“As Time Goes by…”: The Hidden Pitfalls of the “Just Transition” Narrative

Tadzio Müller, Senior Advisor for Climate Justice and Energy Democracy, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung

Rapid climate action is urgently needed to put the world on track for limiting global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Leading scientists suggest that we need to bend the emissions curve significantly by 2020 if globally agreed temperature goals are to remain attainable. So is the Just Transition debate just a waste of time? This piece takes a critical look at pitfalls in the ongoing discussions.

Photo credit: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung — New York Office, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

1. “tck, tck, tck”

I was first confronted with one of those climate doomsday clocks during the mobilization towards COP15 in Copenhagen. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had condensed the push for climate action into the phrase “tck, tck, tck”, and the Danish capital was awash with images of wizened world leaders, depicted in an imaginary 2020-future, next to the caption: “I’m sorry. We could have stopped catastrophic climate change… We didn’t”. Alas: the summit flopped, the movement flopped, and Copenhagen became something of a Waterloo not only for global climate governance, but also for climate “catastrophism”.

After Copenhagen, a significant part of the climate movement started focusing on the material processes that cause climate chaos, and ended up concentrating on the struggle against fossil fuels at the local and national levels (Bullard and Mueller 2012). In the old mining and industrial regions of the global North that were now in focus, the resistible force of climate politics met the immovable object of good, meaningful jobs, workers’ pride and strong trade union organization. In order to blunt the force of the looming conflict between them, both climate and union activists (re-)discovered the idea of a “Just Transition”, a transition away from dirty industries that is considered “just” by the people and communities whose livelihoods depend on these industries.

Example of climate advert campaign (Copenhagen 2009), photo credit: © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace

2. Just Transition? Just wait.

Thus, the political question changed: from “how to rapidly reduce emissions to avoid climate chaos”, to “how to protect the climate without sacrificing quality jobs” (ETUC 2017). A worthy question, to be sure. But in order to amount to something more than an “empty signifier” around which the traditional opposition between jobs and environment could be transformed into a win-win situation, supporters of a Just Transition would fairly quickly have to deliver: a) examples of any kind of Just Transition in a major dirty industrial sector in a Northern country; and b) concrete policy proposals that would fairly quickly be able to reduce emissions while not leading to social devastation in the affected regions. Why “fairly quickly”? Because, the clock is still ticking.

Which leads to the first major problem: there are no examples of rapid, sector-level Just Transitions that are actually considered just by those who are dependent on these extractive industries. The examples that do get used in the discussion tend to fall under these headings:

  • They are transitions, but far from just, or rapid (cf. Caldecott et al. 2017);
  • They are small-scale, that is, referring to a transition from a dirty to a clean product undertaken by one firm, or smaller communities (cf. Sweeney and Treat 2018: 1) — as such, they are partial and insufficient for answering macroeconomic, sector-level questions.

I am therefore proceeding from the assumption that there are no realistic proposals on the table for how to quickly transition out of a dirty industry without generating a politically relevant (for example mobilizable by right-wing populists) sense of grievance in the areas dependent on that industry. This dearth of practical proposals for Just Transitions is, on the one hand, due to contingent, relatively mutable factors such as the absence of the societal coalitions or political will to push through such a transition; on the other hand, I also believe it to be due to structural and relatively immutable factors.

Photo credit: Daniel Mennerich via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

First, much in the same way that a field which has experienced decades of mono-cropping cannot immediately be used for organic permaculture, state-civil society relations (van der Pijl 1998) in industrial monoculture regions cannot quickly be replaced by something more diverse and equally economically productive. It is difficult to replace coal, for example, with something that provides as much employment, plus a sense of identity and purpose (on the pride of coal workers, see Mitchell 2011).

Second, I would argue that the planning capabilities even of a state equipped with complex data-managing technologies are insufficient to replicate the innumerable molecular processes that are involved in the emergence of complex economic sectors. In essence, a large economic sector like, say, the German car industry could be said to constitute a complex system, the designing of which would exceed the steering capacities existing in today’s world: too many feedback loops, tipping points and non-linear dynamics would emerge to achieve this goal in the little time we have left to do so. Capital’s waves of valorization and devalorization of certain regions and communities (Harvey 2000) can only partly be directed by governments.

Take the phase-out of hard coal in Germany’s Ruhr region for instance: decided upon in 2007, managed by Europe’s richest state, and involving the transfer of enormous sums of money, it has indeed managed to provide the former miners with some form of economic livelihood. And yet, the region suffers enormously, has become one of the “poorhouses of Germany”, and when hard coal workers speak to those who remain in the lignite sector, their experience is held up as a cautionary tale. It is no accident that the groundbreaking report on a 2040-lignite phase-out published by Agora Energiewende has no more to say about what might happen in the old coal regions than, in essence, “send lots of money there”. Who does what with said money remains entirely unclear.

3. Back to the ticking clock: as time goes by

This is of course merely an anecdotal example illustrating a point that is made at a pretty high level of abstraction. It is also easy to disprove, by simply lining up one convincing counterexample. But: absent such an example, we have to assume that the rapid Just Transition is not a set of policy proposals at all — it is an empty set. Which means that, in policy terms, when discussing Just Transition we are speaking about something that is more aspirational than actual; something that arguably is barely there at all. My fear is that we might be trying to answer an unanswerable question, while the clock continues to “tck, tck, tck”. How can we protect the climate without sacrificing old “quality” industrial jobs? Well, right now, we can’t. Under given conditions, and with what we know about economic planning for structurally disadvantaged post-industrial regions on the one hand, and the global climate system on the other, we have to choose which to prioritize.

This does not mean that the search for realistic Just Transition proposals should not continue, but I believe that spending too much time talking about a Just Transition entails a certain danger for the climate (justice) movement: that we make the necessary rapid phase-outs of destructive industries such as coal, cars and cows in the global North dependent on the existence of realistic proposals for Just Transitions in these sectors. Actors invested more in a conversation about “structural transformations” (Strukturwandel), for example, in the commission currently being instituted by the German government to propose a consensual phase-out path for Germany’s enormous lignite industry, are already taking precisely this tack, arguing that the commission’s main task was to come up “with a concrete perspective for new and sustainable jobs” in the mining regions, a task to which protecting the climate would come in second.

Photo credit: Uwe Schwers via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

But isn’t the Strukturwandel-discourse fundamentally different from that of a “Just Transition”? Well, unlike in the debate about climate change, where we have one central policy goal (avoiding catastrophic climate change), both Just Transition and Strukturwandel discourses do suggest that we can have it both ways: protecting the climate, and either protecting or generating new, quality jobs. And this is irrespective of the specific position taken within these discursive fields: the very existence of the fields is premised on the attempt to sublate the opposition between our two policy goals. Were neither of the two discourses to exist, we might in fact be forced to make a choice, to have a societal debate about what sort of society we want to be, which I believe is a fundamental prerequisite of any kind of socio-ecological transformation in the global North.

If we have to make a choice between protecting the climate and protecting “quality jobs”, protecting the climate must come first. The dangers associated with the Just Transition-story therefore are:

  • masking the fact that hard choices have to be made;
  • implicitly constructing an ethical equivalence that is, quite frankly, absurd (as similarly pointed out by Mertins-Kirkwood 2018; Stevis 2018);
  • therefore talking about a Just Transition ends up wasting time. Time we do not have, because abolishing the ticking clock on activist websites does not abolish time’s arrow.

So, to conclude: by all means, let’s continue to search for convincing Just Transition-policy proposals. But let us always be clear that these industries need to be shut down rapidly, whether or not such proposals emerge. Anything else would turn Just Transition into the “green economy” of the left, creating the illusion that economic growth or the expansion and/or maintenance of good industrial jobs in the global North are compatible with stopping runaway climate change.

Tadzio Müller works as Senior Advisor for Climate Justice and Energy Democracy at Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. He is a political scientist and climate justice activist. His research is focused on strategies of transformation within social movements in regards to climate justice and energy transition.

This think piece is part of the Just Transition(s) Online Forum. Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the JTRC or its partner organizations.

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