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The Planet
Club President Robbie Cox Thinks Big

Can Club, Labor Agree on Global Warming Fix?

by Jenny Coyle

Sierra Club President Robbie Cox was still on a high from his recent 10-day tour of the country when Planet senior editor Jenny Coyle interviewed him in August. During his trip he served on panels with George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers Union, and other labor leaders at the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, and later spoke with environmental-justice organizer Jessy Cadenas about partnering with Latino groups in Southern California.

Then, at the One Sierra Club meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., Cox heard from Montana activists about their work with faith communities. Back on the East Coast, along with Amnesty International leaders, he met with Mexico's president-elect, Vicente Fox, to discuss environmental and human-rights issues.

For Cox - who also served as Club president from 1994 to 1996 - forming partnerships with non-traditional allies is the most vital work the Club is doing, and he is in the thick of it. As an example, he and other environmental leaders have been meeting with top labor representatives in an attempt to craft a comprehensive strategy to curb global warming - one that all parties can support. Cox is hopeful, and says he can't overstate the enormous potential of such an agreement.

Planet: A common thread in your 20 years of activism with the Sierra Club is a fervor for empowering volunteers - the grassroots. Why is that so important to you?

Cox: Newt Gingrich and his agenda forced us to move beyond Washington, D.C., politics and reconnect with the grassroots in order to hold our political leaders accountable. In 1995 we launched Project ACT, a program designed to help chapters and groups recruit, train and support activists who would take responsibility for planning the Club's priority campaigns. Our approach was to get all areas of the organization - conservation, the media team, fundraising and others - to integrate their campaigns and focus on winning real victories, and in the process strengthen the organization.

We also knew it was important to move beyond our own membership base and talk with the communities around us, forming broader coalitions with labor, faith communities, hunters and anglers. This work has been propelled to new levels by our environmental-justice activists. John McCown in Georgia was a pioneer in introducing us to this work, and now we've got a substantially funded program with organizers in Memphis, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Los Angeles.

Planet: A lot of people think of the Sierra Club as a bunch of hikers who want to protect wild places. Let's face it, that's where our roots are. Do we belong in the ring on issues like environmental justice and global trade?

Cox: First of all, two of our four national priorities - the Wildlands Campaign and the Campaign to End Commercial Logging on Federal Lands - are traditional public-lands issues. But we certainly belong on the playing fields of environmental justice and global trade. Our understanding of "environment" has evolved since the 1960s, when Rachel Carson and others showed us how our actions were affecting not only the environment "out there," but the human environment as well. It became imperative to work on cleaning up our air and water. More recently, we've realized the importance of working with people on the front lines. "Environment" must include where people live and work, and where their children play - a vision that was made clear to me in 1991 at the People of Color National Environmental Leadership Summit, the first national gathering of activists from low-income communities and communities of color.

Listening to residents who live near Superfund sites gave me a new appreciation for their struggle, and I understood the larger significance of building partnerships with them to advance our own agenda. These coalitions are not always easy. The Club's membership is largely middle-class and white, and we've had to learn to appreciate, and to work across class and racial differences to establish partnerships.

In the long run, the Sierra Club cannot develop the political power and influence it needs to advance our core agenda without broadening our own base of support and allies.

Planet: You've been involved in some groundbreaking work to do just that with labor leaders. What's the focus of these discussions?

Cox: AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and representatives from other unions in the AFL-CIO have committed to begin a conversation with the Sierra Club and others to see whether we can come to an agreement on ways to curb global warming.

First, we're asking labor to join with us in developing an environmental solution to the challenge of climate change. We have to convert from a fossil-fuel economy and move to cleaner energy sources.

Second, there must be reciprocity in any agreement. If we're asking labor to support a policy that puts jobs in jeopardy, we need to commit to policies that minimize the impacts on workers and their families. In other words, there must be no perverse incentives in solving the environmental problem. We simply cannot export U.S. jobs and U.S. pollution overseas. We've got to think through the tax system to ensure that tax incentives encourage industry to move in a clean direction without sacrificing their base in the United States. We must support labor if labor is to work in solidarity with us on the first principle.

Third, we must be willing to support a "just" transition for workers who are affected. Although we're all interested in busting the myth that saving the environment necessarily costs jobs, there are certain sectors - coal mining, for example - that will be adversely impacted. These workers must receive economic support, education, re-training and priority in new hiring for new energy fields.

As long as we remain divided politically, a larger corporate agenda remains unchallenged. But, if labor and environmentalists can reach agreement on a comprehensive solution to global warming, it means we can face policy makers with a united front - ranging across transportation, manufacturing, electric power utilities, construction - and make it in their best interest to think more environmentally. Although this will not occur in the next one to two years, I am hopeful. The potential is enormous.


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