Ann M. Eisenberg[*]
The transition to a low-carbon society will have winners and losers as the costs and benefits of decarbonization fall unevenly on different communities. This potential collateral damage has prompted calls for a “just transition” to a green economy. While the term, “just transition,” is increasingly prevalent in the public discourse, it remains under-discussed and poorly defined in legal literature, preventing it from helping catalyze fair decarbonization. This Article seeks to define the term, test its validity, and articulate its relationship with law so the idea can meet its potential.
The Article is the first to disambiguate and assess two main rhetorical usages of “just transition.” I argue that legal scholars should recognize it as a term of art that evolved in the labor movement, first known as a “superfund for workers.” In the climate change context, I therefore define a just transition as the principle of easing the burden decarbonization poses to those who depend on high-carbon industries. This definition provides clarity and can help law engage with fields that already recognize just transitions as a labor concept.
I argue further that the labor-driven just transition concept is both justified and essential in light of today’s deep political polarization and “jobs-versus-environment” tensions. First, it can incorporate much-needed economic equity considerations into environmental decisionmaking. Second, it can inform a modernized alternative to the environmental law apparatus, which must evolve to transcend disciplines. Third, it offers an avenue for climate reform through coalition-building between labor and environmental interests. I offer guidance for effectuating the principle by synthesizing instances of its embodiment in law in the Trade Act of 1974 (assisting manufacturing communities), the President’s Northwest Forest Plan (assisting timber communities), the Tobacco Transition Payment Program (assisting tobacco farmers), and the POWER Initiative (assisting coal communities), among other examples.
Political obstacles notwithstanding, many in the United States agree that carbon emissions must be quickly and dramatically reduced in order to avoid further catastrophic effects of climate change. Whether the path to a decarbonized world is more winding or straightforward, the effects of a transition to a low-carbon society will fall unevenly on many communities, which raises serious normative questions of justice. In response to this concern, many call for a “just transition” to a low-carbon future. While this phrase has gained significant traction, its meaning remains unclear.
“Just transition” has at least two primary usages. First, the phrase is used to mean that the transition to a low-carbon society should be fair to the most vulnerable populations. The current fossil fuel-based economy has been characterized by inequality and environmental injustice, or environmental hazards that are inequitably distributed. The new, low-carbon economy should not repeat or exacerbate these injustices; in fact, the transition is a new opportunity, indeed an obligation, to counteract them.
The second meaning of “just transition” calls for protecting workers and communities who depend on high-carbon industries from bearing an undue burden of the costs of decarbonization. It proposes that the shift to a low-carbon economy will affect certain livelihoods disproportionately, and that this impact should be mitigated. As one labor advocate explains, a just transition “means tackling climate change in a way that respects workers.”
This Article demonstrates that the latter, labor-driven concept of a just transition is not only justified but is key to overcoming many of the obstacles that plague climate reform. Environmental policy remains thwarted by a variety of problems old and new. Longstanding “jobs-versus environment” tensions persist, as well as the more general notion that environmental protection represents a zero-sum game with winners and losers. Even before the current presidential administration, scholarship contemplated the future of environmental law in an era of legislative stagnation. Many have called for environmental law to adapt to the times by reshaping itself in various ways—letting go of some of its traditional emphases, crossing over into other doctrinal areas, and becoming more malleable in one manner or another in order to better interact with the political, economic, and social realities of a complex world.
The labor-driven concept of a just transition is powerfully poised to address these deep concerns if scholars and policymakers embrace it. First and most clearly, it reroutes jobs-versus-environment tensions into a principle of “jobs and environment,” taking one of the longstanding thorns in environmentalism’s side and marshaling it toward productive pathways. Second, by blurring the boundaries between environmental law and labor law, it can help align environmental decisionmaking more with the realities of complex social-ecological systems. Third, by aligning environmental interests with labor concerns, it creates potential for coalition-building, thus informing both the ends of climate policy and the ever-elusive means for achieving it. Finally, in an age of dramatic populist alienation, it would inject much-needed economic equity considerations into environmental decisionmaking.
The Article also demonstrates that it is worth choosing one meaning for this term and that the labor-driven meaning makes more sense than the alternative. “Just transition” is a term of art that evolved in the labor movement, first known as a “superfund for workers.” Its specificity gives it potency, and it has already gained traction in other disciplines and with major international organizations. The broader usage, while important, seems redundant alongside comparable but better-known concepts, such as climate justice and energy justice. It is confusing and less productive for different disciplines, and different scholars within law, to use the same term with different understandings of its meaning.
I therefore argue that in the context of climate change, the just transition concept should be defined as some form of help for fossil fuel workers. Yet the broadest theoretical impetus for this help goes beyond environmental law. The just transition is an equitable principle of easing the burden that publicly-driven displacement poses to workers and communities who are highly dependent on a particular industry, especially a hazardous one. The theory has flavors of an estoppel concept, an unclean hands argument, or something akin to a call for takings compensation. It is a principle of distributive economic justice, insisting that those displaced should not alone sustain their economic losses. This idea arises most frequently in response to environmental progress, but it bears relevance to other contexts as well.
The prospect of a law of just transitions raises many questions, however, some of which labor law scholar David Doorey has begun to explore in a germinal article examining the desirability of a potential new field combining aspects of labor law, environmental law, and environmental justice. How would just transitions relate to other models of distributive justice, such as environmental justice, which maintains that the burdens of pollution should be less discriminatorily and more equitably distributed? How would it relate to sustainable development, which aims to reconcile environmental and economic considerations? Would it merely create new employment opportunities when climate-related regulations affect a certain sector, or is it what one union president called it—“a really nice funeral”? Must there be a causal link between regulatory initiatives and impacts on jobs, or does a just transition also concern industry contractions that stem from market forces? Can the two be meaningfully differentiated?
This Article attempts to answer these questions. Part I provides background necessary for understanding the just transitions concepts, disambiguates the two different usages of the term, and argues that legal scholarship should embrace the labor-driven definition. Part II explores three avenues that could serve as theoretical justifications for the labor-driven just transition principle in the context of climate change. Based on a theory of distributive environmental decisionmaking, the history of injustice in coalfield communities, and principles of political economy and interest-group theory, the discussion concludes that the labor-driven just transition principle is indeed legitimate, consistent with relevant norms, and necessary in the face of climate change. Part III synthesizes major federal transitional policies of the past several decades and argues that an effective law and policy of just transitions, especially when targeting regional displacement, must do more to untangle and address the complex, intertwined factors that shape communities’ dependency relationships with particular industries.
The stakes of this inquiry are high. Coal miners have become a symbol for broader national divisions, and commentators still strive to understand the “urban/rural divide” that made its way into the national consciousness via the 2016 presidential election. This analysis offers insights for the plight of coal miners and other rural communities, as well as certain workers’ relationship with environmentalism and climate policy. It also implicates a reconsideration of work, workplace safety, well-paying jobs, abrupt societal change, and private and public accountability for many workers’ abject vulnerability in a period that has been contemplated as a “new Lochner era.” Major social and economic changes will continue to come. Scholars and policymakers would be well-advised to contemplate more robust transitional policy and baseline protections in light of the despair and instability unmitigated transitions can yield.
I. What is a “Just Transition”? Background and Rhetoric
A. The Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy and the Transition’s Potential Consequences
The term “just transition” tends to arise in two contexts. Some use the expression to refer to more general principles of equity in the transition to a low-carbon economy. In other words, the shift to a low-carbon economy is an opportunity to rectify the injustices of the fossil fuel economy, and to not do so, or to allow inequalities to worsen, would itself effectuate injustice. On the other hand, some use the expression to refer to the nexus of labor and environmental reform, or the approach of taking work and jobs into account in or after environmental decisionmaking. Yet both meanings derive from overlapping circumstances.
First, the fossil fuel-based economy characterizing the past century has had many casualties. They run the full gamut from a child developing asthma in rural Australia, to executions of community advocates in Nigeria, to fishermen’s damaged livelihoods in the U.S. Gulf, to victims of geopolitical machinations, including war. People of color, indigenous communities, and people living in poverty have borne the worst burdens of the fossil fuel economy, in large part because of energy production. The ultimate “externality” is, of course, climate change, the impacts of which we are already beginning to feel.
The global community is currently experiencing substantial momentum toward a low-carbon, “clean energy” economy. This transition is driven in part by a prevalent desire to mitigate climate change, both in the United States and elsewhere. While the U.S. federal government is hostile to environmental regulation, many U.S. states, cities, and institutions have confirmed their ongoing commitment to reducing carbon emissions. For instance, “[d]ays after President Trump announced that he would be pulling the U.S. out of a global agreement to fight climate change, more than 1,200 business leaders, mayors, governors and college presidents . . . signaled their personal commitment to the goal of reducing emissions.” The transition is also driven by market forces and concomitant evolutions in policy forces—with “widespread recognition, including among utilities, that low-carbon policy drivers are here to stay.” Internationally, countries have taken the opposite approach to the Trump administration’s, such as with China’s plan to invest $360 billion in renewable energy by 2020. Altogether, these factors have compelled some commentators to deem the transition to a low-carbon society “inevitable.”
Nevertheless, a world with low carbon emissions does not somehow transform into a utopia. A shift to a clean-energy economy stands to perpetuate or exacerbate current patterns of inequity. Those patterns could specifically relate to low-carbon industries, for instance, through land theft to develop wind and solar farms, forced labor to extract the natural resources necessary to create solar panels, or impositions of health hazards from biomass fuels. The patterns could also arise in other contexts in the low-carbon world, such us through inequitable access to clean energy.
While these novel risks have begun to receive more attention in dialogues on climate change and the clean-energy transition, so, too, has the slightly more controversial question of “jobs.” “Jobs versus environment” tensions surround nearly every environmental policy debate. Industry advocates and workers argue frequently that environmental reform will destroy individual livelihoods and communities’ entire way of life.
Environmental groups—who have good reason to be cynical—have historically responded to these claims with dismissiveness. Environmental advocates have argued that concerns about jobs are either industry propaganda or misinformed in some way. Complaints that environmental reforms undermine jobs thus often encounter arguments that job losses are not as bad as claimed, or even if they are, environmental reform provides a net benefit to all that outweighs the cost of a few lost jobs.
This tension raises the question: do environmental regulations cause people to lose their jobs—with “lost jobs” often used as a rhetorical stand-in for lost good jobs? And if they do, does the benefit to the greater good offset the lost jobs? These questions are more complicated than they may seem. A first, critical point is that the changes that are necessary for the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions adequately are dramatic. Thus, climate reform that is meaningfully suited to climate change is not the same as the incremental environmental reforms of the past. According to one interpretation, carbon emissions in the United States need to decline by 40% over the next twenty years. Methane and other greenhouse gas emissions also need to be reduced at some level. “To accomplish this goal will require across-the-board cuts in both production and consumption in all domestic fossil fuel sectors” and likely, in other industries as well.
The “transition” is therefore a new era, which could involve a relatively rapid restructuring of society. This rapid restructuring could involve quicker, more extreme contractions of certain industries. According to economists Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci, in this scenario, “workers and communities whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel industry will unavoidably lose out in the clean energy transition. Unless strong policies are advanced to support these workers, they will face layoffs, falling incomes, and declining public-sector budgets to support schools, health clinics, and public safety.”
Yet even if the transition to a clean-energy economy involves more incremental changes, it is worth contemplating whether the environmental movement has itself periodically had a misinformed stance on the question of work. As many have pointed out, environmental regulations have been shown not to result in a net loss of jobs for a given society and may in fact produce net gains in employment. This may seem to support the “greater good” argument. Indeed, the clean-energy transition is anticipated to yield dramatic growth in the ever-burgeoning green energy sector, creating millions of new jobs over the course of the coming decades.
However, regulations and other measures have at times also been shown to catalyze job losses for discrete regions and sectors. Viewed through a legal geographies lens—which holds that questions of scale, scope, and place may show that what is “just” at one level is “unjust” at another—this collateral damage of environmental reform does seem more problematic. As one commentator articulated, “[i]f you’re a coal miner in West Virginia, it’s not a great comfort that a bunch of guys in Texas are employed doing natural gas.” While industry advocates undoubtedly exploit, or sometimes invent, such harms, it is possible that the environmental movement has also turned a blind eye to them.
Do job losses that are not clearly the proximate cause of legal reform, but that stem from the evolution of market forces, also deserve attention? Society did not, after all, provide special support to the employees of Blockbuster when mail-order DVDs and online streaming took their place because those services were more convenient and in demand. Why should workers who lose in the transition to a low-carbon economy be given preferential treatment over the many other workers who lose in diverse, market-driven scenarios, if policymakers are not intentionally causing them to lose for the greater good?
The question of causation is addressed in more depth in the subsequent discussion, in which I argue that, especially in the energy sector, it is very difficult to disentangle causal forces among law, policy, and market operations. But further, workers’ dependency relationship with a particular industry and lack of alternative options may be what trigger the need for a just transition; in other words, equitable factors may drive this theory just as much, if not more, than causal ones. Yet, again, these tensions also raise the question of a possible choice between more robust transitional policies and more robust protections for workers and communities in general.
B. Defining a “Just Transition”
The idea of a just transition originated with the labor movement in the late twentieth century, in part in response to the environmental movement. Labor and environmental activist Tony Mazzocchi is credited with coining the term, with the original version called a “Superfund for Workers.” Referencing the superfund—a federally-financed program to clean up toxic wastes in the environment—suggested Mazzocchi’s proposal was an analogous remedial measure, but for human beings. It was based on the idea that workers who had been exposed to toxic chemicals throughout their careers should be entitled to minimum incomes and education benefits to transition away from their hazardous jobs. Mazzocchi believed “that both nuclear workers and toxic workers, ‘because of the danger of their jobs and their service to the country, should be entitled to full income and benefits for life even if their jobs are eliminated,’” although he later gave in to pressure to reduce his demand to four years of support. After environmentalists complained that the word “superfund” “had too many negative connotations,” the proposal’s name was changed to “[j]ust [t]ransition.”
In the 1970s and through his death in the early 2000s, Mazzocchi and his associates were involved in creating “powerful labor-environmental alliances” that pursued the just transition campaign with the hope of addressing “the jobs-versus-environment conundrum.” He was “the first union president to negotiate partnerships with Greenpeace and the environmental justice communities.” He also developed educational programs for workers on the environment. Mazzocchi’s advocacy thus forms the basis of the modern iteration of the labor-driven “just transition” concept. This foundation shapes the term’s modern usage as the idea that workers and communities whose livelihoods will be lost because of an intentional shift away from hazardous activity deserve some sort of support through public policy.
Meanwhile, the broader usage of “just transition” is of less certain origin. It appears to be the plain-language interpretation of the labor movement’s term of art, thereby calling for “justice” more generally, and not just for workers. In other words, it emphasizes the importance of not continuing to sacrifice the well-being of vulnerable groups for the sake of advantaging others, as has been the norm in the fossil-fuel-driven economy. Thus, the broad concept of a “just transition” may in fact be even more radical than the narrow one because the former calls for a grand restructuring of societal inequality.
This discussion focuses on the labor-driven usage of just transitions and argues that legal scholars should do the same for two main reasons, beyond the fact that it is confusing for scholars in different spheres to be using the same emergent term with different meanings, and in addition to the theoretical discussion below. First, the labor-related usage seems to predate the broad usage and to have gained more traction. Major international organizations have embraced the labor-related meaning. Just transitions for workers have been adopted as goals by the United Nations Environment Program, the International Labour Organization (“ILO”), and the World Health Organization. In 2013, the ILO published a policy framework for a just transition, which focused specifically on workers, noting that “[s]ustainable development is only possible with the active engagement of the world of work.”
In addition, the labor-related usage’s specificity makes it stand out. The broad call for justice shares similarities with other models used to call for equity in the face of climate change, including environmental justice, climate justice, and energy justice. This overlap may suggest that the broad concept has less of a niche to fill than the narrow one, and more risk of redundancy. By contrast, the labor usage’s narrowness may give it more potency. In other words, it is not clear what a broad call for a just transition adds to these powerful and better-known concepts of justice, which all relate directly to the low-carbon shift.
Scholarly commentary complicates the choice somewhat because the literature seems split between the two usages. The broad meaning appears in at least some social science and legal scholarship. In a 2012 book entitled Just Transitions, two sustainability scholars defined a just transition as one “that addresses the widening inequalities between the approximately one billion people who live on or below the poverty line and the billion or so who are responsible for over 80 percent of consumption expenditure.” Environmental justice scholar Caroline Farrell has characterized a just transition as one that avoids “the problems with the fossil fuel economy . . . [and aims] to create a truly just economy,” or as a “transition to an economy that does not create disparate environmental impacts.”
Sociologists, political scientists, and several legal scholars who have explored the labor-related meaning provide a solid foundation from which to continue examining it. They have also begun filling in the contours of what, exactly, this usage of “just transitions” means. Rural sociologist Linda Lobao interprets a just transition as one that “mov[es coal] communities toward economic sectors that offer a better future.” Interdisciplinary scholars Evans and Phelan define it more broadly as “a political campaign to ‘ensure that the costs of environmental change [towards sustainability] will be shared fairly. Failure to create a just transition means that the cost of moves to sustainability will devolve wholly onto workers in targeted industries and their communities.’”
In the legal sphere, David Doorey’s definition emphasizes work somewhat more. He explains the concept as “a policy platform that advocates legal and policy responses and planning that recognizes the need for economies to transition to lower carbon economic activity, while at the same time respects the need to promote decent work and a fair distribution of the risks and rewards associated with this transition.” Climate law scholar J. Mijin Cha describes a just transition as “protecting workers who are impacted by climate protection policy,” including by re-training workers and providing them with education funds. Ramo and Behles emphasize the need to recognize communities’ economic dependency on high-emissions activity as those communities transition away from that activity, suggesting, like Labao, that a just transition “help[s] revitalize . . . fossil-fuel dependent communities.”
Calls for just transitions appear to arise the most in union advocacy, which again lends weight to the choice of the labor-driven definition. The International Trade Union Confederation has described a just transition as a “tool the trade union movement shares with the international community, aimed at smoothing the shift towards a more sustainable society and providing hope for the capacity of a ‘green economy’ to sustain decent jobs and livelihoods for all.” Generally, just transitions advocates “highlight the need to engage affected workers and their representative trade unions in institutionalised formal consultations with relevant stakeholders including governments, employers and communities at national, regional and sectoral levels.”
Despite the appearance of “justice” in the name of just transitions, few legal commentators have delved more deeply into the legitimacy, significance, or traits of the idea of a just transition. The next Part reviews Doorey’s article, further characterizes the labor-driven just transition concept, and explores what principles may or may not support the concept.
II. Can a Law of Just Transitions Be Justified?
This Part asks whether incorporating the just transition principle into law is a worthwhile endeavor, theoretically and practically. Exploring three potential justifications for doing so—one based on environmental theory, one based on the experiences of coal communities, and one based on strategic considerations—the discussion reveals that pursuing just transitions is not merely a nice thing to do. Rather, this discussion supports the conclusion that the concept not only fits neatly within the sustainable development framework—an internationally accepted framework for reconciling competing interests in environmental decisionmaking—but that it in fact injects a long-overlooked, much-needed consideration of economic equity. This Part argues further that coal communities are particularly worthy of attention because of their history of combined exploitation and dependence. This Part’s third argument relies on interest-group theory to propose that the pursuit of just transitions is desirable because it could unite environmental and labor groups around the goal of a potentially more attainable and more equitable climate policy than prior efforts have secured.
David Doorey’s article is the first piece of legal scholarship to explore the worthiness and potential contours of a body of Just Transitions Law (“JTL”). He notes that labor law scholars have “mostly ignored” the effects that climate change will have on labor markets, while environmental law scholars have generally disregarded labor relationships. Because neither legal field seems adequately equipped to handle climate change, he considers whether a new field is needed that combines the strengths of each.
Doorey suggests that areas of common ground between labor and environmental scholarship might be ripe for doctrinal synthesis, such as the fact that both are in the business of “impos[ing] a countervailing power on unbridled economic activity.” Yet he also notes that “jobs versus environment” tensions and other conflicting interests have tended to keep the fields apart. Without coming to a firm conclusion as to whether JTL is worthwhile as a new legal field, Doorey does conclude that a just transition strategy is critical in the face of climate change, and that “[t]o implement a just transition strategy, governments need to design policies that cross existing government ministerial portfolios and legal regimes.”
Doorey explores three potential forms for a body of law that marries aspects of labor and environment, including: 1) “[a] [l]aw of [e]conomic [s]ubordination and [r]esistance” that combines environmental justice’s and labor law’s overlapping recognition of power relations and embrace of collective, bottom-up resistance; 2) a law of “[h]uman [c]apital or [c]apacities,” which would assess the fairness of rules, both environmental and labor-related, based upon whether they further human capabilities and freedom; and 3) an explicitly-named body of “Just Transitions Law,” (“JTL”), which would draw upon existing just transitions policy strategies, such as the ILO’s, aimed at joint consideration of environmental and labor goals, including pursuing cross-sectoral collaboration, incentivizing sustainable industries, and offsetting impacts to workers affected by environmental policies.
For his third proposal, the explicit body of JTL, Doorey provides three “normative claims (NC) drawn from climate science, environmental law, environmental justice, and labour law.” They include:
Firstly, climate change is a pressing global problem that market forces alone will not adequately address. Therefore, states should respond through public policy and law (NC1). Secondly, public policy should encourage a transition towards “greener”, lower carbon economies (NC2). Thirdly, there will be social and economic costs and benefits associated with climate change, and with the transitional policies aimed at responding to it, and those costs and benefits will also not be equitably distributed by market forces alone. Therefore, governments should seek to minimize the economic and social harms associated with the desired transition to a greener economy, and attempt, through law and policy, to distribute those harms and any resulting benefits in an equitable manner (NC3).
This discussion begins with Doorey’s third proposal and adopts his normative claims for reference. While his first two proposals have great appeal, his third one seems to capture the already-existing evolution of this area of law.
However, like with the broadly-defined just transition described above, one might ask what this set of normative claims adds to the concept of climate justice. A centerpiece of the evolving theory of climate justice is public policy geared toward equitable sharing of the burdens and benefits of climate change through transparent consultation with diverse stakeholders. Climate justice also espouses recognition of the fact that some communities are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than others, and are more likely to be excluded from benefits.
In order to capture the potency that more specific concepts may yield, to avoid duplicative efforts, and to recognize the labor movement’s role in formulating this theory of justice, I would add a fourth normative claim to Doorey’s third proposal, whether explicitly or implicitly, which is justified in more depth below: the needs of the workers and communities that have developed dependency relationships with high-carbon industries, often with substantial past and present socioeconomic costs, should specifically factor into calculating the equitable distribution of harms and benefits in the transition to a decarbonized economy. This consideration is not proposed as a competitor to environmental justice, climate justice, or any other framework concerned with vulnerability. It is, rather, a call for the specific recognition of work and existing economic dependencies in the decarbonization process, which have often gone overlooked.
This discussion does not take up the question of whether JTL should be an entirely new area of law. Like Doorey’s, it is intended as an “early contribution” to this emerging field. The discussion therefore explores instead whether the just transition principle is worthwhile, and how it could be incorporated into law—which is perhaps also a worthwhile consideration as an alternative to establishing a new legal field.
A. An Environmental Theory of Just Transitions
The discussion in this Section argues that the labor-driven just transition concept has a natural and important place within current prominent distributive environmental decisionmaking frameworks. In other words, this discussion seeks to legitimize the concept and situate it in relevant literature. The discussion shows that the idea is neither foreign nor frivolous in relation to environmental theory. But further, I argue that it adds a point of consideration that other frameworks have tended to overlook, suggesting all the more that it is a worthwhile idea.
The just transition concept, understood in the context of climate change, is a call for distributive justice in (or after) environmental decisionmaking. In order to understand or define it, then, it is important to assess it in relation to existing models for environmental distributive justice. Sustainable development and environmental justice are two of the most prominent of these models. Each model strayed from traditional environmentalism, which is largely focused on pro-conservation, anti-pollution measures, in order to try to establish a framework that takes more socioeconomic realities into account, including the need for equitable distribution of benefits and burdens.
Environmental injustice was originally known as environmental racism, calling attention to the fact that communities of color bear a disproportionate burden of environmental hazards. Sustainable development, meanwhile, is a forward-looking decisionmaking paradigm that seeks to harmonize conservation priorities with economic considerations as well as social equity. While environmental justice adds a civil rights component to environmentalism, sustainable development aims to mitigate standard development by incorporating historically overlooked priorities into development decisions.
The just transition concept exhibits a significant parallel with environmental justice in that both ideas were born as social movements in the late twentieth century in response to the environmental movement. Environmental justice calls for racial equity (and other forms of non-discrimination), while just transitions calls for labor equity. The movements are thus not dissimilar in that each advocates a distributive component on top of traditional environmentalism’s conservation priorities. Another parallel is that each is a broad, equitable principle that is at times embodied in laws in different ways. Yet the movements and legal schemes associated with each concept have rarely interacted, in part because of conflicting priorities and cultural backgrounds.
Sustainable development, as compared to environmental justice, has perhaps more direct applicability to the question of work. The sustainable development approach aims to “capture the interrelationship between the environment, the economy, and human well-being in the effort to meet ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’” In other words, it is “a decisionmaking framework to foster human well-being by ensuring that societies achieve development and environment goals at the same time.” Sustainable development directly aims to undermine the fossil fuel economy. It thus, in turn, creates the need for a “just transition,” in that it is fundamentally premised on a shift to renewable energy sources. Yet it also may provide tools for ensuring a just transition because of its concern for economic and equity-related priorities.
While sustainable development as a theory faces many criticisms, it is “not simply an academic or policy idea; it is the internationally accepted framework for maintaining and improving human quality of life.” For instance, based on the overall aim of sustainable development, international frameworks have adopted as goals both poverty eradication and addressing “[t]he deep fault line that divides human society between the rich and the poor and the ever-increasing gap between the developed and developing worlds . . . .” Sustainable development’s actual implementation takes on many forms, as the approach “needs to be realized in the particular economic, natural, and other settings of each specific country,” as well as each specific state or city. “The key action principle of sustainable development is integrated decisionmaking. Essentially, decisionmakers must consider and advance environmental protection at the same time as they consider and advance their economic and social development goals.” This contrasts with conventional development, where environmental concerns historically arose only as afterthoughts.
Sustainable development decisionmaking is often represented as a triangle. Its three points are the economy, the environment, and equity or social justice. The points are a simplified representation of the three values or priorities that sustainable development seeks to reconcile. The standard sustainable development triangle is represented in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Sustainable Development Framework
The triangle represents an accessible conceptualization of the harmony that the decisionmaking paradigm seeks to achieve. In turn, these three values are embodied in law and policy in varied ways. For example, a traditional building code, reworked through the lens of sustainable development values, could transform into a “green” building code, prioritizing materials with minimal environmental impacts and low-carbon energy sources. The “equity” prong might dictate that new housing developments, as an example, should not only be green, but also affordable.
Environmental justice and sustainable development may seem like they occupy different spheres of environmental theory, but Uma Outka has observed that they have the potential for synergy. She notes a risk of conflict between the two models as the broader sustainable development agenda might prove insensitive to environmental justice concerns. For instance, at the project level, sustainable development and environmental justice can face tensions, such as if the siting of wind farms (comporting with sustainable development’s driving concern for carbon reduction) harms indigenous cultural resources (violating environmental justice’s concern for communities’ autonomous decisionmaking and the non-discrimination principle). Yet Outka argues that environmental justice in fact refines sustainable development by adding the particular environmental justice conception of equity. She concludes that for sustainable development to be consistent with environmental justice, the significant differences among renewable energy sources require more recognition and concrete definition, so that each pathway’s potential for inequity can be better understood and addressed.
Outka’s articulation of this relationship can thus perhaps be represented by Figure 2 below, which highlights environmental justice as an aspect of the sustainable development framework at the nexus of the environment and equity points of the triangle. In other words, environmental justice becomes another value that must be harmonized with other values in environmental decisionmaking, including the three Es. As a principle of environmental equity, environmental justice aligns with sustainable development at the nexus of sustainable development’s environment and equity prongs.
Figure 2. Sustainable Development with Environmental Justice Refinement
Figure 2 is not meant to suggest that environmental justice is the only refinement to sustainable development, or the only point of interest on the environment-equity leg. However, in a decisionmaking framework that is intended to manage complex scenarios, understanding these relationships can help inform the characteristics of normative paradigms. Environmental justice is a call for environmental equity, and it has a natural locus in the sustainable development paradigm.
When viewed through the framework of sustainable development, just transitions no longer seems like such a foreign concept to environmental law. Primarily, environmental decisionmakers already have a framework for considering questions of economic equity as they relate to environmental decisionmaking. Just transitions, with its concern for avoiding or mitigating inequitable impacts to livelihoods in environmental decisions, is ultimately a doctrine of economic equity. Thus, a natural place for just transitions is running parallel to environmental justice and in the analogous position along the economic and equity side of the triangle, as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Sustainable Development Framework with Environmental Justice and Just Transitions
This visualization is powerful because it suggests that, like environmental justice, a just transition is simply a refinement to a framework upon which decisionmakers already rely. While it might also be said to have already existed along the economy-equity side, it has largely gone unrecognized. Just as environmental justice is a principle of environmental equity that must be harmonized with other values, the just transition is a principle of economic equity that should also factor into the calculus—and it appears to have a natural place within that calculus.
Another reason this visualization is powerful is that it builds upon increasingly vocal calls for environmental justice to inform the transition to a low-carbon society. These calls, in fact, circle back on the broad meaning of the just transition—the idea that the decarbonization process must be done fairly in general. One may be concerned that these paradigms might all conflict with each other in the transition, or pose difficult zero-sum choices. The visualization in Figure 3 shows that these principles are complementary, and in fact, bring environmental decisionmaking toward a more holistic picture of societal needs.
This visualization may also help reconcile some of the tensions between sustainable development theory and resilience theory. Resilience theory has emerged as a counter-framework to sustainable development. Resilience theorists’ criticisms of sustainable development are that sustainable development assumes stationary, controllable circumstances; potentially sanctions current patterns of harmful development and an ethic of “green consumerism;” and fails to account for complexity, or the interrelatedness of complex social-ecological systems. This latter point is particularly concerning to resilience theorists in the age of climate change, which will involve more drastic changes in ecological and social regimes than previously seen. Resilience theorists instead advocate decisionmaking paradigms that are iterative, or ongoing, rather than traditional planning processes; that involve “principled flexibility;” and that anticipate constant change in social-ecological systems. Adaptive management and adaptive governance have been considered potential vehicles for pursuing resilience governance, although scholars agree that a gap remains between theory and practice.
Although the rift may be large, perhaps the addition of environmental justice and just transitions to the sustainable development framework brings sustainable development a modest inch closer to resilience thinking. The more points of interest that are added to the sustainable development framework, the more sustainable development would seem to wield potential for decisionmaking that accommodates social-ecological systems. Figure 4 illustrates that the framework above can in fact represent a continuum of social, economic, and natural concerns. While there are infinite points of interest on the continuum, environmental justice and just transitions show points of particular concern based on society’s historical and potential inequities. If one recognizes that the sustainable development paradigm could have infinite points, the next natural inference must be an acceptance of uncertainty because infinite interacting aspects of social-ecological systems could never be stationary.
Figure 4. Making Sustainable Development Work for Social-Ecological Systems
In any case, the frameworks above show how the just transition concept has a natural place with several prominent environmental theories of today. But it can also follow the path of environmental justice and sustainable development in that it may at times be a principle warranting contemplation, rather than all or part of a framework in and of itself. Both environmental justice and sustainable development are “normative conceptual framework[s]” that are in turn embodied in law in various ways, sometimes simply as policy goals. Just transitions can join their ranks as such a principle as well, offering an additional equitable priority, or a more concrete framework for decisionmaking.
In general, environmental law scholars have increasingly recognized the need to account for the jobs question, rather than to dismiss it. As Richard Lazarus articulates, “there has been at best only an ad hoc accounting of how the benefits of environmental protection are spread among groups of persons.” Environmental law scholars have recently contemplated how to overcome the perception and reality of “zero-sum” environmentalism, in which some segments of society must lose, or think they are losing, in pursuit of environmental progress. This realization has come about at the same time as the recognition that environmental law is overall inadequate in the face of climate change. The placement of just transitions into the framework above helps address both these concerns. It provides a way to think about contemplating livelihoods in environmental decisionmaking, as well as making decisionmaking align better with social-ecological systems.
B. Fossil Fuel-Dependent Communities: An Exemplary Case Study for Just Transitions
The discussion in this Section examines what, exactly, is meant by “fossil fuel-dependent communities” and why they have prompted so much interest in just transitions in the climate change era. Many communities that depend on high-carbon industries have a unique history and relationship to work, and many have borne profound costs associated with energy production for over a century. Yet the rest of society has alternately encouraged, acquiesced in, or benefited from this hazardous, economically depleting way of life. Based on these troubling circumstances, this Section argues that the labor-driven just transition concept is legitimate because it is fair to these specific communities. A critical point is to understand that fossil fuel-dependent communities were not born in a vacuum. They were created. This discussion uses Appalachia as an example, but its story is relevant to comparable scenarios throughout the country.
As early as the 1700s, companies played a central role in developing isolated Appalachian mono-economies, or monopsonies, where workers and communities became hostage to desperate dependency relationships. The dependence stemmed in part from a rush of speculators in the 1800s seeking to acquire Appalachian land. Locals, mostly subsistence farmers, did not know the worth of the minerals under their land and sold property interests for well under market value. “Others who refused to sell their land became victims of legal traps, such as being jailed and then offered bond in exchange for their land.”
Appalachia evolved into what some scholars call an “internal colony” or a “sacrifice zone,” which was “created to provide cheap resources to fuel the rest of the country.” Companies dominated land ownership and isolated communities from penetration by other industries. Through isolating people and dispossessing them of land, coal companies sought to turn local residents “into a docile workforce” that lived and breathed extractive work, residing in company towns and coal camps and paid in “scrip” instead of money. While company towns are no longer the norm, the effects of these relationships are still felt in Appalachia today. Yet this was all in the name of “the greater good,” with fossil fuel communities serving as the nation’s cheap energy powerhouse.
Serving as the nation’s energy powerhouse has been costly. For decades, coal miners have lost their lives in and because of the mines. Some of these deaths were in major disasters that caught the public’s attention, but most of them were a regular procession of daily accidents and health harms. These hazards are not a phenomenon of history, either. “Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 miners died of black lung disease.” As of this writing, black lung rates have in fact been rising. Yet the costs have not been limited to miners themselves. Residents living near mountaintop removal sites suffer high rates of disease and morbidity. In addition to compromised health and safety, residents of fossil fuel communities have seen the destruction of irreplaceable cultural and ecological resources, as well as entrenched poverty and limited economic alternatives.
Yet throughout the evolution of this exploitative dynamic, these relationships were encouraged and actively supported by the rest of the country through law and policy, evolving with the knowledge and acquiescence of the larger political body despite intermittent recognition of Appalachian problems. When coal miners sought to improve their conditions in the early twentieth century, federal actors intervened on behalf of companies. In Hitchman Coal & Coke Co. v. Mitchell, the Supreme Court sanctioned mine operators’ power to contract with workers to prevent unionization. In the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the United States Army intervened to stop an uprising of miners, after which the Army left West Virginia to resolve the conflict internally, much to the detriment of the miners. Black lung, a “chronicle of a preventable disease that was not prevented,” was ignored by state and federal public health authorities for most of the twentieth century “[d]espite the fact that physicians working among coal miners in the nineteenth century recognized and called attention to . . . [this] public health disaster.” These egregious conditions notwithstanding, throughout the twentieth century, tax incentives and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry became a part of law. As of 2017, the federal government continued to support fossil fuel production with $14.7 billion in subsidies, and state governments provided a total of $5.8 billion in incentives.
Meanwhile, coal communities’ suffering was not unknown. Congress made a show of helping Appalachian residents with measures such as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (“SMCRA”). Yet SMCRA “has fallen far short of its potential;” indeed, with provisions providing for oversight by states known to be dominated by industry, it could hardly be deemed an earnest effort to remedy Appalachian suffering. Similarly, the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1973 nominally addressed black lung, only to help a mere 7.6% of claimants in “a system that miners, unable to attract attorneys and financially incapable of matching the coal companies’ development of medical evidence, wholeheartedly despise[d] as unjust.”
U.S. society thus has a decades-long tradition of propping up the fossil fuel industry and acquiescing in its creation of exploitative mono-economies. Viewed in this light, workers’ and communities’ anticipation or hope that support might continue for their sole economic lifeline seems less unreasonable than if one views that anticipation standing alone in the context of today’s changed markets, or viewed through the lens of communities with more resources or alternative options. The argument that fossil fuels are harmful and that people simply have to find other jobs overlooks a longstanding history of exploitation and isolation, an abusive tradition from which the majority has benefited. A swift, unmitigated shift away from these industries stands to exacerbate the injustices that fossil fuel communities have already experienced. The transition has, in fact, already begun, and fossil fuel communities have not fared well. Coal country has already lost a substantial portion of employment opportunities, and with those lost jobs have come lost tax resources, businesses, population, and spirit.
One might argue that this is the nature of economic developments: markets change and workers and communities who bear the losses of those transitions must adapt, evolve, and potentially relocate. Yet attempts to distinguish between the public and private spheres in this context ring hollow. First, fossil fuel workers and communities have been engaged in what should be characterized as quasi-public activity. While their contributions to the nation’s energy supply were through direct relationships with private companies, those companies were empowered by the public. The workers’ and communities’ labor and losses fueled a public electricity grid and provided fundamental public benefits for which they bore immeasurable externalized costs.
Second, one would be hard-pressed to disentangle the diverse public and private factors that converge to shape discrete sectors, especially in the energy context. Many have pointed to the cheapness of natural gas as a driving force undermining the coal industry in order to suggest that coal’s decline is a private phenomenon not warranting mitigation. However, Congress’s decision to impose minimal regulations on the natural gas industry was an intentional public policy development that shaped the status quo in foreseeable ways.
These circumstances illustrate that, if nothing else, principles of fairness and equity weigh in favor of a just transition for these communities. Yet these principles also implicate some of the basic premises of our legal system. Communities’ expectations and reliance have been encouraged, even coerced, through law and policy. While formal legal avenues have been of little help to them—to demand, for instance, the delayed closure of a plant, collective compensation for environmental degradation to the region, or meaningful assistance with the black lung pandemic—the ethical impetus to help these communities transcends a mere nicety.
Several lines of scholarship have insisted upon the materiality of expectations at the community level. Joseph Sax was concerned with community reliance and formal property law’s silence on communities. He argued “that the law offered no opportunity even to raise a question about the non-economic losses incurred when an established community is destroyed . . . for ‘just compensation’ includes only the value of the economic interests taken.” He noted that:
there is a widespread sense that community is important, and a willingness exists to protect community interests; yet there is no principle or doctrine to which to turn in those cases where, for whatever reasons, the people affected are unable to generate the political support necessary to induce an act of grace.
Sax argued that “[t]he idea of justice at the root of private property protections calls for identification of those expectations which the legal system ought to recognize,” including at the community level.
The concern for community reliance evokes the related concern that frustrated expectations can lead to social instability and political upheaval. For instance, Sax argued that the public trust doctrine was not merely a state’s obligation to conserve natural resources, as many understand it, but is also a means of marrying customs with formal law in order to respect common expectations and ward off social unrest.
This line of thinking seems to suggest that where formal law fails to recognize the meaningful nature of coal communities’ reliance upon their way of life, the lens of first principles illuminates the way of life as meaningful and worth respecting. The reasons for undermining that way of life seem meaningful too. Fossil fuel communities have already been sacrificed for the sake of collective progress through their energy production activities. They stand to be sacrificed anew if their majoritarian-encouraged dependency relationships are ignored in the transition to clean energy, as state and federal policy drivers continue to curtail or undermine these communities’ economic activities in the name of collective progress.
While the majority’s willingness to destroy coal communities’ dependency relationships is not a “takings,” it nonetheless raises the prospect of a discrete minority being sacrificed for “the greater good”—an approach to progress that legal ethicists have considered at best morally questionable. Indeed, when federal legislators passed provisions of the Trade Act of 1974 to offset displacement caused by reduced restrictions on trade, one decisionmaker reasoned, “much as the doctrine of eminent domain requires compensation when private property is taken for public use,” increased fair trade required compensation to displaced workers. “Otherwise the costs of a federal policy [of free trade] that conferred benefits on the nation as a whole would be imposed on a minority of American workers.”
It might be suggested that Appalachia and other carbon-dependent communities are not unique in their situation. Workers in the United States are often displaced and left vulnerable for a variety of reasons including changes in technology, new trade regimes, other policy developments, or the absence of legal protections. This comparison is worthwhile. The story of Appalachia, while unique in some respects, shares many analogies, as with tenants and sharecroppers who were displaced by the mechanization of the cotton harvest, plant employees who lost manufacturing jobs when businesses moved overseas, and aerospace workers who were displaced during the 1990s with the end of the cold war, to name some examples. The question becomes one of drawing lines. Where takings analyses stop, economic transitions begin. We ask people to bear the costs of the latter, not the former, and by not recognizing property interests in work, we disfavor the property-less in decisions as to who receives compensation.
This line-drawing may make sense. Otherwise, it could become cost-prohibitive to pass new laws. Yet certain factors weigh in favor of contemplating either more effective transitional policies or more robust baseline protections for workers and communities. First, as technology continues to evolve and render more work obsolete, the future will be replete with ongoing displacement. As more and more people and professions are displaced, it seems unrealistic to assume that the supply of work will match the demand for it. Second, the egregious ramifications of the transition away from coal indicate that asking those workers and communities to bear the losses, adapt, and relocate has simply not worked for a substantial segment of those communities. While such a proposed allocation of losses may make sense in theory, in practice, the result has been poverty, deaths of despair, and regional stagnation.
To be clear, none of this discussion is intended to suggest that deep decarbonization should not be pursued as swiftly and effectively as possible. The question of livelihoods should not hold the broader community hostage to the dire fate associated with a failure to reduce carbon emissions adequately. This is also not a call for some form of reparations, especially considering other communities, such as indigenous populations and the descendants of slaves, whose under-acknowledged exploitation also fueled national wealth in even more dire ways. The argument is rather that fossil fuel communities have already borne loss after loss to the benefit of others. To ask them to bear yet another disproportionate loss in the clean-energy transition on behalf of the rest of society would be to effectuate yet another distributive injustice. In other words, these communities should not be forgotten in the decarbonization calculus. They deserve a just transition.
C. A Political Economy Theory of Just Transitions
This Section explores a pragmatic and strategic argument in favor of embracing the just transition concept. In short, the United States is in urgent need of environmental and climate policy reform at the federal, state, and local levels. Reform is often unachievable, however, because of entrenched political obstacles. This Section argues that the pursuit of law and policy informed by just transitions principles may be more achievable than more traditional modes of seeking environmental reform.
Most scholars now agree that environmental reform had a zenith of sorts, and that the zenith has passed. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Still today, these major federal statutes make up the foundation of the environmental legal apparatus. The reforms largely came out of a national social movement. Reacting to works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the incident of the Cuyahoga River catching fire, the public realized that their welfare in part depended upon some measure of environmental protection.
Sporadic successes have been achieved since the peak of environmental reform. As recently as 1993, Daniel Farber observed how environmentalism’s successes undermined the idea that interest groups could warp governmental policy through lobbying. He explained:
[A]ir pollution legislation benefits millions of people by providing them with clean air; it also imposes heavy costs on concentrated groups of firms. The theory predicts that the firms will organize much more effectively than the individuals, and will thereby block the legislation. We would also expect to find little regulation of other forms of pollution. Similarly, we would also expect firms to block legislation limiting their access to public lands. Thus, the two basic predictions are that environmental groups will not organize effectively and that environmental statutes will not be passed.
Yet Farber concluded that “the reality is quite different.” “Environmental groups manage to organize quite effectively. . . . . Nor, obviously, is there any dearth of federal environmental legislation.” He thus argued that “the political system manages to overcome the inherent advantages of special interests.”
A more recent article by the same author recognizes a largely different status quo, however. In his 2017 article, The Conservative as Environmentalist, Farber recognizes that interest groups do indeed now stand in the way of environmental reform. He suggests that conservatives’ shift away from moderate environmental sympathies over the past several decades can be explained by the “emergence of a coalition of disaffected westerners and business interests (particularly in the fossil-fuel industry) supported by an interlocking network of foundations, donors, and conservative-policy advocates.”
A movement does exist today that is not all that different from the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s. Much of the American public is deeply concerned about climate change. The movements for climate reform and related principles, such as climate justice and energy justice, use activism, litigation, and lobbying to pursue much-needed changes. Many successes have been achieved. Most commentators concede, however, that progress to date has simply been inadequate to ward off the disastrous effects of climate change.
Anti-environmental forces today seem to have become more powerful than in prior eras. The fossil fuel industry manages to undermine the environmental movement even at the grassroots level. Pat McGinley describes, for example, the so-called “War on Coal” campaign, a massive, industry-financed public relations effort “buttressed by think-tank studies” that has successfully fueled public antipathy toward environmental regulations. According to sociologists Bell and York, despite its waning contributions to the economy and employment, the fossil fuel industry manages to “gain compliance from substantial segments of the public” by “actively construct[ing] ideology that furthers its interests.”
As the fossil fuel industry and conservative politicians have joined forces, labor and workers’ groups have often sided with them. According to sociologist Brian Obach, “workers are not typically the lead opponents of environmental measures.” Rather, industry executives recruit workers with the threat of layoffs or total shutdowns of operations. In addition, as “a threat to corporate profits” is not particularly concerning to the public, workers also become the more sympathetic faces of environmental opposition.
Commentators have observed the largely untapped potential of collaboration between environmental and labor groups. The longstanding “work-environment” rift often puzzles scholars. While jobs-versus-environment tensions serve to divide the two camps, other areas seem like they should be unifying—for instance, workplace safety, shared concerns about basic human needs, and as Doorey observes, the fact that both fields serve as checks on what would otherwise be “unbridled” corporate activity.
One explanation for the rift is environmentalism’s association with the middle class and upper middle class. In its early days, the environmental movement was spurred in large part based on a philosophy embracing a veneration for nature. As one activist articulates,
environmental heroes like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold—and the romanticizing of wilderness through art, poetry, essays, and music—created a catalyst for men to see communing with nature as a way of defining their manhood. Exploration, solitude, and game hunting became the foundation for saving and preserving nature. But for whom was nature being saved?
As the activist suggests, this philosophy arguably disregards the needs of society’s less privileged ranks, for instance, by failing to prioritize issues such as immediate access to clean drinking water, or being overly dismissive of livelihoods that depend on natural resources. Pruitt and Sobczynski have argued, for example, that poor, white rural residents may be seen as “trash[ing] pristine nature by their very presence.”
Yet, in the instances when labor and environmental groups have combined their efforts, these efforts have proven quite potent. Many attribute the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to a coalition between workers and environmental organizations. A prior article, Alienation and Reconciliation in Social-Ecological Systems, examined the fruitfulness of collaborative partnerships between ranchers and bird conservationists on public lands.
Compared with the fossil fuel industry, then, the modern environmental movement has two problems: (1) a power problem and (2) a branding problem. Pursuing more aggressive, concerted appeals to labor interests could help address both of these problems.
The power problem is evidenced in the modern environmental movement’s inability to penetrate the thick web of interest groups that benefit from impeding climate reform and other environmental measures. The political process is indeed “dominated by the rent-seeking activities of special–interest groups.” Naturally, coalitions and alliances stand to fare better than interest groups that work alone. While outreach to the fossil fuel industry may involve mere tilting at windmills given the industry’s track record, labor and environments’ overlapping interests may have more potential to give climate advocates more allies and leverage.
But further, joining forces with workers’ advocates could also help the environmental movement win more hearts and minds. As an example of why the branding of environmental reform matters, many conservatives said in one public opinion poll that they opposed the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan because they thought it would cost people jobs. If the environmental movement addressed the jobs concern directly and in coordination with labor advocates—which they could do by lobbying for reform through the lens of the just transition—they could proactively address one of the arguments against environmental reform.
A potential concern in addressing work and labor more directly in environmental advocacy is that such efforts could result in sustaining livelihoods in hazardous industries and delaying much-needed environmental action. However, as discussed below, it is not necessarily contemplated that just transitions law and policy must entail actually sustaining hazardous industries; the more important principle is instead attempting to offset or mitigate some of the losses to livelihoods and communities as those industries’ activities are curtailed. Further, even if some compromises were to be made, it is worth considering whether the movement risks letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and whether compromise outcomes may still be preferable to substantively preferable outcomes indefinitely delayed by political obstacles.
III. Just Transitions as Law: Filling in the Contours
This Part asks what are perhaps the most challenging questions surrounding the prospect of embracing just transitions in law and policy: What, exactly, does a just transition look like? Who deserves a just transition? What are the avenues for achieving it?
A helpful starting point is the fact that the pursuit of just transitions is not entirely alien to United States law and policy. This Part therefore starts in Section III.A with a brief summary and critique of four of the most prominent instances when federal institutions have authorized transitional policy to address worker and community displacement: (1) the Trade Act of 1974 providing assistance to manufacturing workers displaced by reduced restrictions on trade; (2) the President’s Northwest Forest Plan providing assistance to timber communities displaced by reductions in timbering on public lands; (3) the Tobacco Transition Payment Program assisting tobacco farmers displaced by public litigation against tobacco companies in the 1990s; and (4) the Obama administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (“POWER”) Initiative assisting coalfield communities in the face of coal’s decline.
Interestingly, only two of the programs—the Forest Plan and POWER—have an explicit environmental component. This suggests that in practice, the understanding of just transitions has not been simply as a corollary to environmental progress. Rather, the consistent conditions among these scenarios are (1) a dependency relationship between a community and an industry that is (2) undermined by some public action, or perhaps in the case of coal, public inaction. Section III.B therefore also explores other, non-environmental scenarios where just transitions may be warranted, such as the example of New York City taxi drivers being displaced by ride-sharing services, or of longstanding community residents facing displacement by gentrification. Section III.B also revisits the argument that the line between economic and legal transitions is often blurrier than some might suggest, indicating that a scenario should not necessarily require a clear act of direct public complicity in order to trigger a just transition.
Section III.C discusses instances of locally-driven approaches to just transitions and posits that these examples offer important insights alongside the federal programs, particularly since the federal programs have, as a whole, not been considered particularly successful (while the effects of the POWER Initiative remain to be seen as of this writing). Local land use planning processes and similar mechanisms help account for the complex, interconnecting factors that shape mono-economies’ dependency relationships. They thus may have benefits to offer as an alternative or complement to the standard practice of using federal agencies to implement transitional policy.
Finally, Section III.D offers additional thoughts as to how and when just transitions should be pursued and who should pay for them. Yet this discussion again raises the question of whether transitional policy is the answer for worker and community vulnerability in the face of climate change or in other contexts, or whether more robust baseline protections may be the simpler, more efficient approach. This latter approach may also be the fairer, more inclusive one, in that transitional policy directs resources to workers who are losing “good jobs,” while other workers, particularly disproportionate numbers of women and people of color in the service industry, have benefited inequitably from such jobs in the first place.
A. Federal Transitional Policies
1. The Trade Act of 1974
The Trade Act of 1962 established the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program (“TAA”), while the Trade Act of 1974 gave birth to the modern program still operational today. The program has become a quid pro quo component of modern trade policy. That is, in order to open more trade avenues, more trade assistance for injured domestic workers is often a necessary political compensatory measure.
Crafted in the name of fairness, the program’s goal is to provide aid to workers who lose their jobs, hours of work, or wages because of increases in imports. Congress was “of the view that fairness demanded some mechanism whereby the national public, which realizes an overall gain through trade readjustments, can compensate the particular . . . workers who suffer a loss . . . .” Returning to the idea that certain forms of displacement are ethically similar to takings, even if not cognizable as such in law, a federal court observed that TAA was pursued in as “much as the doctrine of eminent domain requires compensation when private property is taken for public use. Otherwise the costs of a federal policy [of free trade] that conferred benefits on the nation as a whole would be imposed on a minority of American workers . . . .”
Individuals eligible under the program may file a petition to the U.S. Department of Labor within one year of losing work. Once certified, workers are then eligible to apply for TAA program benefits, which are administered through state agencies. The benefits include “weekly cash benefits, job retraining, and allowances for job searches or relocation.” “According to  White House statistics, the average worker receiving benefits is a 46 year-old male with a high school education who is the primary breadwinner for his family and has worked for at least ten years at a factory that is closing.”
Since the program’s inception, however, studies have shown that trade adjustment benefits have simply not gone far enough to compensate displaced workers for their losses. In one survey of displaced shoe workers in the 1970s, researchers concluded that
even if benefits were granted to a larger number of workers, each individual would be compensated for only a very small portion of his actual loss. The actual payments have been characterized by organized labor as band-aid treatment, because the subsequent wage loss as well as the many nonmonetary losses from displacement are not directly addressed.
More recently, economist Lori Kletzer found that almost forty percent of displaced workers did not find new jobs within one to two years after a job loss resulting from increased competition. Another economist described trade assistance programs as “a collection of ad hoc, out-of-date, and inadequate programs that provide too little assistance too late to those in need.” Legal scholars—who tend to treat TAA as a component of international trade law—have also critiqued trade adjustment assistance programs. Some deem TAA “a grave failure,” for reasons including “failures at the administrative and state levels, to Federal incompetence, to lack of resources and outreach for displaced workers,” as well as the inadequacy of judicial review available for workers unfairly denied assistance. Its flaws notwithstanding, many agree that the program is preferable to not offering assistance at all and that reforms may stand to improve it.
2. The President’s Northwest Forest Plan
The President’s Northwest Forest Plan (“NWFP”) was formed in the aftermath of a 1992 decision in which the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington imposed an injunction prohibiting over 66,000 acres of timber from being harvested on Washington public lands because of dangers the harvesting posed to the northern spotted owl. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this and a series of related decisions. The Clinton administration then developed the NWFP, aimed toward enhancing conservation in the region. In 1994, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management adopted the NWFP.
The circumstances surrounding the NWFP’s enactment were famously contentious. This scenario is at times considered a classic case study of “jobs versus environment.” Timber harvesters were outraged based on the perception that the habitat of a single species should wield such an impact on their livelihoods. Predictions of “economic devastation” followed the court decisions, with fears of “a new ‘Appalachia in the Northwest.’” Environmentalists, meanwhile, saw the decisions as a necessary conservation win.