Courtesy of Cornell University

The Industrial and Labor Relations School's new Climate Jobs Institute intends to employ research and policy to create jobs and work against climate change.

February 22, 2023

New Climate Jobs Institute Allows for Research Addressing Climate Change, Aims to Create More Jobs

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The Industrial and Labor Relations School launched their Climate Jobs Institute on Jan. 25. The Institute will help New York state transition to a stronger clean energy economy by addressing the climate crisis and creating more jobs through continued cutting-edge research. 

“There are two main objectives. We are trying to be a resource to labor unions around issues of climate change and the transition to clean energy,” said Lara Skinner, executive director of CJI. “[We also want to be] a resource to elected leaders, legislators, policymakers and the city and state government who are also trying to figure these issues out.”

CJI will focus on conducting research, developing policies for governments nationwide to fight climate change and create union jobs, according to their website. 

“We are the kind of people who look at all three of these things together and say ‘wait there’s a way to address all of these things at once, right?’” Skinner said. “We have to address climate change, and we have to do it at the pace and scale that science demands, but also… We better be addressing inequality at the same time and making sure that we are righting historic wrongs as we build out this new economy.”

According to Skinner, after Hurricane Sandy, she saw firsthand how climate change has deeply impacted workers. She found it was time to create environmental movements in ways to handle climate change. Working with one of her colleagues, Prof. J. Mijin Cha, environmental studies, Skinner wrote a report consisting of 10 recommendations of how the state could confront the climate crisis while developing job creation. This report was the first climate jobs program for New York State. 

“The New York State government’s plan was heavily influenced by Skinner’s report, and so we were getting traction on that, which is important as part of ILR’s mission,” said ILR School Dean Alexander Colvin Ph.D. ’99. 

Through Skinner’s work from post Hurricane Sandy, an organization called Climate Jobs New York was launched to influence climate and jobs policy in New York State. Because of this model’s success, other climate job coalitions have been founded in eight other states. As the work grew, so did the need for an institution completely committed to research and policy development — leading to the establishment of the Climate Jobs Institute. 

CJI’s primary academic and educational partner is the Climate Jobs National Resource Center. The CJNRC aims to educate workers on climate change and build a more sustainable economy, fighting climate change, creating quality union jobs and building safer and equitable communities. 

Maine, Rhode Island, Texas and New York have all adopted plans and established policies by CJI for labor coalitions. In addition to continuing work in N.Y. CJI is developing agendas in Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, Wisconsin, Maryland, California and Pennsylvania. 

“We got state money to help us do this work [and] got to the point where we felt we were ready to stand this up as an institute,” Covin said. “It really had grown naturally into an institute, and we viewed it as a priority area for this school.”

ILR focuses heavily on reshaping the future of work, employment and labor, according to their website. As CJI works to develop a new, climate friendly economy, the courses and study in the ILR School will be modified to fit the institute’s progression. 

“The shift to a climate friendly economy is a huge potential shift in the economy, and so that’s going to affect a lot of workers, a lot of labor,” Colvin said. “So it’s important for the [ILR] School to be studying issues like that.”

According to Research Support Specialist Nathan Lamm ’22, who recently graduated from the ILR school and found work at CJI, has enjoyed applying the knowledge he learned from ILR courses and working at a company that involves his two biggest professional interests — supporting the working class and fighting climate change. 

“Thinking about it from a career development perspective, you don’t really need a degree to go be a union organizer or anything, but here I was at ILR,” Lamm said. “I wanted to still be able to help out, build the labor movement, make it more progressive, fight climate change and find a good balance between theoretical and practical advancement. I found that in [CJI].”

One of CJI’s main goals is creating new jobs by researching cities’ and states’ needs for addressing climate change, then building around that to reduce emissions and form new industries. 

“This is also about economic development, and about making sure we’re strengthening our economy. …So then we’re looking at where the opportunities are to build a whole new industry,” Skinner said. “Maybe it’s people putting up offshore wind turbines, which is great work and really high-skilled work. But it’s also an opportunity to build a whole new manufacturing sector.” 

Skinner emphasized the necessity of creating jobs with high wages, adequate benefits and safe work environments when building a sustainable economy.

“I think it’s one of those barriers to creating a climate-friendly economy — if people are scared for their jobs, and they [start to see] a green economy as a threat to them, I think that’s going to produce resistance,” Colvin said. 

These new jobs are also centered around environmental justice communities, those most impacted by climate change and pollution. CJI wants to ensure these individuals are the ones to have these jobs. In doing this they build a new economy, a more fair one, providing equitable access to good jobs, according to Skinner. 

“We really sort of hand over that policy to legislators and advocaters and say ‘here are our recommendations for how you best create jobs in the state,’” Skinner said. 

According to Skinner, CJI will also conduct research on climate change’s impacts on labor and employment, including how rising temperatures and heat waves affect worker productivity.

“One thing I would highlight is we are doing the first ever study of working conditions in the New York solar industry,” Skinner said. “We’re doing the first study where we go directly to the workers who are installing the solar [panels], and we are surveying them,interviewing them and asking them to tell us directly about their conditions.”

All research is done with the help of undergraduate and graduate students, with over 100 students working with CJI in the last few years through research fellow positions and a summer fellow program based in New York City. 

“I think with the formation [of CJI] we will be exploring what opportunities we can have for students,” Covin said.