Time to Think Differently About Trade

The last time an international trade agreement surfaced as a major issue in a presidential campaign was in 1992, when Ross Perot predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would create a “giant sucking sound” as jobs headed to Mexico. Bill Clinton won that election and NAFTA went into effect the following year — ultimately proving Perot right.

The outlook is still uncertain, however, for the massive trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was signed this year but still requires approval by Congress. The Obama administration hasn’t sent the agreement to the Hill because, at this point, it doesn’t have the votes. Part of the reason is that all three of the remaining Democratic and Republican presidential candidates have said that they don’t support the TPP — at least not in its current form.

On the one hand, that’s good news, because the TPP is deeply flawed. It would be bad for the environment, bad for workers, bad for human rights, and bad for public health. For details on just how devastating the TPP would be to the global climate, see the Sierra Club report Climate Roadblocks. It’s sobering reading.

But here’s the perverse thing about the TPP (and similar agreements such as one currently under negotiation with the European Union): Increasing international trade doesn’t actually require that we sacrifice our environment, health, jobs, or human rights. To be clear, the reasons why these so-called trade agreements are so dangerous has little to do with trade. They’re terrible because the powerful corporate insiders who do the negotiating (in secret, of course) pack them with provisions that protect and empower giant, multinational corporations — including some of the biggest polluters on the planet.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no reason we couldn’t have trade agreements that prohibit corporations from suing governments over public health or environmental protections (as TransCanada is currently threatening to do over the Keystone XL pipeline rejection). In fact, we could negotiate agreements that would do the opposite.

Why not adopt a model for international trade that not only allows nations to tackle climate disruption but actually requires stronger action? This could include incentives and protections for clean energy investments but not for investments that harm our climate. We could restrict and even ban fossil fuel exports, put limits on shipping emissions, and offer powerful incentives for trade in goods that dramatically reduce climate pollution while penalizing trade in goods that do the opposite. We could accelerate progress rather than undermine it. Strengthen rather than weaken our movement.

At the same time, we could negotiate trade deals that protect workers around the globe. Rather than shipping jobs overseas and throwing our wages overboard, we could have trade pacts that, for example, encourage the local production of goods, which would not only generate new jobs but also create vibrant local economies.

Trade agreements can be powerful agents of change, which is why bad ones are so dangerous. But the power of trade could and should be harnessed to advance the public’s interest. Although the presidential candidates have all come out against the TPP, it would be even better if they also proposed forward-thinking trade policies that put even more wind in the sails of the global climate movement by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, promoting clean energy, and prioritizing human rights over corporate protectionism.

For now, though, our first job is to stop corporate lobbyists from convincing Congress to pass the TPP. Let your representatives know that trade agreements should be used to help us achieve our climate goals — not take us in the opposite direction.

Dad, husband, executive director of the @sierraclub, writer, Jersey Shore native, Little League coach, #Yankees fan, climate hawk. Optimist. Love the Bay Area.

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