Just Transition: A Pathway to Environmental Justice

By Jamila Cervantes, Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Office of Public Witness

In response to a question on energy policy during a Democratic town hall in Ohio in 2016, then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Though this response was embedded in a larger answer that recognized the work of coal miners, this sound bite rightfully stung energy industry workers. Historically, these workers have been neglected and scapegoated in our national conversation about transitioning to clean energy sources and new economies. It is imperative that people of faith reject the false choice between supporting the planet and supporting workers, and embrace solutions that extend God’s grace to all of creation.

In fact, labor union leaders have built a framework that dates back to the 1970s called, “just transition” which offers us a path forward to care for people and creation. It demands that as we make the shift from our current, dominant economy—which hurts people and the planet—to a new economy, we must keep the well-being, safety, and livelihood of the workers that participate in exploitative industries at the center of our work. The Book of Genesis tells us that God made humans and put them the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. (2:14-16) God tasked us with being faithful stewards so we must tend to and care for one another as we make shifts in our economies to take care of our planet. We as Presbyterians must study just transition, as it reflects our biblical mandate to care for all of God’s people and creation, not to make a choice between the two. Our movement for environmental justice is stronger when we include everybody, especially those who have labored in difficult and dangerous positions to maintain a high quality of life in Western countries for centuries.

This year, the 223rd General Assembly called on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to renew its commitment to environmental justice and to recognize the people most impacted by ecological devastation, such as those extractive industry workers. In an overture titled, On Responding to Environmental Racism and to Promote Environmental Justice, the General Assembly called on the church to position its approach to environmental issues to include the voices and perspectives of those impacted by environmental racism—in accordance with the Gospel. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice refers to, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” The environmental justice movement was born in the 1960s from the resistance of communities of color to the fact that dirty industries like waste disposal, mining and energy generation were located next to their homes and schools. The conditions they experience can best be described as environmental racism, which refers to the fact that marginalized communities in the United States and Global South are disproportionately affected by ecological devastation. Communities of color often do not have access to clean water or clean air and are excluded from decision-making processes around land management and natural resources. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the importance of uplifting the voices that are most affected by these respective issues. Only community-driven solutions can bring justice to communities.

The history of the just transition movement has a great deal to offer us in terms of understanding how social movements shape demands. Tony Mazzocchi, leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, witnessed the false choice workers are asked to make between livelihood and creation care when he attempted to mobilize atomic workers and trade unionists into the peace movement during the 1970s. As he began organizing them, he witnessed their jobs threatened by peace. Seeking an alternative to their displacement, Mazzocchi developed a concept for a program in the 1990s that he called, “Superfund for workers.” The initiative provided financial provisions and higher education opportunities for worker whose jobs were threatened or displaced by environmental protection policies. He modeled the concept after the GI bill, which allowed him the opportunity to pursue college after his service in the Second World War. His close colleague and executive director of the Labor Institute, Les Leopold outlined the details of the proposal. Eventually, Leopold and OCAW president, Bob Wages, joined efforts to facilitate conversations on the topic, which led to the formation of the Just Transition Alliance in 1997. Soon after, the “just transition” concept began to show up in different arenas of the North American labor movement, the global labor movement—and more recently, the ideas have appeared in the environmental justice movement. Pressure from frontline communities has resulted in the concept being adopted by “big green” environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the BlueGreen Alliance.

Movement Generation is one of the organizations, led by people on the front lines, who is developing this framework. In a resource titled,“Strategic Framework for a Just Transition,” they proposes that all economies are based on five primarily pillars: purpose, natural resources, human labor, culture, and governance, which is a helpful lens through which to consider our current global economy. The Confessions of 1967 clearly outlines our concern as Christians with an economy that does not provide for all. It says we “cannot condone poverty whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations.” This means that while the purpose of our economic system may not be to amass and concentrate wealth and power, that has certainly been the result. Our dominant economy is justified by our culture of consumerism, which relies on participants believing self worth is tied to our own accumulations of wealth and power. Our system of governance centers militarism, an organized system of violence that seeks new frontiers for the purpose of acquiring exploitable and extractable resources to enclose and amass wealth and power. Our current economy is organized around a principle of scarcity, in in which a limited and finite set of resources that regenerate at a much slower rate than the pace at which we extract from it. This means that our dominant economy is unsustainable and the end of an economy that relies on fossil fuels and benefits the few is all but inevitable. It also means that a transition to a new economy is unavoidable. However, like stakeholders in the environmental justice space have warned, a transition that uplifts communities, centers workers, and focuses on restoration the environment is not guaranteed.

An example of the way an economic system based in dominance exists today is in our relationship with indigenous people. Indigenous people in the United States have long been denied their right to sovereignty, self-determination, and the implementation of their knowledge. In 2016, the 222nd General Assembly called on the Church to repudiate the doctrine of discovery in an overture titled, On Offering an Apology to Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. The overture states, “Our burdens include dishonoring the depths of the struggles of Native American people and the richness of your gifts. Therefore, we confess to you that when our Presbyterian ancestors journeyed to this land within the last few centuries, we did not respect your own indigenous knowledges and epistemologies as valid.” The overture includes language that references a culture of conversion and a governance of coercion intended to increase power of the colonial settlers. Just transition framework parallels the apology in that it condemns colonization, asks that those wounds be repaired, and affirms the rights of indigenous people.

Just transition is more than a visionary demand. There are concrete policy solutions that would bring us closer to an equitable environmental solution for communities and the planet. For instance, Representative Rogers (R-KY) introduced a bill to the House of Representative, “RECLAIM Act of 2017,” that amends the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1997 (SMCRA) to highlight the role of communities in the vital restoration process. The Act intends to allocate fund to states and indigenous tribes to, “promote economic revitalization, diversification, and development in economically distressed communities,” that were affected by coal mining activity anytime before August 1977. The Act permits the members of the communities most affected by coal mining, including miners, to contribute to the ecological and economic restoration of their own communities in ways that are culturally relevant. Other manifestations of the framework as policy have been the expansion of public transportation and the shift from landfills to zero waste.

A just transition would advance environmental and cultural restoration, drive racial and social justice forward; and relocate economic power from corporations to communities to democratize and redistribute wealth to guarantee that all of God’s creations are treated with dignity and care. For more information on how build a movement for just transition as faithful stewards of God’s creations:


Jamila Cervantes is an Emerson National Hunger Fellow at the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness. For the first portion of their fellowship program, Jamila served as the Client Engagement Fellow at Oregon Food Bank in Portland, Oregon. They are a Gates Millennium Scholar and a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a combined degree in LGBTQ studies, Latin American studies, and Sociology. From May 13th to June 23rd, Jamila served as a social media manager for the national Poor People’s Campaign movement.



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