The hidden pitfalls of the Just Transition narrative: A response.

In his recent think piece published in the Just Transition(s) Online Forum, Tadzio Müller questions the “pitfalls” of the Just Transition narrative and argues that it risks wasting precious time in the fight against climate change. As someone who has worked with the labour movement on this concept and its narrative and strategies for more than a decade, I would like to offer some alternative reflections.

Photo credit: United Steelworkers/Tam Ng via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In his article, Tadzio Müller argues that the Just Transition (JT) narrative is unhelpful, and is, in fact, counterproductive, since 1) we cannot prove that JT is possible as we cannot find examples showing that it works; 2) conversations on JT actually postpone the actions needed to keep temperatures below 1.5°C; and, 3) in the end, societies will inevitably have to choose between protecting workers in the sectors that must decline, and protecting the climate.

I disagree.

In the first place, to affirm that a Just Transition has never taken place and is therefore impossible questions the very idea of human ingenuity and social innovation. Luckily, power shifts — including campaigns and struggles for new rights — have shown us that history is not simply a continuation of the past but that radical, popular mobilizations can bring about profound and even revolutionary changes. More specifically on the Just Transition, in his article, Tadzio makes no clear distinction between JT narratives and the attempts to translate them into concrete policies and actions on the ground. I agree that the latter have yet to produce tangible results. But this is not restricted to JT and is also true of most climate-related policies and efforts. However, JT narratives that combine social and environmentalist elements are rapidly spreading throughout national and international activist spaces. These narratives contribute to shift the ways in which movements frame the climate issue, facilitate dialogue between constituencies and provide stakeholders with an engaging conceptual alternative to the “jobs vs. environment” discourse.

Secondly, let me address the “clock is ticking” argument, which is frequently raised by environmentalists who are rightly alarmed by the urgency of the climate situation. Interestingly, many within the environmentalist community address this important question by simply mimicking and buying into a certain type of government and corporate discourse. This discourse cynically uses jobs or social issues to justify inaction and low ambition on the environment/climate front. It is a discourse that stems from the very same governments and corporations that, in the name of competitiveness, pass austerity laws, deregulate the labour market, unpick the welfare state, organize site closures and turn a blind eye to tax evasion.

Let us not place the blame for the terribly inappropriate climate policies we have on the Just Transition narrative, on workers, on their communities or even on reluctant unions. We owe these policies to the collusion between irresponsible governments and greedy corporations. We owe them to a form of inertia in the system. And we owe them to a social and labour movement that does not sufficiently place the fight against climate change at its heart, and to a climate movement that does not sufficiently account for workers and their communities.

The author’s third point, and without doubt the one that I have the most difficulty with, is that, in the end, we have to make a choice: the people or the planet. Recent history — and most notably the election of Trump — has shown that neither people nor the planet wins when they are played against each other.

Photo Credit: The Verb // Jade Neville via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

On a very personal note, I categorically refute this opposition. I cannot cope with the idea that as humans we cannot come up with a better answer to a real dilemma. I cannot cope with the idea that the only horizon for well-paid, unionized workers in industry are precarious jobs in retail or, worse, unemployment and abject poverty (as Chinese miners face today with the “fairly quick” decline of coal mining there). And even less can I cope with the idea that working families should have to pay the price for a climate crisis whose responsibility lies with a group of greedy corporations and collusive and irresponsible governments.

The Just Transition narrative might not be perfect. It can indeed be criticized for not going far enough in its attempt to reconcile science-based goals with the needs of workers and communities. However, it is still a welcome effort to end the current stalemate, which environmentalist versions of the “jobs vs. environment” discourse perpetuate, playing into the hands of right-wing, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and climate-denying populists across the globe.

Top-down objectives are important, but only social movements can translate them into real-world changes and truly transform societies. And I do not know of any successful social movement in history that has not involved workers. The good news is that a growing number of male and female, documented and undocumented, precarious and organized workers from the Global North and South are mobilizing around the climate and engaging in the climate justice movement. I am therefore hopeful that workers, communities and their union, NGO and movement allies committed to a Just Transition will fight every day to make it real, and through their efforts, prove Tadzio and others wrong.


Anabella Rosemberg (@anabella_tu) is the incoming International Programme Director at Greenpeace International. She was the climate and environment officer for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) from 2004 to 2017. She coordinated and represented the international trade union movement in various intergovernmental processes (UNFCCC, Rio+20), and worked to secure the inclusion of Just Transition in the Paris climate agreement.

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 her organization, the JTRC or its partner organizations.