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Just Transition: Building a Future for People and the Planet

Just Transition: Building a Future for People and the Planet

By Michele Prichard, Senior Director of Environmental Justice, Liberty Hill

Some of my earliest work as a budding activist in Los Angeles in the 80s is surprisingly parallel to a critical discussion that has emerged over the last year nationally and here in Los Angeles around the “Green New Deal” and the concept of “Just Transition.”

Back then, the “Jobs with Peace” coalition placed two ballot measures before L.A. voters in 1984 and 1986 asking our city to support a shift in national priorities from massive defense spending towards our growing domestic needs in education, health care and environmental protection. 

As Cold War spending ballooned the deficit and drained social programs, peace and civil rights activists argued that the country needed to transition defense workers from building B-52 bombers, to constructing mass transit and new energy systems, and meeting other social infrastructure needs.  We argued for a “Just Transition” where defense workers—nearly all of whom were union workers with family supporting wages and benefits—would be supported, re-trained and re-directed to new job sectors with the potential for ongoing economic mobility.

We won the first election when we were flying under the radar, but got trounced in the second.  Huge opposition spending by the military industrial complex caused the defeat of the 1986 measure, which sought to divest L.A.’s pension funds from defense contractor companies, and invest in more socially responsible enterprises.

Fast Forward to today:  the planet faces an urgent need to end fossil fuel production and consumption and shift to 100% clean and renewable energy sources. Already the wildfire season is in full swing in California—with utility power shut-downs affecting millions of residents in the past week alone.  Hurricane Dorian, the Amazon Rainforest fires and the melting of the Arctic ice shelf all fade from our memories as the next climate catastrophe takes center stage. 

Technology is rapidly enabling us to move away from fossil fuels.  But part of building the political will to make the change is designing a pathway for fossil fuel-dependent workers and communities to join the new “green” economy—one that is based in energy and water conservation, solar, wind and geothermal power.  

We know that advanced planning is fundamental, and that it will take a huge commitment of public resources to provide for income security, job retraining and upskilling for affected workers.  But unless we map out a clear plan for unionized oil refinery workers in Los Angeles, and even the non-union contractors who drill and maintain active oil-drilling sites in low-income neighborhoods in South L.A. and the Harbor, we will strike fear into the hearts of those workers, their families and their unions when we talk about the “green economy.”

The Way Forward
Fortunately, Los Angeles already has an amazing reservoir of expertise, experience and strong relationships to help rise to this challenge.  At a recent panel discussion at the September 2019 Southern California Grantmakers’ Conference, I joined colleagues to wrestle with this question and what we need to do.

Assistant Professor Mijin Cha of Occidental College, who has studied conversion attempts and successes around the world, offered that the four “pillars” of a “Just Transition” are strong government policies, dedicated funding streams, diverse coalitions and a plan for economic diversification.

Roxana Tynan of the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) shared lessons from the success of the 10-year RePower campaign, designed with leadership from the Electrical Workers union (IBEW 18). The campaign facilitated the creation of a training and apprenticeship program that has placed close to 200 disadvantaged workers into high-quality, union careers to replace the retiring workforce at LADWP. 

Shomari Davis of IBEW 11 advocated for training programs in high-skilled job categories such as energy auditing, micro-grid management and solar storage technology—not just solar rooftop installation which continues to be a low-wage job market. 

Marguerite Young of Service Employees International Union—with over 700,000 members in California—highlighted how her union was the first to endorse the “New Green Deal,” in part because so many members live in fence-line communities that suffer daily from exposure to toxic air from fossil-fuel based industries and transportation corridors.  

Jose Bravo of the Just Transition Alliance reminded us that “jobs versus the environment” is a false narrative because these workers are the same community members who are also suffering from the disproportionate impact of environmental burdens.

We have seen momentum shift on these issues as state and local leaders take notice. At a recent televised town hall on Climate Change, we heard all of the Democratic Presidential candidates detail their thinking on the Green New Deal, and several national polls have seen “Climate Change” moving into the list of top agenda items for voters.

Here at home, L.A. County just adopted its first-ever Sustainability Plan—which Liberty Hill helped create. One of the Plan’s actions is a commitment to a “Just Transition” that would couple the shift to renewable energy with focused job training for displaced and disadvantaged workers. Similarly, Mayor Garcetti’s “Green New Deal” Sustainability Plan commits to 300,000 green jobs by 2035 with sustainability education and apprenticeships developed by city, private sector and community college collaborations.

We know that a “Just Transition” will require billions in resources if we are to truly meet the challenge.  But, the cost of inaction is dangerous.   As the Youth Climate Strike activists who turned out four million strong across the globe on September 20th stated so eloquently: “There is no “Planet B.” 

It is my hope that Los Angeles can lead on this issue, clearly one of the most important of our time.  We have so much to win, so much to lose, and not a minute to waste.

-Michele Prichard
Senior Director of Environmental Justice
Liberty Hill Foundation