The federal election has come and gone but the climate crisis continues on.  Right wing politicians, closely allied with the fossil fuel industry, unhappy with the fact their boy Andrew Scheer is not the Prime Minister, are fanning the embers of Prairie resentment to build a separatist movement . This movement would include Alberta, Saskatchewan and in some permutations, Manitoba and parts of BC. It’s not really a separatist movement; it’s more of a pressure tactic to get Trudeau to kowtow even more to the goals of the Calgary Cabal of Climate Deniers and Greedy Oilmen. The Liberals buying a pipeline wasn’t enough for this group.

There are various issues leading some people on the Prairies to buy into this separatist foolishness including xenophobia, Christian fundamentalism and good old racism but the main one is economic: the fear of losing their jobs and the ability to provide for their families when the oil and gas industries are phased out and the oil money dries up.   It is a real fear and one that we as environmentalists will have to deal with if we are going to get people to buy into the radical policies and actions that are needed to stay below a two degree increase in global temperature. It has to be more than just repeating that, “It’s not a choice between the environment and jobs; we can have both.”

We need concrete actions and that is where a “just transition” comes in. Just transition is a framework developed by the labour movement,working with their environmentalist allies, to encompass a range of economic and social policies and actions needed to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods when economies are shifting to a low carbon economy. Essentially it means the costs of fighting climate change are not borne just by the workers and their families and communities but are shared equitably by the whole society.

As the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities pointed out in their 2018 report, “When the Government of Canada says it is going to “phase out coal”, coal workers and communities hear that Canada is phasing out their future, livelihood, stability and identity. The impact of the Government’s decision illustrates that taking action on climate change may come with any number of unintended consequences, including to the mental health of individuals, personal and family finances and the economic stability of communities.”

 The NDP and the Green Party both had this as part of their election platform and the Liberals “promise” they will pass a Just Transition Act. Just Transition is an integral part of the Green New Deal and is included in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

At the COP24 conference in Poland in December 2018, the Silesia Declaration laid out why a just transition is needed. “Considering the social aspect of the transfer towards a low carbon economy is crucial for gaining social approval for the changes taking place. Public policies to reduce emissions will face social resistance and significant political risks for the governments implementing them if they are not accompanied by social security programs for workers whose jobs will be lost or transformed.” 

Just transition has many components because the short term adverse effects on workers are complex. But as Mike Williams of the Blue Green Alliance states “Just transition is not just about the money.” Of course it needs to be well funded as it includes skills retraining, income support, pension bridging, and redeployment support. These will need to be tailored for the individual worker depending on their situation.  Another aspect is support for the community in finding new industries and sources of revenue for schools, streets etc. Finally, and in some ways the most important, is worker and community involvement from the beginning to the end of the process. It cannot be another top down measure complete with photo ops and political platitudes. The workers will have to really believe that the change is necessary, the support is genuine and that they will not be left behind.

Originally, just transition referred to workers whose jobs were eliminated or transformed. In the last few years it has come to include a much broader scope of people who are seen to be affected by the climate change struggle.  As the CCPA‘s Hadrian Kirkwood writes, “In every articulation of the Just Transition concept, there is a threshold  (either explicit or implicit) for who is vulnerable and, therefore , who deserves support.” He goes on to say, “Implementing Just Transition programs that empower privileged workers without proactively addressing marginalization will make things much worse.” His examples of those “privileged workers” is well paid Canadian male oil and gas workers based in Alberta.  While I question some of his assumptions about oil and gas workers, his point is well taken.

Just transition programs, while still ensuring those most directly affected are provided support, can also incorporate apprenticeship programs for women and indigenous workers, or support establishment of worker cooperatives. Another key to ensuring a just transition is an equitable program is that it target not only the worker directly employed but also other workers who depend on that industry, that is the whole community which generally is more diverse. This was the approach of the Notley government when they announced the closure of Alberta coal generating electrical plants. It is the stated policy of the new UCP government that the plants will not be phased out so we will not have an opportunity to learn from a Canadian experience with an ongoing just transition program. There are other examples we can use though, particularly in Europe.

It is unlikely that the Liberals will accelerate the fight against climate change over their next term and so necessary programs around a just transition are, at this point, going to be theoretical.  While this may, in the short term, take the political heat off the Liberals from Albertans, in the long term Canada is going to be lagging behind not only in our responsibility to the Earth but to our workers and communities.