“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

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”.

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.

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

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.

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

Just Transitions

Just Transition(s) to a Low-Carbon World

Just Transition Research Collaborative

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An initiative that maps different narratives of the Just Transition concept. Highlighting the importance of equity and justice in tackling climate change

Just Transitions

Just Transition(s) to a Low-Carbon World