Blog | 5th Jun, 2019

Moving beyond ‘Just Transition’ towards transformation

Suggestions for how we can tackle the climate crisis while centering justice for communities

After the serious climate impacts over summer and the surprising election result, now is a good time to reconsider our thinking around a ‘Just Transition’. Reflecting on Environment Victoria’s long history of working with the Latrobe Valley community, here are eight suggestions for how future campaigns can put justice at their core without compromising urgent climate action.
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A bigger crisis demands a bigger response

In the wake of the federal election, people are realising we need to do more to address concerns about jobs losses and economic impacts in the shift away from coal. For many years we’ve promoted a ‘Just Transition’ – the idea that by empowering communities near coal mines to embrace new jobs and economic opportunities we can minimise the costs of the transition to clean energy. It is an important but imperfect concept. As we come to grips with the scale and pace of change needed to solve the climate crisis, the economic implications are larger than ever. This calls for a meaningful response that is rooted in justice. Something bigger than a transition and more like a transformation.

History of a Just Transition

Canadian unionist Brian Kohler coined the term Just Transition while brokering an agreement between forestry workers and environmentalists. He said “‘The real choice is not Jobs or the Environment. It is both or neither.” Since then it has been adopted by the climate movement to demand government and industry support for working people in regions whose economies are shifting away from coal. In Victoria, we joined with unions and local leaders to call for a Just Transition in the Latrobe Valley in the lead-up to the closure of Hazelwood power station. The $266 million commitment from the state government in 2016 was the largest transition package ever delivered for an Australian coal community and saw the creation of a worker transfer scheme and local planning authority to oversee economic change.

An imperfect concept

However, there are some serious problems with the term Just Transition. To start with, ‘transition’ isn’t a particularly positive term and can sound like an afterthought (perhaps because it often is). “Ensuring a Just Transition” is rarely ever the headline ask for the climate movement and this means it invariably comes after something hard to swallow. If we don’t give real meaning to the concept, it can end up leaving a bad taste in people’s mouths. This is true for the climate movement too, if Just Transition is misinterpreted as an apology for demanding urgent climate action or a call to slow down or reduce ambition.

Defining what a Just Transitions looks like isn’t easy. In most regions a direct transfer from coal jobs to renewable jobs isn’t readily available. These towns, like many in regional Australia, are actually seeking to strengthen and diversify their economies by attracting new industries and employers in a range of fields. Fundamentally, a Just Transition is about facilitating a process that empowers and supports communities to drive the shift themselves, and this is a complex story to tell.

Despite these limitations, ‘Just Transition’ is still a powerful and important idea. We need to develop, extend and demonstrate real examples if we want to keep advancing it.

8 suggestions for transformative justice

Moving beyond transition and towards transformation means taking these ideas off the sidelines and putting justice at the centre of our campaigns. I offer the following suggestions for how we might move forward.

  1. Make it the headline. Movements win when we embrace paradigm shifts that create more winners than losers. We need to find ways to talk about transition so it isn’t about minimising suffering but maximising benefit. As an example, the NUW is calling for a Green New Deal to ensure workers have secure well-paid jobs in the industries of the future as Australia adapts to climate change and becomes a clean energy superpower.This centres justice and addressing material needs without compromising on the idea that we have to take radical action to save milions of lives across the world.
  2. Brightsiding only hurts us, people have real problems and want real solutions. ‘Just Transition’ language must not be used to sweep genuine economic challenges under the rug. As Matt Wade notes in The Sydney Morning Herald, many regional economies have been shrinking, and so the mining industry’s share of economic output has been growing in regional Australia from 9% in 2008 to 21% in 2018. Challenging this means proposing serious alternatives. Communities are looking for real solutions, new industries and jobs, not platitudes.
  3. Our struggles are connected. The climate crisis  has its roots in an unjust system that has valued profit over people and environment for decades. This is the same system that has privatised industry and essential services, shed jobs and marginalised regional communities. By talking about and taking on this systemic injustice, we can fight side-by-side with communities in transition for a better world and a new economy that works for all of us.
  4. Raise up local voices. Outsiders showing up and lecturing people is never going to work. Local leadership is critical for building a shared vision and winning the changes you need. This organising work is hard, so these leaders need your support. Fund their work, share their posts and offer tangible support.
  5. Support local calls for real projects and jobs. Transition will remain a vacuous and confusing concept unless we imbue it with meaning. People don’t get excited about concepts, they get excited about things! In the Latrobe Valley, recent announcements like the S.E.A electric vehicle factory (a government facilitated new industry set to create 500 jobs) have been far more meaningful than endless calls for “planning and support”. This builds on the great work of the Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Coop, which is demonstrating how the new economy can be reimagined to benefit working people.
  6. Visit communities in transition and have conversations. Have coffees, knock on doors, understand people’s concerns and find common ground. Listen and learn before you jump in. Be grateful for people’s time. Many of these communities are highly consulted, so start by asking the people you already know for some advice on the best and most sensitive way in.
  7. Make sure everyone is included. We will have failed to do justice if a transition only results in jobs for the men who previously worked in the mines. This should be an opportunity to address entrenched injustice. It’s critical that we take steps to ensure often-marginalised groups like First Nations, women and culturally diverse communities are meaningfully included in the process.
  8. Lead with hope not fear. We all know that climate change demands urgent action, but in the abstract these broad statements can fuel conflict and fear. We know that rapidly reducing pollution will require transformative changes to our energy, infrastructure and economy. This should lead to many projects and jobs in regional Australia. Focusing on positive solutions can be a motivating counterpoint to the background negativity. Critically, we have to lay out the pathways for getting there.

These suggestions are offered as a starting point to kick off what I hope is a big and rich conversation about climate justice and how to do it in practice. They come from our experience working with communities in the Latrobe Valley for many years. We’ve made mistakes along the way that we’re learning from. So let’s keep working it out together.

In the meantime I make the following suggestions for places to learn more about these ideas and the groups and people leading this work so far: