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A Just Transition for U.S. Fossil Fuel Industry Workers

A combination of better jobs and pensions will remove one political obstacle to a green transition—and it’s the right thing to do.  Robert Pollin & Brian Callaci from PERI tell us how

The two most important things we need to do to stabilize the climate are straightforward. First, the world must dramatically cut its reliance on oil, coal, and natural gas in energy production. This is because carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated through burning fossil fuels, along with methane emissions released during fossil fuel extraction processes, are responsible for about 75 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Second, as the alternative to fossil fuel consumption, again on a global scale, we must massively expand investments in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy sources—solar, wind, geothermal, low-emissions bioenergy, and small-scale hydropower.

Both parts of this climate stabilization program will produce large-scale impacts on the employment opportunities for working people as well as on the communities in which they live. The investments in efficiency and clean renewables will generate millions of new jobs. But 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. This in turn will increase political resistance to any effective climate stabilization program.

It follows that the global climate stabilization project must unequivocally commit to providing generous transitional support for workers and communities tied to the fossil fuel industry. The late U.S. labor leader and environmental visionary Tony Mazzocchi pioneered thinking on what is now termed a “Just Transition” for these workers and communities. As Mazzocchi wrote as early as 1993, “Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another is not welfare. Those who work with toxic materials on a daily basis … in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs deserve a helping hand to make a new start in life.”

In this article, we propose a Just Transition framework for U.S. workers. Our rough high-end estimate for such a program is a relatively modest $600 million per year. This is about 1 percent of the annual level of public investment that will be needed to advance a successful overall U.S. climate stabilization program. As we show, this level of funding would pay for income and pension-fund support for workers facing retrenchments as well as effective transition programs for what are now fossil fuel–dependent communities.

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