What Is Needed For A Just Transition To Renewables?

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Big Oil is trying to get climate liability lawsuits moved from state to federal courts, where they believe they’d be more likely to prevail against efforts to make them pay for damaging the environment. Key communities are laying out explicit steps to help move their economies away from coal. Debates are taking place in the tech sector that analyze the social and political changes inevitable to implement renewable energy at scale. These are all dilemmas within what’s called a just transition, and it’s at the core of renewable energy activism.

In its original incarnation, a just transition pointed to workers’ rights, but, over the past few years, the concept expanded into relevance for fields beyond the labor market. A just transition is a future-oriented concept, guided by principles of sustainability and climate justice.

Unfortunately, these concepts don’t always work in concert.

What is a Just Transition, Anyway?

The transition to a clean energy economy is escalating, yet it takes thoughtful planning and robust resources. There are several dimensions to a just transition to move economies and regions away from fossil fuels and towards creating sustainable value and solving issues of climate injustice.

An opposition point of view claims that the shift to clean energy will spur gaps in well paying jobs with good benefits, loss of health insurance, reduced property values, gaps in local tax revenues, unfunded liabilities for environmental cleanup, and uncertainty around future community economic development.

Include social and political participation of affected groups: A just transition is about focusing on support for communities that bear a disproportionate burden of industrial and fossil fuel pollution. These citizens suffer tremendous health effects and are denied commensurate economic benefits. Locations where deep pockets of industrial fossil fuel pollution occur are known as “sacrifice zones,” where toxic air inflicts health problems such as asthma and high rates of cancer. They’re also typically where low income communities of color live and where institutional barriers have afflicted generations of citizens.

Assist workers in unsustainable sectors whose jobs will get lost in the economic reorganization: For many advocates, a just transition encompasses not only support for displaced fossil fuel workers and front-line communities but also a tectonic shift in the design of the economy. For example, workers who engage with toxic materials face the likelihood of illness and death, yet these provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs to recreate energy systems.

Recognize where benefits are accumulated by only a small part of relevant stakeholders: A just transition considers less wealthy countries that depend on fossil fuels for a major part of their GNI. Many advocates are calling upon wealthier nations to help countries with less total domestic and foreign input to switch to clean energy.

Create reskilling and new opportunities for workers whose jobs are lost due to restructuring: A just transition means taking an extractive economy — one that exploits workers and resources — and transforming it into a regenerative economy — one that relies on renewable resources and puts people’s well-being before profit. Just transition initiatives shift the economy from climate polluting fossil fuels to energy democracy. No longer do highways receive mass federal funding; instead, an emphasis on public transit takes place. Costs for discarding waste in landfills skyrockets as do incentives to compost and purchase compostable packaging. Ecosystem destruction halts and ecosystem restoration becomes a huge focus. All of these will create new job opportunities.

What Steps Does Tech Need to Take to Ensure a Just Transition to Renewables?

A just transition has the potential to completely transform society. Nonetheless, it is important to be mindful that clean energy technologies have effects on workers and communities due to manufacturing and installation processes.

The US Senate has been debating reforms that hurry along efforts for tech to manufacture more renewable energy infrastructure. Then again, such negotiations sometimes are the result of backroom agreements that compromise climate policy. As Wired has questioned, How should the imperative for systemic change be balanced against threats to wildlife and communities who live where that infrastructure will be built?

Technology can accelerate renewable energy adoption, but it also has an ethical responsibility to address the social and political change benefits so that they are equally and effectively distributed.

Sarah Shanley Hope, vice president at the Solutions Project, outlines a concept called “multi-solving.” A good example of this is how walkable cities help reduce emissions from transportation, provide equitable access to mobility, create healthier citizens, and help local businesses thrive.

Such a shift requires providers to rethink familiar economic and social systems, as they can shatter communities in their wake. Instead of repeating the patterns of extraction, the transition to green energy requires mass coordination, tricky trade-offs in climate policy, and resisting the allure of techno-glamour to accept hard choices.

RMI outlines in a recent report how governments are beginning to take notice of this risk and opportunity. As example, RMI’s recovery and revitalization framework consists of 3 steps to achieve a just transition for coal communities so that climate policy that is effective, durable, and addresses significant social and economic challenges.

  1. Relief for coal workers and communities to alleviate losses of local revenue and jobs that occur immediately following coal closure
  2. Reclamation of remaining coal sites to prevent prolonged pollution risks and promote short- and medium-term job creation and local economic activity
  3. Reinvestment in coal communities to promote long term economic resilience and diversification

Big Oil Wants to Define a Just Transition on its Own Terms

Suncor Energy Inc. v. Board of County Commissioners of Boulder County is a legal case before the US Supreme Court in which Suncor and ExxonMobil hope the Court will agree that climate liability cases belong in federal court.

Issues: (1) Whether federal common law necessarily and exclusively governs claims seeking redress for injuries allegedly caused by the effect of interstate greenhouse-gas emissions on the global climate; and (2) whether a federal district court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 over claims necessarily and exclusively governed by federal common law but labeled as arising under state law.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has already rejected the fossil fuel companies’ argument and has determined that state courts have the right to hear such cases. Attorneys for the appellants want the conservative-dominated Supreme Court to intervene at a time in which holding major polluters financially liable for climate destruction is becoming more pervasive.

Five federal appeals courts have permitted suing Big Oil in state court, where these cases have a better chance of prevailing. The stakes are massive: requiring fossil fuel companies to foot the bill for climate change–related damages to US cities and states could easily run into billions of dollars.

As it mulls whether to take up the fossil fuel corporations’ attempt to overturn the 10th Circuit decision, the Supreme Court has asked the Justice Department (DOJ) to offer its view of the case.

In a statement, the Center for Climate Integrity argued that the high court’s invitation to the DOJ is  a chance for the Biden administration to openly break with the Trump Justice Department, which took the side of Big Oil and helped the industry fight climate liability cases in several cities and states.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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