What is a ‘just transition,’ and why do we need one?
Twenty-four-year-old Nikayla Jefferson has grown up in an age of heat, drought, and fire. She wants to build a bridge to a better world.
Loose rocks crumble beneath my feet, fall long and silent into the abyss stretched before me. I stand on the edge of the old world.
This ground is familiar. It’s the world where I was born and raised: Saturday night spent parked, car packed with friends, laughs between slurps of Sonic milkshakes. It’s my dad pan stir-frying rice and vegetables on a gas stove, and my mom and brothers waiting in front of the TV until the call to fill their plates. It’s watching pennies turn to dollars at the gas station, the shake I give to the gas pump handle, before I hang up the hose and get back on the road to see my grandma over spring break.
But this world I was born into, the world I was raised and came of age in, is in crisis.
This world is built on oil, coal, and gas. It relies on economies of extraction and exploitation, a value system that favors profit over people and maintains an abusive relationship to our planet. Science makes it clear that our current way of life has us on track for a fall into the abyss — unlivable heat, famine and drought, and whole cities lost to the sea.
Each year, I feel the edge creep closer. Seventeen of the 20 biggest wildfires in state history burned through California in my lifetime. I cannot recall a year spent out of drought. The last decade was the hottest, the last year was the hottest, last summer was the hottest — it feels like a lifetime spent on fire.
This world is safe and familiar, but it’s becoming hostile and unfit for me, my friends, my family — for all of us. We need to change, and quickly, or we will fall off the edge of this old world into conflict and chaos.
And we can. Ahead of me, across the abyss, a better world rises. I can see my home state of California, fully powered by solar panels stretching across the desert and wind turbines popping up along the inland highways. In the new world, my generation’s dreams of light commuter rail across our cities are fulfilled.
But beyond clean energy and transportation, values of justice, empathy, compassion, and bold creative vision have been used to reimagine agriculture, healthcare, education, and infrastructure. A better world includes sustainable food produced by protected workers in the Central Valley, hospitals and clinics that are affordable and accessible, well-funded public preschool through grade 12, debt-free higher education, and public housing to end California’s housing crisis.
To cross the abyss and reach this new world, we will need to build a bridge — one that is wide enough for everyone to cross. That is what my generation means when we say we want a “just transition”: The workers and communities most affected by social and economic transition are protected and empowered.
In the past, when coal mines closed, industries departed for cheaper labor overseas, or companies automated for efficiency, people suffered the despair of a lost way of life. After an auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, closed, one former worker described the feelings of grief that arose as the final car rolled down the line: “It was the saddest day,” the worker said, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Labor Network for Sustainability. “It was like, oh, my God, this is so real. And it’s just [a] flood of tears everywhere.”
When a transition is unjust, increased rates of alcoholism, drug use, and suicide can ripple through communities left without jobs. But with proper planning guided by the principles of a just transition, we can build the bridge to ensure all people are cared and accounted for in the migration to the next world.
The first pieces of this bridge are being laid right now. Economies are transitioning away from fossil fuels, and in some cases communities are intervening to ensure it is done with care and consideration for the people most affected.
Colorado is the first state to devise a plan to transition away from coal. It formed the Office of a Just Transition within the state Department of Labor and Employment. A coalition of unions, community representatives, activists, business leaders, academics, and politicians drafted a comprehensive plan to decarbonize Colorado’s economy. The plan recognizes that the transition to a clean economy is “essential and inevitable,” and it will create a net gain of good jobs throughout the economy. But the plan acknowledges that some jobs will be lost and the government has a “moral obligation” to aid the affected workers and communities. Colorado’s plan has room for improvement, but it stands as a model for other states to build their just transitions.
The federal government, too, must devise a plan for a just transition. The Green New Deal is a vision of how it could work. But to succeed, we will need to come together as a country, all of our feet edging on this abyss, and build the bridge to the next world. If we give the voices and imaginations of those most affected by the transition formal power, we can build the bridge to the next world, help everyone across, and live in a society fit for human flourishing.
For me, flourishing means that after my dad scoops rice and vegetables onto my plate, we all sit down around the table. He asks about my future plans, and I can answer without thinking about the climate crisis, recessions, political instability, and racial violence. Instead, we have built a bridge to a place that offers me a good job, access to all my basic needs, and a livable planet. I can answer with grounded optimism. My plans for my 20s are decided by me, not the whims of chaotic capitalism, racial or gendered oppression, or a climate emergency. This reality I dream of: It waits just on the other side.
Nikalya Jefferson, May 2021