Any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change requires dramatically reducing the use of fossil fuels, according to the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is not a scientific challenge. There are technologies that can reduce emissions, but the political will to do so is missing. The political opposition to reducing fossil-fuel reliance is the result of decades of efforts by the fuel industry to spread climate denial, influence elected officials and "greenwash" its efforts.
Workers in the fossil-fuel economy are opposed to an energy transition. The industry base that pays for crucial local needs such as public education is at risk if they move away from using fuel like that. If society can understand and mitigate these consequences, a strategy called a "just transition" can reduce worker opposition to change while also providing needed support to workers and regions that have relied on fossil-fuel dollars
It's not new to support workers during transitions. Tony Mazzocchi, a top official of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, called for a fund to support workers in declining industries. There are some industries that are too toxic to continue and that the workers in those industries should receive support as they are trained for other jobs. His logic is applicable to the fossil-fuel industry today.
It's important that a transition goes beyond the industry community. People of color and low income communities are disproportionately affected by air and water pollution from burning fossil fuels. Expansion of support is needed to include the communities with an equal burden from fuels.
The scale of the challenge is very large. Revenue from coal mining in Wyoming provides more than 40% of the state's budget. Schools and infrastructure are funded by coal mining revenue. The degree of revenue can't be replaced by a level of solar and wind development. It's not likely that manufacturing or other goods production can replace the revenue from coal mining. Climate action shouldn't be diminished by this reality. Understanding the scale and scope of local needs helps create better policies that go beyond the discussion of teaching coal miners to code software or assuming that renewable energy jobs alone will be able to provide enough support.
My focus is currently on renewable energy jobs. The energy transition can provide revenue, but not employment. The economic benefits of renewable energy jobs are not being replaced by fossil-fuel jobs. The politics of renewable energy and climate change make states hostile to renewable energy development. Fossil-fuel workers are more skeptical that an energy transition can provide a just transition due to the fact that replacement jobs are not always being created where they are being lost.
All of these factors can make a battle seem impossible. It would be done if it was easy.
We are making progress despite the opposition. New York and Illinois recently passed laws requiring higher wages on renewable energy projects. General wage standards are tied to renewable energy. It breaks a pattern of low- wage work in the renewable energy sector by ensuring the jobs created can provide family-sustaining wages and economic security.
One of the challenges of just transitions is that the needs of different communities will be different. Coal miners have different skill sets than oil and gas workers so retraining them is different. My colleagues and I have come up with a framework of policies that can help guide just transitions while allowing for local specifications. The results of our research led us to suggest four factors for success.
Government support is strong Government has a big role to play in a just transition. The private sector failed to raise wages due to the fact that the states set industry-wide standards. Unemployment insurance is one program that the government already runs.
There are dedicated funds. The largely ineffective U.S. Trade Adjustment Act shows that steady and robust funding is needed to succeed. To replace revenue that supports schools and infrastructure and to invest in emerging industries to create more stable local economies, funding is needed. The European Union has allocated over $17 billion for the Just Transition Fund. Member states will use the money to support workers. Up to $180 million a year can be given to support transitioning workers in Illinois. The cost of using fossil fuels is hundreds of billions of dollars and these amounts are only a fraction of that.
Diversification is an economic activity. Rural areas have struggled with economic development due to their dependence on natural resources. Communities are vulnerable when an industry leaves. According to the Colorado Office of Just Transition, communities are more resilient when there are several thriving local businesses. tracting one business that will create 100 jobs will make headlines, but working with 20 existing and new businesses to create 5 jobs each will better serve a community's long-term stability and interests Diversification of local economies protects against economic downturns.
Coalitions are robust. The most successful and ambitious climate wins have been led by large groups. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act was the brainchild of the NY Renews coalition. The standard for ambitious climate policy was set by this law. The big climate bill was the result of advocacy by a group of unions. Climate fights are important for bringing people and power to them.
Oil and gas companies are investing in this type of energy development, as more and more renewable energy is being installed. Ensuring the changeover is just to workers and the communities in which these changes occur is crucial. The just transition movement gives us a chance to break with the past and build a better future.