“There is a right way to do ‘just transition.’”
The statement echoes through the humid halls of the historic Stringer Grand Lodge Masonic Temple in Jackson, Mississippi, on an unseasonably scorching day in late February, 2018. Mingling with the ghosts of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 150 labor leaders, environmental justice activists, philanthropists, and national environmental organization staffers move from one side of the room to the other – far right for “strongly agree,” and far left for “strongly disagree.”
The group has come together to find alignment around the concept of just transition, so laughter erupts at the almost 50-50 split. But the mood soon settles. With the backdrop of a president who has filled his cabinet with oil executives, brutishly dismissed climate change, and denounced the Paris Accord, it’s hard to shake off what’s happening outside for too long: Puerto Ricans are fleeing the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria with no end in sight, #MeToo is a household term, and activists are railing against the assault on unions in the historic Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME. Those in the temple are steeped in these threats and more. But they also understand that while climate change, racism, patriarchy, and plutocracy are terrifying, they are not impenetrable, and dismantling one may lead to the unraveling of others.
Global activists share this systemic view, and around the world, locally based, integrated models are being built to support people working and living together in community. This decarbonized vision connects jobs and environment rather than pitting them against one another; breaks down patriarchy and systems of oppression; honors caring, culture, and community leadership; and reshuffles the paradigm that hails profit as the sole pinnacle of goodness. They call it “buen vivir” (good living) in South America, “commons” and “degrowth” in Europe, “agroecology,” “ecofeminisms,” and “rights of Mother Earth” in Indigenous communities, and in the United States, incorporating principles of all these concepts, “just transition.”
After much debate across the temple, a woman raises her hand from a spot dead center between the two poles. “Just transition will look different in different places, because it’s place-based,” she says. “But the principles behind it have to be the same. So there is a right way, but the right way is many ways.” She doesn’t mention that some “right ways” are more “right” than others. All seem to agree just transition fundamentally requires a shift off of fossil fuels, and in a radically climate-changing world, nothing could be more urgent. But grassroots movements also demand economic, racial, and gender justice underpin that shift. In fact, they assert decarbonizing simply cannot happen exclusive of justice.
This approach has been threatened since “just transition” hit the big time, so to speak: when it appeared in the preamble of the Paris Accord in late 2015. Movement leaders fear its public adoption on a global platform threatens to dilute the concept, undermine it, co-opt it. They believe policymakers and large philanthropies are too wedded to the capitalist economy to be able to imagine anything outside of it, and the consolidation of wealth, spurred by white supremacy and patriarchy, is the foundation of a capitalist system whose growth-at-all-costs philosophy is killing the planet. To these leaders, tackling climate change without justice is a zero-sum game, a way for the wealthy to delay the catastrophic effects of fossil fuel use on themselves, perhaps, but certainly not a way to dig out the roots of the underlying systems that created resource grabs and climate change in the first place.