treasurer. Five years ago Stern split with then AFL-CIO President Sweeney and established a breakaway rival federation, Change to Win. Burger became the ceremonial head of the loosely functioning CtW.

Mark Brenner, Mischa Gaus, and Jane Slaughter have written a good balance sheet of Stern’s impact on SEIU and the broader labor movement, Andy Stern's Legacy: Right Questions, Wrong Answers. They also correctly conclude Chairman Andy’s replacement is unlikely to break with his fundamental tenets of corporate unionism.

Unlike Palin, we don’t expect Stern to be eagerly sought after on the speaker circuit, talk shows, or even Saturday Night Live. But neither do we believe he will just fade away like an old soldier. He remains on the President’s debt reduction commission that will soon be going to work to attack Social Security and what little else remains of the social benefits Stern and Burger used to explain to clients. So instead of bidding him adieu we’ll just say au revoir, Andy.

In Brief...
¶ The Washington Post reports, “More than 200 former congressional staff members, federal regulators and lawmakers are employed by the mining industry as lobbyists, consultants or senior executives, including dozens who work for coal companies with the worst safety records in the nation.” Among them is former Democrat Speaker of the House Dick Gephardt.
¶ The headlines proclaimed the good news that core inflation remained flat in March. The core excludes items such as food and energy costs giving more weight to products such as computers. Food purchased for the home jumped 0.5 percent last month, the biggest rise in 18 months. Inflation adjusted wages were down for the month by 0.2 percent. Last year workers saw their inflation-adjusted weekly wages fall by 1.6 percent, the sharpest setback since 1990. Wages have been down in five of the past seven years.
¶ 75 staffers from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and the Metropolitan Washington [D.C.] Labor Council, protested in front of the Iraqi consulate calling for the repeal of Saddam Hussein’s continuing anti-union laws. You can sign an international petition in support of Iraqi labor rights by clicking

I transposed a wrong number last week in stating that methane concentration as small as one percent can trigger a mine explosion. One percent is actually a cautionary threshold. Five percent is when explosion becomes imminent. I have severely reprimanded my fact-checker.

Adjusted Schedule
Before dawn on Thursday, I’ll be borrowing my wife Mary’s Ford 500 to hit the road, bound for Dearborn, Michigan after a Thursday night stop-over with my friends Adam and Carrie in suburban Chicago. Adam and a UPS worker friend of ours will ride along with me. Our journey, of course, is to the Labor Notes Conference where a thousand labor activists from around the country and the globe are expected to gather. Other Kansas City participants will be traveling in a separate van.

I know many readers will also be attending and I hope you will stop by the kclabor.org table so we can meet in person.

Because of my travel plans, after posting the Daily Labor News Digest this Wednesday there will be a break until the following Wednesday, April 28. The next Week In Review will be in two weeks.

That’s all for this week.

4/19--A Clarification to the April 18 Week In Review
Trying to juggle a number of time sensitive tasks I sent out the WIR without sleeping on it over night. Sure enough, my hasty editing in a sleep deprived state led me to write as if the alternative climate conference in Bolivia was already concluded. In fact, even though there were preliminary meetings and educational events last week the formal plenary sessions of the gathering begin today, April 19, and will continue through this Thursday.

The official site of the conference can be found by clicking here.

Sorry for the mix-up. Since the next WIR won’t appear for two weeks I’m taking the unusual step of a stand alone clarification.


Bill Onasch

Alliance for Class & Climate Justice


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