On Tuesday, the Heyman Center hosted guest lecturer Dr. Mijin Cha to discuss the importance of power, organization, and framing in the battle for worldwide decarbonization.

What will the future look like? In a world where climate change is leading to increasingly high rates of natural disasters, rising global temperatures, and countless other effects, it is natural to ask this question. And the truth is, if humanity does nothing, the future is grim. The actions of fossil fuel companies are destroying this planet—they are responsible for over 90% of worldwide carbon emissions—and allowing them to act unchecked is a death sentence for us.

Clearly, we need to change: we must facilitate a transition from fossil fuels at all costs. But what will this transition look like? Some social and environmental scientists worry that if the change is conducted incorrectly, workers and average citizens will be harmed, losing their jobs and livelihoods. A global adaptation that manages to avoid this has been classified as a “just transition.” On Tuesday, Dr. Mijin Cha, an Assistant Professor at UC Santa Cruz and an esteemed expert on the topic, gave a guest lecture at the Heyman Center as part of their climate lecture series.

Dr. Cha started by emphasizing what was on everyone’s minds. Humanity’s current situation is dire. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that in order to avoid truly catastrophic temperature changes, the world needs to become carbon neutral by 2050. To this end, the use of fossil fuels must end completely—the goal is completely unachievable otherwise. Unfortunately, history makes it clear that this will not be easy. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, fossil fuel usage (and consequently emissions) only dipped by approximately 5%. This has since rebounded, reaching record highs. During the lecture, Cha made it clear that the answer to the energy transition is not just new forms of renewable energy: even if alternative energy is better than ever, this is a meaningless sentiment while fossil fuel corporations still hold power.

So what is the plan? Organizations such as the IPCC have constructed roadmaps to follow, with goals such as eliminating internal combustion engines by 2035. These are undoubtedly useful, but Cha believes that something more needs to be done. She advocates for an aforementioned “just transition,” where not only will change be more equitable, but it will also be more realistic.

Just transition, an idea first popularized by labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, can vary depending on each person. After all, every individual has their own concept of “fairness” and “justice.” Companies like Shell have used this to their advantage, pretending to advocate for equitable transitions, while rejecting those same statements in their legal disclaimers. Nonetheless, Dr. Cha hopes that through a better worldwide understanding of the concept, it will be possible to eliminate the false narrative that jobs and environmental protection are not compatible.

In her pursuit of this, Cha has established a number of core concepts that are characteristic of a just transition. These include retaining the quantity of quality of jobs, ensuring community support and investment, and allowing for equitable access after the transition. The goals for these principles are clear. One of the main reasons many workers are opposed to a shift to renewable energy is that they are concerned about future job prospects. Currently, many transition plans do not include sufficient forms of protection for workers. Similarly, by conversing with fossil-fuel communities and giving them more agency over their future, Cha hopes that people there will be more accepting of her ideas.

This will be a difficult process. Why do we have to do it? Cha posed the same question during her lecture. One answer is that “unjust” transitions have occurred countless times during history. In periods such as the Industrial Revolution, unjust policies and changes resulted in the devastation of the lives of many workers and their families. Additionally, the ideals of a just transition allow for potentially more political unity and overall social acceptance, giving logistical advantages to the idea. But looking past that, it is simply possible that if we want to consider humanity as moral, it is necessary to look for a just transition. The world is severely lacking in equitable societies, and it is our duty to prevent the generation of even more.

To construct her plans, Dr. Cha has conducted extensive studies on how people react to the concept of just transition, consequently gathering data on how best one could be conducted. While analyzing communities in the states of New York, California, Kentucky, and Louisiana (chosen for their diversity of political and economic compositions), Cha conducted a large collection of interviews and discussions with locals. Out of this trove of information, the professor summarized the most important ideas from her findings. 

Firstly, the average person in rural communities has a significant disconnect between “literature” terms and their own experiences. The term “just transition” means little to most people—they view it as a vague and elitist term that automatically must go against their own beliefs. Dr. Cha claims that this reveals an important fact. Instead of focusing too much on terminology and abstract discussion, we must focus on direct communication and the organization of workers.

Through the study, she also found that the challenges humanity faces are far more than implementing the “right” policies. This is a fact that individual stakeholders already realize. Simply implementing laws will not ever fix all, or even most, of the directly affected people’s concerns. In the same vein, in order to obtain the power to fight the fossil fuel industry, activists must look beyond policy wins. Although legislation is certainly important, building power comes from creating bases in communities and with the opposition.

Lastly, and possibly most relevant, Cha found that social safety nets improved people’s perceptions of transition. Systems like the Affordable Care Act give workers a “safety net” from their employers, thus allowing them to not necessarily reject change. Cha also notes that this means that policies such as minimum wage are inherently climate-related—they affect how workers perceive transition.

So what can we learn from Dr. Cha’s work? She herself notes that although just transition is of the utmost importance, every person’s idea of it will be different. This is not inherently a problem. It simply means that we will need to form coalitions to get the most equitable result. To actually achieve this result, we need to build power. This will come not only through policy wins but also through mass cultural organization. The fossil fuel companies have a great deal of monetary capital, but Cha believes that an organized populace is able to combat this. This can be encouraged by state-based efforts, the professor says. The smaller the level on which activists are able to work, the more convincing they will be to communities.

According to Dr. Cha, we need to not simply displace injustice, but eliminate it. There is no point in working toward a future that is not fair or equitable. If we are to call ourselves human, then we must make an effort to create a just society. And although transitioning away from fossil fuels will be difficult, it is also an opportunity to rebuild ourselves and strive to be better.

Header via Bwog Archives