Social Justice in This Transition
In some places in this country, it’s easier to talk about climate change if you avoid the words “climate change.” Melting ice caps and mass migrations are distant and abstract. And for some people, they’re too politicized.
This was certainly true in Alaska, as editor Stephen Miller learned during a reporting trip for this Just Transition issue. In that state, the politically liberal and conservative live side by side, conservationists and hunters dealing with the same receding glaciers. Yet, Miller found that a good strategy to open up conversations about climate change was to lead with the economy.
Why did we choose Alaska? We wanted to know what it looks like to break ties with the fossil fuel economy at every level. Where better to look than the politically diverse state where energy prices soar above the rest of the country and over-dependence on the oil industry has resulted in a fiscal crisis.
The switch to renewable energy is not an easy thing there. Wind turbines must be brought in from 3,000 miles away. Solar panels spend months in the dark. And state legislators are notoriously linked to oil industry interests.
Still, it’s happening. Renewable energy development makes economic sense, and the same is true in the Lower 48.
But before we jump into new economies built on new clean energy systems — ones that will begin to heal the planet — we want to recognize that this moment of change offers an opportunity for social justice. Climate justice groups have been pushing for a “just transition” for a long time — and we want to make sure that any new economic systems adequately address the inequities of the old system. That means broadening our thinking of what a just transition will require.
As Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, explains to climate justice leader Bill McKibben in his interview, our current economy — of which climate change is a symptom — is built on winners and losers — and the winners tend to be White, male, and affluent. A just transition would turn this model on its head by centering the voices of disadvantaged communities, lifting up the needs of those most impacted by climate change, and redefining our relationship with energy and the environment.
That’s the just transition we want, and it’s happening.
In the coal country of Appalachia, mountain ecosystems are being restored, bringing not just new and healthier jobs, but also food security. In urban India, electric rickshaws offer a technologically appropriate transportation solution while honoring a rich culture of rickshaw practicality and entrepreneurship.
And what about extending a just transition to Earth and our ecosystems? As Kayla DeVault points out in her essay describing the new legal personhood of New Zealand’s Whanganui River, shifting Western thinking toward sovereignty and self-determination and away from exploitation and extraction is possible, and it can have dramatic consequences.