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Climate Change and Jobs: Why Are We Talking, But Not Doing Anything About a Just Transition?

22 July, 2016

I recently attended a two day conference on food justice in Bridgeport, Connecticut, one of the most marginalized cities in the middle of one of the richest counties (Fairfield County) in America. Bridgeport seemed a fitting place to hold the conference; a place rich with racial and cultural diversity going through the all too unfortunate struggles of poverty and gentrification. Statistically, 18.4 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, and Fairfield county is the most “economically uneven region” in America. In the past UE represented workers in good-paying manufacturing jobs in Bridgeport, including GE and Westinghouse, but today the economy is based mostly on the service sector, and the per capita income is just over $16,000 a year.

Yes! I thought. Here’s a place where there must be some frontline community (a frontline community is a community at the frontlines of a certain hardship or struggle, such as gentrification) with organizing happening around food, climate, and economic justice. I bragged about the event extensively to many of my organizer and activist friends. Finally! People are getting it! I was excited to have conversations around racial equity and the food system, how climate change is affecting marginalized communities of color disproportionately more than white folks, and how we should be funding frontline community farming and food chain work more. I was practically doing little dances in my front hallway leading up to the conference.

Alas, I should have not been surprised. While the importance of convening in Bridgeport was mentioned briefly in the beginning with a nod to some key city and state government figures, much of the plenary sessions focused on organizations and initiatives that did not inherently challenge the current food system. There was a lot of talk about how to finance more farms in New England as we offset the food production in California, and productive conversations around managing food waste in a more sustainable fashion (a process some call gleaning). But, ultimately these sessions fell short of upsetting the status quo.

Participants discussed non-profits that they had started, and how amazing it was that they were working with “local community leaders” (usually in predominant communities of color) to build a more sustainable food system. Yet they themselves were transplants to Bridgeport; they were white and had multiple safety nets to fall back on. Here is the question I have: If we are truly going to build a movement to organize marginalized peoples around climate justice, then what are we doing to make sure marginalized and frontline communities are leading the fight?

I give this example of the food justice conference as only the most recent example of my participation in a “social justice” conference that drafts multiple plans and holds multiple workshops on how to handle issues such as racism, oppression, and climate change, but has a difficult time actually moving forward with said plans because they are not including frontline and marginalized communities, or they are including them only to lead them. This is incredibly problematic if we are ever going to have a true just transition away from climate change.

WHAT IS JUST TRANSITION?

According to the International Journal of Labour Research, a just transition is defined as:

“...the conceptual framework in which the labor movement captures the complexities of the transition towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, highlighting public policy needs and aiming to maximize benefits and minimize hardships for workers and their communities in this transformation.”

The just transition framework has been adapted within multiple movements to essentially symbolize how we are going to build a true revolution away from business as usual to a sustainable system that is just for everyone. Climate change mitigation should ultimately play a large role in this revolution building, because of its urgency. Many of you know the facts: the planet is warming rapidly, with an overall temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880, with the rate increasing steadily.

There is some research that unchecked, the total global temperature increase could reach upwards of 5 degrees Celsius by 2100. This is important because warming temperatures will affect weather patterns, with some parts of the world becoming drier, some colder, some wetter, and some sunken into the ocean. If we as humans do nothing to slow this process, many parts of the world will become completely inhabitable, and life in the places that are will be extremely difficult. This is already true for some areas of the Global South. The continued use of fossil fuels is directly contributing to the rapidity of human-induced climate change.

LABOR AND CLIMATE JUSTICE

Here is where the labor movement comes in. Currently the world relies on many fossil fuel-based industries to keep turning. Everything from our electricity to the way our food is grown greatly relies on fossil fuels, and as the global population grows, this increases. These industries also rely on a copious amount of human labor to function properly. These jobs are important to the growth and function of our economy, there is no doubting that. But how much longer are we going to continue supporting these unsustainable industries? We need a plan, and that plan is seemingly a just transition, but what is actually being done? How are workers actively being organized to create alternative job plans, utilizing their existing skills? Because so far, I have heard a lot of talk and not seen a lot of action.

What seems to be happening instead, is a steady stream of non-profits and academically-based organizations coming up with modified definitions of the concept and presenting it to other organizations as something to discuss. Meanwhile, the planet continues to warm, the wealth gap continues to increase, and workers are losing their jobs because companies decide to invest in “economically feasible” renewable energy without considering the impacts on their workers. This contributes to the false narrative that it is jobs versus the environment instead of workers versus the flawed capitalist-corporate system. We need workers to lead this fight, take control over their workplaces through unions and other forms of collective organizing. This especially includes further oppressed and marginalized workers, and communities of color. We cannot afford to sit back, hold more conferences, and allow for those in power to tell us how to justly transition. Their job security is likely not at stake, ours is.

Mother Nature will bounce back. We will not. In order to help mitigate climate change and transition to a more stable and sustainable economy, we need to move away from fossil fuels and make sure that workers affected have job security in a field that utilizes their skill sets but does not contribute to the warming planet.

Senowa Mize-Fox is union steward and member of Local 203 at City Market Food Co-op in Burlington, where she's worked since March 2014. She's a UE Young Activist and active in the climate justice movement, and has a master's degree in international and sustainable development.

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