On Earth Day in 2021, US President Joe Biden announced a new target for the country to reduce net greenhouse gas pollution by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels in 2030. This announcement came after the U.S. rejoined the Paris Agreement and recommitted to net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050. For the U.S. to reach these goals and mitigate climate change, rapid decarbonization in the energy sector is crucial and non-negotiable. Politics, however, function in the realm of negotiating: In communities where fossil fuel extraction, refining, and generation create a sizable impact on the economy, negotiating between climate-protecting goals and eliminating a carbon-based economy becomes complicated. For these communities, it becomes vital to figure out how policymakers and industry can work together to ensure what is known as a Just Transition— the process of decarbonization that specifically prioritizes the wellbeing of humans and workers.
Climate Frontline Communities And Their Workers
For communities heavily dependent upon fossil fuel extraction and refining for their economic base, transitioning to renewable energy technologies like solar or wind can mean the loss of individual jobs and important revenue streams that supports the local economy. Though some unions, like the United Mine Workers of America, have backed the shift to renewable energy in exchange for assurances of a robust jobs package, others are skeptical and foresee workers left behind in the transition.
Coal is an especially important part of the conversation because of how closely it is tied to issues of rural poverty, both in the US and around the world.
In the US, for example, more than 46,000 coal miners lost their jobs between 2012 and 2021, and 65,000 jobs in the gas sector were lost between 2014 and 2021. As a result, a growing movement of politicians, activists, and unions believe a just transition will only be possible by passing comprehensive labor legislation to protect workers and make it easier for them to organize.
H.R.2474 Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019, popularly known as The PRO Act, was introduced and passed by the House in 2021. An unlikely climate-labor alliance has formed through organizing to pass The PRO Act. Supporters of the act believe that if signed into law, anti-union policies will be reversed, making it easier for workers to organize for higher wages and safe working conditions, including the new forms of employment created through the construction, implementation, and operation of clean energy technologies.
Jobs in the fossil fuel industry generally offer wages above the national median and typically do not require education past a high school diploma. For example, the average annual earnings for a coal worker in Colorado is around $92,000. Implementing a policy that protects the right to collectively bargain will allow workers transitioning out of the fossil fuel industry to retain high wages, ensure safe working conditions, and give workers a voice in the decision-making process. Collective bargaining also allows workers to protect themselves if their company shuts down operations, or, indeed, if their whole industry ceases to exist.
Though labor and environmentalists often seem at odds, there is precedent for the two groups working together. The Redwood Employee Protection Program of 1978 (REPP) was an amendment to the National Park Act of 1968. The National Park Act doubled the size of Redwood National Park in California and by design, reduced the amount of land available for logging. Opposition to the National Park Act by logging unions kept the bill from passing for eight years, forcing Burton to realize that his legislation would not pass without union support. (The made-for-TV film adaptation of The Lorax had been released in 1972, much to the chagrin of the logging industry).
Burton worked with the UAW and IWA leadership to draft REPP, which “included up to six years of pay, benefits, vacation, relocation, and retraining for full-time and seasonal workers as well as a three-year bridge to retirement for those 62 and over. It also included rehiring workers to restore the damaged forest area, including the Indigenous foresters who had traditional skills and those who have learned from them.” Policymakers like former Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan often cite REPP as an example of the kind of partnership needed to create a Just Transition.
The Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) also included it as a case study in their 2021 report on Just Transition. The organization offers other strategies for policymakers to consider based on historical examples and current legislation proposed. Specifically, it proposes 18 strategies designed to outline 18 bills or titles for Green New Deal legislation. LNS draws from New Deal era examples, such as a macroeconomic or Keynesian economic policy that was used to “steer economic policy as a whole.”
To deal with the issue of unemployment and support the programs boasted by the New Deal, “fiscal policy, such as budget deficits, and monetary policy, such as low-interest rates” were used. Another New Deal Era example is the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which put millions of Americans to work constructing public bridges and roads. LNS compares The Federal Jobs Guarantee in the Green New Deal legislation to the WPA in that it “would provide funds for non-profit organizations, local governments, and other agencies serving the public to employ anyone who wants a job.”
And, dare this receive an accusation of being a socialist plot of creating universal employment at the expense of efficiency, or what have you? Modern examples are also provided by LNS, like the Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRAC), a federal program that has successfully helped communities experiencing the economic impacts of the closure of military bases. Impacted communities were provided with planning and economic adjustments assistance, environmental cleanup, community development block grants, and community service grants. The federal government is (appropriately) able to provide support for communities that are about to suffer, or have recently suffered, the devastating loss of a monumental portion of their employment and therefore economic base. (Sound a little bit like what could happen from the threat of climate change?)
Lastly, LNS discusses the importance of a slogan that belonged to the National Recovery Administration, one of the first New Deal initiatives; “We Do Our Part,” stating, “Even the best policies will not make the Green New Deal work if they are imposed from above but not supported and made to work from below.”
While policy at the federal level will have a more considerable impact in funding the transition and supporting workers, state efforts have been deployed with varying levels of depth and success, and Colorado has arguably been leading the charge. It is the only state with an office dedicated specifically to the process of a Just Transition.
Though the Colorado plan advocates for a national strategy and “lessening the impacts of the move to a cleaner energy economy would be more effective and equitable with support from the federal government,” it has nonetheless provided 12 ways the state will guide the transition away from coal. The proposals range from “helping coal industry workers and their families plan for potential job changes” to “collaborating with utilities and mining companies to help cover the expense of transition.”
Though the Colorado plan may not have the resources to fully fund worker-oriented programs fully, the Office of Just Transition can serve as a case study for other coal and fossil fuel communities. Even with federal intervention, states will still play a significant role in implementing programs and funding some initiatives. However, The offices’ executive director, Wade Buchanan, is clear that “the more time I spent on this, the more I come to believe [a national just transition plan] is the right and proper thing to do– that’s the first, best solution.”
The transition to clean energy will be a massive undertaking. Policies must provide a clear path to carbon emission reductions while also centering the communities most impacted by the transition. Despite the overwhelming nature of the task, however, there is hope: According to the Brookings Institute, “a quarter of the counties in the U.S. with the greatest potential for both wind and solar electricity generation are also fossil fuel hubs.”
The Brookings Institution recommends targeting incentives and directing investments in these regions, known as “goldilocks” communities, and including public and private investment in the process. In these communities, experiments to work with large-scale battery storage, photovoltaic development, or technical training for the next generation of energy workers could be most beneficial. We have seen examples of this done well, and we’ve seen examples of it done not so well.
Though most of these communities at least lean Republican, toward a political platform that doesn’t exactly have a history of climate action, they stand to gain the most from a clean energy transition. In a market that is already rapidly changing on its own with minimal support from the public sector over the past decade, this becomes an issue that should easily transcend partisan lines. Gaining the support of labor can potentially have a significant impact on swaying Republican leaders in these communities, pressuring legislatures to protect the climate, the local economy, and the jobs of tens of thousands of their constituents. In an era of hyperpartisanship, it is valuable to consider solutions that will emphasize value creation that is palatable to both sides. It’s not simply a messaging question, but also one of figuring out how to serve the most vulnerable communities as a way of building economic integrity, whether we are talking about the inner cities of the Rust Belt, or coal mining country of West Virginia.
This article is a guest editorial by Kristin Caffray, an adoptive Detroiter and Just Transition enthusiast who graduated with a degree in Urban Planning and Sustainability Studies from Arizona State University.