Getting Serious About Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground Means Getting Serious About a Just Transition
Date Written: 2016-04-22
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX19225
If the climate movement is going to get serious about keeping fossil fuels in the ground, the movement needs to get serious about cultivating a real vision for a just transition. If we’re going to see coal-fired power plants and oil refineries and chemical plants shut down we need to have a real vision about what the future looks like for those workers, their families and their communities.
As the climate crisis continues to deepen and as it becomes less and less plausible that current efforts to curb global warming will even come close to preventing our earth from crossing the 2 degree Celsius ‘red line,’ the climate movement has shifted towards a bolder vision for climate action. Virtually every pole of the climate movement has evolved towards a set of bolder, more urgent demands and the mantra 'keep it in the ground' has begun to dominate the discussion about fossil fuel extraction and use.
While this bold position certainly reflects the urgency of the threat of climate change, the immediacy of the demand presents a new set of challenges for the climate movement. What happens to the millions of working families who are currently depending on incomes from jobs in and related to the fossil fuel industry? And what happens to communities whose economies rely on income from the fossil fuel industry and the low income workers as revenue dries up and energy costs rise?
According recent data from the BLS, 761,000 workers are employed in the extraction and mining sector and 116,700 workers are employed in the refining and processing sector in the United States alone. Each one of those direct fossil fuel industry jobs supports as many as 7 related jobs -- from delivery drivers, equipment manufacturers, to the clerks at the mini-mart across the street from the power plant that workers stop into on their way to work. In total, it is fair to say that more than 6 million workers rely on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihoods in the US alone.
If we are going to keep fossil fuels in the ground, what happens to those 6 million working families?
Most climate justice organizations have adopted some messaging around a call for 'just transition' for workers and communities that are impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels in their public platforms. But it's not clear what this 'just transition' would actually look like or how it materially amounts to anything more than just a messaging point.
For many, the concept of a just transition evokes images of workers walking off of their jobs in coal mines and oil refineries and walking into a factory right next door building wind turbines or solar panels. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with work in industrial manufacturing knows that vision is a fantasy.
Setting aside the most important factor -- those ‘green energy jobs’ simply don’t exist in the numbers needed to transition the number of workers currently depending on work in the fossil fuel industry—the skills fossil fuel industry workers have spent decades honing are often not immediately transferable to other industries, the wind and solar jobs that do exist are not generally in close proximity to where energy workers (and their families) live, Further, these jobs generally pay a fraction of the wages and benefits that the largely unionized fossil fuel workforce currently experiences.
The challenges of an abrupt transition away from fossil fuels will extend beyond just the workers who rely on incomes in the fossil fuel industry. As workers look to find new jobs, oil refinery and coal mining communities will find themselves struggling to provide basic services to residents as the primary sources of revenue dry up. While many in the climate movement envision a future where energy from renewables is available at the same cost -- if not cheaper than -- energy from fossil fuels, the transition will almost certainly be accompanied by at least a temporary spike in energy costs. Even a small spike in energy costs could spell serious trouble for low wage workers already living on the economic edge.