02/14/2014 02:36 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2014

The Trade Elephant in the Climate Room

It intrigues me when two of the most important climate speeches of the year have been delivered by AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka. First at the CERES Investor Summit he made the compelling case for climate activists to pivot their advocacy from stopping fossil projects to nurturing clean energy solutions. Then this week, at the Blue-Green Alliance Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference, the AFL-CIO president put trade agreements where they belong -- squarely at the center of climate diplomacy.

How, Trumka asked, can the United States negotiate a new round of global trade agreements, led by the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with the environmental provisions which make no mention of climate change, the world's biggest environmental challenge? The current trade model, Trumka points out, pretends that moving emissions from one country to another solves the climate problem -- another form of climate denial, but one that lacks even the honesty to admit that it is denial. "We cannot outsource our carbon emissions," Trumka argues, pointing out that when the new SF Bay Bridge was built with Chinese steel, "we in the labor and environmental movement were silent" even though that steel required triple the carbon emissions of an equivalent source in the U.S..

Trumka doesn't say it, but U.S. foreign policy has not only outsourced carbon emissions to countries like China -- it then cites China's resulting increase in pollution as a reason for less aggressive U.S. action. By pretending that it is the countries where emissions occur which are the problem, rather than the consumers whose products require the pollution, both the EU and the United States have concealed their real failure to shift their economies to lower carbon consumption. The U.S.-India solar spat follows an earlier set of trade complaints between the U.S. and China.

Trumka correctly points to this approach to trade as one of the political and economic forces which prevents climate action.

A few days later Trumka's analysis receives stunning affirmation. The U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, files a trade complaint against the Government of India target for establishing domestic content requirements for solar panels purchased by the Indian government.

It's not as if there isn't a desperate need for all the solar panels India and the U.S. combined can make -- or for other clean technology products as well. India must create 70 percent of its 2,050 buildings and infrastructure from scratch. The U.S. has underinvested in its buildings, transportation and communications infrastructure so pathetically that bridges fall into rivers and the American Academy of Civil Engineers gives our society's basic backbone a D+ grade. When toxic pollutants poured into drinking water supplies in Charleston, West Virginia, public health officials could not cut off the poisons from flowing into home taps because if they had, the corroded water system would have collapsed from lack of pressure. And a new study shows that America's natural gas pipelines are leaking far more explosive methane into the atmosphere than previously estimated. So it's not like we don't have lots of work to do -- so why are we fighting about who gets to do it, instead of getting on with the job?

At a U.S.-India climate collaboration involving civil society from both countries, which convened at the end of the week in snowy Washington, there was universal agreement -- these trade disputes are distressing, wrong-headed, and a significant threat to the global growth of clean energy and economic recovery. But as Trumka says, when trade diplomacy and climate diplomacy are kept in separate universes, these kinds of train-wrecks are the likely outcome.

So why aren't climate leaders pointing this out?

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."