Two weeks ago, Donald Trump announced the US will withdraw from the Paris Climate accord, claiming the multinational agreement is “unfair,” and will cost too much in US jobs and revenue loss. This news came as a blow to many, including environmentalists and members of Trump’s own administration. But the 70 percent of Americans who believe in climate science need not despair.
Around the world, people are crafting viable, equitable alternatives to our climate-changing economy. And in the US alone, communities are taking matters into their own hands, proving that a justice-based transition that honors jobs and planet is already well under way. We can unplug from the dirty industry economy, and at the same time, we can thrive.
The idea of a “just transition” came out of US labor movements in the 1990s, and was soon joined by environmental justice groups that saw clear connections between the struggles and missions of workers, communities and environmental stewards. Simply, the “transition” refers to a move off of fossil fuels and hazardous chemicals toward green forms of energy; the “just” part refers to ensuring workers have alternatives, and placing equity, real democracy and ecology at the roots of those alternatives. For example, a truly “just” transition looks beyond greenhouse gas emissions to include co-pollutants, gases and particles that might not have much impact on global temperatures, but have devastating health effects on communities living near power plants. A “just” transition would also make sure those who suffered the worst effects of the fossil fuel economy are the ones who benefit most — by taking leadership over any new businesses, energy sources or employment opportunities in their communities.
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Not yet widely used outside labor and environmental circles, the phrase “just transition” made its mainstream debut in December 2015 when it was ultimately plopped (with no small effort) into the preamble of the Paris accord. But this does not mean US withdrawal from the accord has any bearing on the ability of community-based efforts to continue their work. Networks of activists and local leaders, perhaps now at an accelerated pace, will continue sharing methods for opting-out of an economy built off the backs of frontline communities, largely low-income and communities of color. The just transition’s strength is its resilience, its attention to culture and worldview. It is bolstered by a flexible, fluid relationship to economy and community rather than a series of edicts to be followed.
Nor is “transition” a matter of leaping from the comforts of fossil fuels into a Stone Age abyss. Despite the fossil fuel industry’s years of promoting a narrative that pits environmental protection against a robust economy, over 50 percent of US states have grown their economies while lowering greenhouse gas emissions in the last decade alone. Industry claims of job loss are also overblown: While coal-sector jobs are on the wane due to automation and inexpensive natural gas, there are now more US jobs in solar energy than in oil, gas and coal extraction combined.
Communities are decoupling well-being from the fossil fuel economy, and taking the transition beyond greenhouse gas measurements alone. From Buffalo to Jackson, from Albuquerque to London, Kentucky and beyond, communities are building power with their own hands, developing energy efficiency programs, organizing worker and financial cooperatives, and bringing healthy food back into previously food-deserted areas through community gardens and locally managed groceries. These efforts may not have the money or time to promote themselves, but they are creating a future that could transform and include all of us given the chance, invulnerable to any venal attempts to manipulate facts or dismantle global agreements.
So, we have to ask ourselves, when Trump says the Paris accord is “unfair” — to whom, exactly, is he talking? Surely he’s not talking to children of color, suffering at much higher rates than their white counterparts from environmentally related health issues. Nor is he talking to the good people of cancer alley in Louisiana, nor to those in coal country with family legacies of black lung. He’s certainly not talking to working immigrants who have no recourse against the petrochemicals dumped on them in agricultural fields. Job loss is a serious concern, but harping on short-term negative outcomes rather than acknowledging net positive results of environmental targets is an industry-fueled tactic that defies reality and dismisses real, on-the-ground progress.
Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate accord is profoundly misguided, but we don’t have to despair. We’re simply in a new era — transitioning away from an economy shackled to fossil fuels, moving toward a fairer, greener future. It’s a transition led by our neighbors, changing the world honestly with their own hands. Our leaders can support the transition, or they can get out of the way, but they can’t stop it.