(Re)claiming Just Transition

We have recently entered a period of deep contestation over the ownership and meaning of Just Transition. It is, therefore, important to think about it systematically so that we can, at the very least, differentiate initiatives that co-opt and dilute its promise from initiatives that contribute to a global politics of social and ecological emancipation.

Photo credit: Iron & Earth (CC BY-SA)

As any concept, whether democracy or sustainability, becomes more prominent it becomes increasingly contested. This is no mere disagreement over definitions. Rather it reflects competition over investing terms with particular meanings. That is now the case with Just Transition, a concept that has been around for several decades but has only recently become globalized, especially through the work of the International Trade Union Confederation. It is clear that even among global labour unions there are different visions, ranging from those that focus on Just Transitions with respect to their own sectors and members, to those that propose fundamental changes in the world political economy that will ensure Just Transitions for all. In what follows I would like to identify a number of questions that a socially and ecologically transformative approach to Just Transition should engage with.

It is necessary to know what a green transition can deliver in terms of employment. But numbers of ‘green jobs’ are not sufficient to ensure that a green transition is also just. Rather, Just Transitions must be about particular people in particular places under particular life circumstances. Many of the mining towns in Colorado, where I live and work, are now thriving tourist destinations. But their transitions were not just, as unemployment and rising property prices drove working people out. They also have not been just for the people that work in the tourist industry, many of whom are immigrants who cannot afford to live in these gentrified towns. Just green transitions require that we move from ‘job counting’ to ‘people accounting’.

Just Transitions are desirable for all transitions, whether the cause is the agricultural revolution, industrialization or artificial intelligence. However, to the degree that green transitions are intentional and rationalized in the name of the common good, they legitimate calls for justice, more so than transitions that do not justify themselves on these grounds. And it is important that we demand that green transitions serve the common good because they are not inherently socially just and, in fact, are frequently less just than other transitions, such as gender or racial emancipation. Nor are they necessarily ecologically just. Decarbonized industrial policy can be as ecologically unjust as the current, carbon-based, industrial policy by externalizing harms across space, time and ecosystems.

Photo credit: Peg Hunter (CC BY-NC 2.0)

With the rise of climate change, the main challenge for Just Transitions has properly become the transition away from coal. But fossil fuel extraction around the world is capital intensive, employing very few people directly. The fossil fuel economy includes a wide range of related activities — infrastructure, transportation, housing and so on — that employ vast numbers of people across global production networks. Just Transition strategies that focus exclusively on the most apparent victims are morally narrow and politically misleading. A green transition is not simply the replacement of declining sectors with emerging sectors but involves the wholesale transformation of society, including the greening of sectors that we do not normally consider as either grey or green, whether education or health. A proactive and just green transition must not demonize declining sectors nor sanctify emerging ones. Rather it must treat all of them as fundamental components of the whole political economy.

The focus on those left behind, necessary and just as it is, can very well obscure the need to also build Just Transitions into the future — to ensure that the unfolding of a green world is not at the expense of the people whose work is making it a reality, nor displaces harms and costs onto our children. The production, installation, and maintenance of the technologies and infrastructures that make a green transition are not inherently safer and cleaner than those of their grey counterparts. The production of solar panels or wind turbines involves serious occupational health and safety risk, as does the maintenance of wind towers that rise to hundreds of feet and may be offshore. But equally daunting is a life-cycle approach to industrial scale renewables, storage and infrastructure facilities. At this point, for instance, solar panels have to be disposed as hazardous materials. Is the green transition including measures for recycling and reusing, measures that reflect strong social and ecological priorities as well as opportunities for work? Or will our children have to deal with the antiquated and dangerous remnants of our green transition — as has been the case with Superfund sites in the USA?

Photo credit: PV CYCLE

But green transitions, like any transitions, do not only cast a shadow onto the future. They cast an equally strong shadow across the present. For many supporters — whether unions, environmentalists, or governments — green transition refers to green industrial or economic policy in a deeply uneven world. As with the industrial revolution of the 19th century, success is measured in terms of who controls the commanding heights of global production networks, in the process turning other parts of the world, including within the same country, into an extractive hinterland. Similarly, Just Transitions that only protect “one’s own” — whether constrained by gender, ethnicity or nationality — will reinforce local resentment and global nationalism. This does not mean that all Just Transition initiatives can involve everyone affected from their very inception. That may well lead to paralysis. However, there are more and less inclusive local, national and global Just Transition strategies, in the same way as there are more and less inclusive green transition strategies.

I would like to close by suggesting that Just Transitions are most needed in countries and places without a social welfare system. They are less needed where social solidarity already takes care of people during periods of crisis and adjustment. Just Transition, therefore, is a political response to neoliberalism — whether globalist or nativist — that has been unfolding since the 1970s. As its popularity spreads, an increasing number of initiatives will be labelled as Just Transitions — in the same way that many initiatives have been baptized in the waters of sustainable development. Such isolated events can very well be used to deflect attention from deeply unjust green transitions. Those of us who see Just Transitions as integral components of green transitions must resist these appropriations, even when supported by unions, communities or environmentalists, and commit to turning these events into a politics of social and ecological emancipation.

Dimitris Stevis is professor of politics at Colorado State University where he teaches courses on global political economy, environment and sustainability, with particular attention to social and ecological justice, and also serves as the secretary/treasurer of the American Association of University Professors chapter. He is a founder of the Environmental Justice Working Group within the School of Global Environmental Sustainability and a collaborator of Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change. He has just co-edited, with Nora Räthzel and David Uzzell, a special issue of the journal Globalizations (15:4) entitled Labour in the Web of Life.

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.