Recent expert reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change two things are clear: First, any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change requires drastic reductions in fossil fuel use. And secondly, this is a political task, not a scientific one. There are currently technologies that can reduce emissions; there is no political will to do so. Deep political opposition to reducing dependence on fossil fuels is a direct result decades of effort fuel industry to sow climate denialspread misinformation to the public, influence elected officials, and “greenize” their efforts.
But the energy transition is also opposed by workers in the fossil fuel economy and the communities that depend on it. They understand that refusing to use such fuels could make their jobs worse and eliminate the industrial base that pays for important local needs like public education. If society can understand and mitigate these impacts, a strategy labor researchers call a “just transition,” it can reduce labor resistance to change and provide much-needed support to workers and regions that rely on fossil fuel dollars.
The idea of supporting workers in a transition period is not new. The late labor leader Tony Matsoki, a senior official International Union of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Energy Workers who fought against the everyday use of dangerous substances in the 1970s, is called for a “Workers’ Super Fund” to support employees in declining industries. Along with environmental justice leaders, Matsocki argued that there are some industries that are too toxic for society to continue, and that workers in those industries should be supported as they train for other jobs. His logic holds true for the fossil fuel industry today.
However, it is important that a truly just transition extends beyond these industry communities. People of color and underserved communities excessively carry the burden of air and water pollution from burning fossil fuels, often without any economic benefits from industry. A just transition requires expanding support to include those communities who bear the same burden from extractive fuels, not just those directly involved in the work.
The scale of the energy transition problem is terrifying. U Wyoming, where one-third of all coal mined in the country is located, revenues from coal mining provide more than 40 percent of the entire state budget. Coal mining revenues fund schools and infrastructure across the state. No amount of solar and wind development can replace that level of income. Given how rural Wyoming is, the idea that manufacturing or the production of other goods could replace the income from coal mining is unlikely. This reality should not diminish climate action. But understanding the scale and scope of local needs helps to create better policies that go beyond empty debates about teaching coal miners to code software or the assumption that only current renewable energy jobs will provide enough support.
My emphasis is on current renewable energy is intentional. The energy transition could provide significant jobs and income, but not at today’s renewable energy salaries. Currently, renewable energy vacancies pay less than fossil fuel jobs, and while their numbers are growing, they are no substitute for economic benefits. Moreover, renewable energy policies and climate change mean that states that rely on the production and use of fossil fuels are hostile to renewable energy development. As a result, replacement jobs are not always created where they are lost, making many fossil fuel workers even more skeptical that the energy transition can provide a just transition.
All of these considerations can make an already difficult battle seem insurmountable. And the truth is, if it was easy, it would have been done by now.
Yet despite all this opposition, we are making progress. At the state level, Illinois and New York lawmakers recently passed laws requiring wage increases at every renewable energy project above a certain size. The laws tie common wage standards to the development of renewable energy. This ensures that the jobs created can provide wages and family economic security, and breaks the pattern of low-wage work in the renewable energy sector.
Another challenge of a just transition is that the needs of each community will be different. What is needed to retrain oil and gas workers for another job is different from what is needed to retrain coal miners because their skill sets and locations are different. Rather than a one-size-fits-all policy proposal, my colleagues and I have developed a framework of policies that can help guide a smooth transition while taking into account local specificities. We looked at transition examples around the world, and these results led us to propose four key factors for success:
Strong government support. As the examples of Illinois and New York show, government has a big role to play in ensuring a just transition. By requiring labor standards in renewable energy production, states have set industry-wide standards that will raise wages across the board, something the private sector has not done. Moreover, many of the programs that will need to be expanded and improved, such as unemployment insurance, are already administered by the government.
Dedicated funding streams. The mistakes of previous transition programs, in particular, the largely ineffective US Trade Regulation Act (designed to support workers disenfranchised by globalization and deindustrialization) show that stable and durable funding determines success. Funding is needed to support, retrain and, if necessary, relocate workers, as well as to replace the income that supports schools and infrastructure, and to invest in new industries to create a more stable local economy. The European Union understood this 18.4 billion dollars were allocated until 2027 for the Just Transition Fund. The money will help member states diversify and modernize their local economies and support workers. Illinois law provides up to $180 million annually— with no set expiration date — to support workers and communities in transition. Although these sums may seem large, they are only a fraction of the cost of the continued use of fossil fuels that go into hundreds of billions dollars.
Diversification of the economy. Rural areas struggle with economic development, and many of these communities can only rely on the extraction of natural resources. However, dependence on one industry makes communities particularly vulnerable when that industry leaves. Colorado Office of Fair Transition draft plan highlights how communities are more resilient when there are several thriving local businesses rather than a single organization. The report said: “Attracting one business to create 100 jobs will grab the headlines, but working with 20 existing and new businesses to create 5 jobs each would better serve long-term stability and community interests.” Diversification of local economies protects against economic downturns and is a fundamental component of a just transition.
Strong coalitions. Large, diverse groups have been behind the most successful and ambitious climate victories in recent years. The NY Renews Coalition, which brings together more than 300 groups in New York State, became the driving force behind the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. This law set the standard for an ambitious climate policy with goals of net-zero electricity emissions by 2040 and off fossil fuels by 2050. Illinois’ big climate bill was the result of advocacy a group of unions and multilateral cooperation. Grand coalitions bring people and power into the climate struggle and are important for ensuring that people’s priorities are represented.
The energy transition is already underway – more and more renewable energy is installed and even oil and gas companies invest in this type of energy development. Deliberate, targeted policy interventions are critical to ensure that the transition is focused only on the workers and communities in which these changes are taking place. The just transition movement offers us a chance to break free from the extractive, exploitative practices of the past and build a sustainable, just future.