Is a “Just” Transition Possible for Climate?


After the Copenhagen summit in 2009, the political question changed from “how to rapidly reduce emissions to avoid climate chaos”, to “how to protect the climate without sacrificing quality jobs” (ETUC 2017). A worthy question, to be sure. But in order to be something more than an “empty signifier” around which the traditional opposition between jobs and environment could be transformed into a win-win situation, supporters of a Just Transition would fairly quickly have to deliver: a) examples of any kind of Just Transition in a major dirty industrial sector in a Northern country; and b) concrete policy proposals that would fairly quickly be able to reduce emissions while not leading to social devastation in the affected regions. Why “fairly quickly”? Because, the clock is ticking.

Which leads to the first major problem: there are no examples of rapid, sector-level Just Transitions that are actually considered just by those who are dependent on these extractive industries. The examples that do get used in the discussion tend to fall under these headings:

  • They are transitions, but far from just, or rapid (cf. Caldecott et al. 2017);
  • They are small-scale, that is, referring to a transition from a dirty to a clean product undertaken by one firm, or smaller communities (cf. Sweeney and Treat 2018: 1) — as such, they are partial and insufficient for answering macroeconomic, sector-level questions.

I am therefore proceeding from the assumption that there are no realistic proposals on the table for how to quickly transition out of a dirty industry without generating a politically oppositional (for example mobilizable by right-wing populists) sense of grievance in the areas dependent on that industry. This dearth of practical proposals for Just Transitions is, on the one hand, due to contingent, relatively mutable factors such as the absence of the societal coalitions or political will to push through such a transition; on the other hand, I also believe it to be due to structural and relatively immutable factors.

First, much in the same way that a field which has experienced decades of mono-cropping cannot immediately be used for organic permaculture, state-civil society relations (van der Pijl 1998) in industrial monoculture regions cannot quickly be replaced by something more diverse and equally economically productive. It is difficult to replace coal, for example, with something that provides as much employment, plus a sense of identity and purpose (on the pride of coal workers, see Mitchell 2011).

Second, I would argue that the planning capabilities even of a state equipped with complex data-managing technologies are insufficient to replicate the innumerable molecular processes that are involved in the emergence of complex economic sectors. In essence, a large economic sector like, say, the German car industry could be said to constitute a complex system, the designing of which would exceed the steering capacities existing in today’s world: too many feedback loops, tipping points and non-linear dynamics would emerge to achieve this goal in the little time we have left to do so. Capital’s waves of valorization and devalorization of certain regions and communities (Harvey 2000) can only partly be directed by governments.

Take the phase-out of hard coal in Germany’s Ruhr region for instance: decided upon in 2007, managed by Europe’s richest state, and involving the transfer of enormous sums of money, actions have indeed managed to provide the former miners with some form of economic livelihood. And yet, the region suffers enormously, has become one of the “poorhouses of Germany”, and when hard coal workers speak to those who remain in the lignite sector, their experience is held up as a cautionary tale. It is no accident that the groundbreaking report on a 2040-lignite phase-out published by Agora Energiewende has no more to say about what might happen in the old coal regions than, in essence, “send lots of money there”. Who does what with said money remains entirely unclear.

This is of course merely an anecdotal example illustrating a point that is made at a pretty high level of abstraction. It is also easy to disprove, by simply lining up one convincing counterexample. But: absent such an example, we have to assume that the rapid Just Transition is not a set of policy proposals at all — it is an empty set. My fear is that we might be trying to answer an unanswerable question, while the clock continues to “tick, tick, tick”. How can we protect the climate without sacrificing old “quality” industrial jobs? Well, right now, we can’t. Under given conditions, and with what we know about economic planning for structurally disadvantaged post-industrial regions on the one hand, and the global climate system on the other, we have to choose which to prioritize.

If we have to make a choice between protecting the climate and protecting “quality jobs”, protecting the climate must come first. The dangers associated with the Just Transition-story therefore are:

  • masking the fact that hard choices have to be made;
  • implicitly constructing an ethical equivalence that is, quite frankly, absurd (as similarly pointed out by Mertins-Kirkwood 2018; Stevis 2018);
  • therefore talking about a Just Transition ends up wasting time. Time we do not have, because abolishing the ticking clock on activist websites does not abolish time’s arrow.

Let’s continue to search for convincing Just Transition-policy proposals. But let us always be clear that these industries need to be shut down rapidly, whether or not such proposals emerge. Anything else would turn Just Transition into the “green economy” of the left, creating the illusion that economic growth or the expansion and/or maintenance of good industrial jobs in the global North are compatible with stopping runaway climate change.

Tadzio Müller works as Senior Advisor for Climate Justice and Energy Democracy at Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. He is a political scientist and climate justice activist. His research is focused on strategies of transformation within social movements in regards to climate justice and energy transition.

This think piece was adopted from the Just Transition(s) Online Forum.

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