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What does ​‘just transition’ really mean?

By Alison F. Takemura - Canary Media, September 15, 2022

What is a just transition?

To address the climate crisis, the world must rapidly shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. For this transition to be a just one, we need to repair the harms of the fossil-fuel economy and equitably distribute the benefits of the clean energy economy, so that no one is left behind. 

A brief history of a just transition

U.S. labor organizer Tony Mazzocchi is thought to have pioneered the concept of a just transition in response to the unfair treatment of workers as stronger environmental regulations throughout the 1970s and ​’80s led to job losses in toxic U.S. industries. 

For example, in 1987 the Environmental Protection Agency brokered an agreement with the Velsicol Chemical Corporation under which the company stopped selling chlordane and heptachlor, two pesticides linked to cancer, liver damage and seizures. Not long after, Velsicol closed one of its manufacturing plants, located in Marshall, Illinois, and laid off all of its hourly workers. The EPA designated the facility a Superfund site and dedicated more than $10 million to its cleanup. But the plant’s employees, Mazzocchi wrote in a rousing 1993 article, were ​“tossed onto the economic scrap heap.” 

Mazzocchi supported stricter environmental laws but also championed workers’ rights, arguing that the government should provide workers transitioning out of toxic industries with broad financial and educational support.

Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy — from one kind of job — to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis, who face the ever-present threat of death from explosions and fires, in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.

The phrase ​“just transition” quickly took root among environmental justice advocates, who expanded the term to include support for communities who bear a disproportionate burden of industrial and fossil fuel pollution while being denied commensurate economic benefits. Among these are the low-income communities of color dwelling in sacrifice zones, where toxic air inflicts health problems such as asthma and high rates of cancer.

Today, as the clean energy economy gains momentum, a just transition is a rallying cry for fossil fuel workers and front-line communities. It has even taken on global resonance as countries with economies that rely on coal and other fossil fuels call for assistance from wealthier nations to help them switch to clean energy.

Read the entire article here.

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