Labour & the environment

Background paper • Briefing note

Climate change

Photo by Francis Vorhies

Climate change • Responses • Adaptation • Mitigation • Agencies • Cases

More info ...

For the ILO today, whether or not climate change is a reality and why it is happening, is not an area for much discussion or debate. That governments, companies and communities are responding to climate change and that these responses may have direct or indirect implications for labour, however, are of substantive interest to the ILO and its tripartite networks.

The problem ...

Nevertheless, it is important for those within the ILO who need to address climate change to have a basic understanding of what is happening to the planet's climate and why. In this respect the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) provides a good summary explanation of the problem:

"The average temperature of the earth's surface has risen by 0.74 degrees C since the late 1800s. It is expected to increase by another 1.8° C to 4° C by the year 2100 -- a rapid and profound change -- should the necessary action not be taken. ...

"The current warming trend is expected to cause extinctions. Numerous plant and animal species, already weakened by pollution and loss of habitat, are not expected to survive the next 100 years. Human beings, while not threatened in this way, are likely to face mounting difficulties. Recent severe storms, floods, and droughts, for example, appear to show that computer models predicting more frequent "extreme weather events" are on target. ...

"Agricultural yields are expected to drop in most tropical and sub-tropical regions -- and in temperate regions, too, if the temperature increase is more than a few degrees C. Drying of continental interiors, such as central Asia, the African Sahel, and the Great Plains of the United States, is also forecast. These changes could cause, at a minimum, disruptions in land use and food supply. And the range of diseases such as malaria may expand.

"Global warming is a 'modern' problem -- complicated, involving the entire world, tangled up with difficult issues such as poverty, economic development, and population growth. Dealing with it will not be easy. Ignoring it will be worse."

The cause ...

The UNCC also explains why this is happening and places the blame clearly on the industrial revolution:

"The principal reason for the mounting thermometer is a century and a half of industrialization: the burning of ever-greater quantities of oil, gasoline, and coal, the cutting of forests, and the practice of certain farming methods.

"These activities have increased the amount of "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. Such gases occur naturally -- they are critical for life on earth; they keep some of the sun's warmth from reflecting back into space, and without them the world would be a cold and barren place. But in augmented and increasing quantities they are pushing the global temperature to artificially high levels and altering the climate. Eleven of the last 12 years are the warmest on record, and 1998 was the warmest year."

UNFCCC guide: Feeling the heat
"This guide provides an introduction to climate change and shows how the international community is responding." The quotes above are taken from this guide.

The IPCC is also clear on the human causes of climate change:

Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (IPCC, 2007)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now very confident that human actions are responsible for climate change:

"Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. This is an advance since the TAR’s conclusion that “most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Discernible human influences now extend to other aspects of climate, including ocean warming, continental-average temperatures, temperature extremes and wind patterns." (page 10)

IPCC website:

It is clear that those developing climate change policies believe that there needs to major changes in way the economy works. The implication, of course is that this will impact on labour.

More on climate change ...

Introduction to climate change (2007)

This PowerPoint presentation by Sustainlabour - the International Labour Foundation for Sustainable Development - provides an overview of the issues, particularly from an African perspective.

Emissions from animal feeding operations (USEPA, 2001)

This report for the US Environmental Protection Agency is indicative of the type of focused analysis required to identify sources of climate change emissions which may have direct or indirect impacts on rural employment and enterprise development. It explains:

"This report presents the results of a preliminary investigation into air pollution from large animal feeding operations (AFOs) for the beef, dairy, swine, and poultry (broilers, layers, and turkeys) animal sectors. ...

"Animal feeding operations can emit ammonia (NH3), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), carbon dioxide, methane (CH4), total reduced sulphur (TRS) compounds, volatile organic compounds (VOC), hazardous air pollutants (HAP), and particulate matter (including PM 10 and PM 2.5). The substances emitted and the quantity of emissions can vary substantially depending on the design and operation of each facility. Factors that influence emissions include feeding regiment, the type of confinement facility, type of manure management system (storage, handling, and stabilization), and the method of land application." (page xi)

BBC guide to climate change

A user-friendly animated introduction to climate change.

The problem of climate change (ClimateSense, 2007)
A concise two-page introduction.

Climate change controversies: A simple guide (The Royal Society,2007)
An "overview of the current state of scientific understanding of climate change to help non-experts better understand some of the debates in this complex area of science."