58 Pages Posted: 19 Nov 2018 Last revised: 1 May 2019
Date Written: November 9, 2018
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 decision-making. 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 Adjustment Assistance 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 Plus Plan (assisting coal communities), among other examples.
Keywords: decarbonization, climate change, rural development, land use, labor law, fossil fuels, environmental law, environmental justice
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