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Kyoto Protocol, greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. While these terms may be familiar from news reports, it’s likely that many CUPE members, like most Canadians, know little about what they really mean. And while some may think these issues are far removed from our communities, workers like Danny Cavanagh think otherwise.

Look at what has happened in Nova Scotia in the last year with the flooding, the hurricane and then the giant snow storm – or in western Canada with the huge forest fires and all the other things in between,” says Cavanagh, president of CUPE 734 and a water worker with the Town of Truro, Nova Scotia. “Has climate change been the major factor in the Atlantic region with the abnormal weather?”

In 2001, CUPE members adopted Taking back our communities. The policy statement says environmental protections and sustainability are necessary conditions for healthy communities. CUPE has also made clear its support for Kyoto and Cavanagh believes it’s now time for workers to get involved.

As CUPE members, we have to ask ourselves, can we continue to steal the future from our children and grandchildren,” he says. “As workers, we have to change how we think, how we work and how we live.”

In 2002, Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol, binding Canadians to the international agreement, which sets targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Burning fossil fuels and clearing forests has steadily raised carbon dioxide levels to 30 per cent higher today than during the Industrial Revolution. Rising emissions warm the earth, producing climate shifts that cause violent storms, expand deserts, melt polar ice caps and raise sea levels.

But many doubt Canada’s commitment to Kyoto. We’ve already failed to keep the promise made at the 1992 Earth Summit. Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emission levels to 1990 levels by the year 2000, Canada increased emissions by 15 per cent!

Trudy Grebenstein is from Alberta and president of CUPE 3550. An education worker for 27 years, she says she’s seen lots of asthmatic children in schools and even figure skaters at her local rink who “stand at the boards with their puffers” catching their breath between performances.

We have more asthmatic children in northern Alberta than in the rest of the province,” says Grebenstein, who lives in Edmonton.

She says while there’s a real awareness about the issues, and many businesses have become proactive about the environment, there are fears, too. Many depend on the province’s gas and oil industry.

Kyoto may change the way some do business and people say, how is it going to affect my job?” Grebenstein says she thought twice before bringing forward a resolution to last year’s Alberta division convention, but it passed without any problem.

There wasn’t even a whole lot of debate,” she says. “The bottom line is do you want to breathe clean air? Do you want your kids to? Of course.” Tim Maguire is a Toronto social services worker and a member of CUPE 79. Maguire played an active role in the local Water Watch campaign, which succeeded in keeping water and wastewater as city-operated services. He says it’s time Kyoto became a priority for workers, especially CUPE members.

Protecting the environment and promoting public services often go hand-in-hand – making sure those services aren’t for-profit,” he says.

CUPE 79 is now heavily involved in the ‘public transit for public good’ campaign being coordinated by the Toronto and York District Labour Council. Maguire says getting the federal and provincial governments to put money into public transit can stop traffic gridlock.

As well, he says CUPE 416 has been hosting talks on alternatives to dioxin-producing incineration. Working with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, the local released Green Jobs and a Green Future a few years ago. The report proposed a sustainable waste management plan that would create jobs for Toronto.

Maguire thinks people should ask Canada’s new Prime Minister where he stands on Kyoto and the environment. “If something isn’t done by a country like Canada that can play a bridging role – our traditional role – Kyoto could slip away,” says Maguire. He sees a role for CUPE in pressing for government action.

Cavanagh says the upcoming election is an opportunity workers shouldn’t miss.

With the federal election around the corner, we have an opportunity to put the Kyoto Protocol front and center,” he says, and question “the federal government’s failure to come up with a comprehensive implementation plan for workers.”

If we as CUPE members push government to expand public transit, to retrofit houses and commercial buildings for better energy efficiency, to produce more efficient vehicles, to invest in renewable energy sources and modify industrial practices,” he says, “many people believe job gains will exceed job losses if it’s done right.”

That’s where we as CUPE members come in. We need to ensure it is done right.”

Doreen Meyer