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In recent months, the Green New Deal has rocketed climate change square into the center of politics. But despite its call for high paying union jobs, the plan to get the U.S. to net-zero emissions has met early resistance from some of America’s top labor union leaders. Not all of them, though.

Sara Nelson, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants, has been an outspoken advocate for the Green New Deal and getting labor more involved with climate policy. And she could help break the gridlock.

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At first blush, a flight attendant may not seem like an obvious climate policy advocate. The aviation industry accounts for about 2 percent of the globe’s carbon emissions, and its footprint is expected to grow even further. Yet while aviation is reliant on fossil fuels, flight attendants are also dealing with the impacts of climate change in the form of increasing turbulence, disruptive weather that can ground planes, and being called on to respond to disasters even as their own homes are affected. Nelson told Earther that the union had more requests to tap its disaster fund in the past year than ever before.

All of this puts the industry on the front lines of a transition to a carbon-free economy, just like workers employed in the fossil fuel industry. Nelson believes her union, and others with workers on the front lines of climate change, need a seat at the table. And the architects of the Green New Deal agree.

“People that have seen the downsides already and people that are at the frontlines of this problem are going to have the best insight for how to fix it,” Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced a Green New Deal resolution to Congress, told Earther. “And they’re also going to have the most impetus to make sure that it’s done and done well.”

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Though the Association of Flight Attendants hasn’t endorsed the Green New Deal, Nelson has been out in front advocating for it while pushing back against the myth peddled by conservative lawmakers that it would ground air travel. Earther chatted with Nelson about why she views climate change as a worker issue rather than solely an environmental one, and why organized labor is uniquely poised to shape climate policy. She also explained why she’s hopeful the tide can turn in a hurry. The conversation has been condensed and edited lightly for clarity.


Earther: People may be surprised flight attendants working on planes that run on fossil fuels are invested in climate policy. Why are you, though?

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Nelson: This is really something that has become interwoven into everything that we’re experiencing at work . We started to look around and talk with scientists about the issue of turbulence [which climate change could increase]. We also have become very interested because we’ve had more members in the past year apply from our disaster relief fund than in the 16 previous years of its existence and flight attendants are connected to these events. We either have planes that are on the ground because they can’t fly to the areas that have been devastated or we are working relief flights to help get relief to the disaster areas. We also took incredible cuts to pay and pensions and health care that were exacerbated by the price of fuel. So for all of those reasons, we’re very interested in being a part of this discussion and being involved at the ground level so that any policy that moves forward on climate change takes into consideration workers and allows us to benefit from new technology.

Earther: What do you think is missing from discussions of the Green New Deal?

Nelson: What’s missing from the coverage is connecting this issue to the bread and butter issues that people care about. The reason that people who work in the fossil fuel industry are skeptical about this is because every other environmental policy that has been passed has really not taken into consideration the impact on workers. And so when you say to someone ‘I’m going to end your job’ or ‘I’m going to shift your job to another state and you’re not gonna have the same protections if you want to go continue to work there,’ people are going to be against that policy. If we want to address climate change and if we really want people to take Green New Deal seriously, we have to first and foremost address that economic impact on people.

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Earther: How do you start to shift the tired narrative of jobs versus climate policy?

Nelson: The people who have been leading the Green New Deal narrative have been environmentalists and so the core of the discussion around climate change itself has been around environmental policy. If you look at the Green New Deal, what we need to do is we need to lift up and pull out its promise of good jobs and health care for everyone. These are issues that we can all agree on. If we can help people understand this can change their lives for the better and put food on the table, then we’re going to bring people to the table to talk about what we do together to address climate change.

When people start to see how this can come together, they’re they’re less likely to be opposed to it. When you talk about the jobs that would be created by addressing climate change, the infrastructure that has to be put in place, then people can start to see that’s work. We can potentially build millions of jobs in this country and make sure that our Earth is a safe place to live.

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Earther: What do you think it’ll take to actually get labor on board with the Green New Deal?

Nelson: This touches many industries. What has to happen is there has to be space made for that discussion. And there has to be space for people to say “I’m scared about what this means for me and my family and are you actually going to listen to me about that? Do you actually care.”

Some of the first things that I have suggested is that for example, we show people with our actions that we’re not going to leave anyone behind. We’re not going to say to people who have worked in the fossil fuel industry that your job is irrelevant and you’re just going to have to get over it. That’s never going to move people. So how about instead we say, “No, we really appreciate everything that you have given to this country for years and years. And now that that your industry is changing and jobs have been removed and industries have declared bankruptcy, you know what, we’re going to fortify your pensions and we’re gonna make sure that you don’t have to die wondering if your health care is going to go away.” There’s no way to move forward without showing a good faith effort.

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I should let you know I’m really hopeful because I think that there are people who are trying to move this discussion forward and I see a lot of good faith effort that I haven’t necessarily seen in the past to try to reach out to people who would otherwise be opposed. We don’t really have that luxury to just be opposed and the other. The other thing that I think is different now is that the fact that we have more women in leadership who are traditionally people who have built consensus and now they’re willing to talk to people who maybe would otherwise be seen as against them. It’s much more likely that women are going to build allies rather than create enemies. That is also why we are seeing some movement.