By Monterey Buchanan
Whether you are a longtime climate activist, or just getting started, you may have heard the term just transition. But what does this term mean, and how does it connect to the climate movement in Colorado? Read on to find out more about just transition, what it looks like in Colorado, and what you can do to help.
What Is Just Transition?
The term encompasses many different kinds of work, but a basic definition of just transition is making sure the people most-likely to be negatively impacted by the transition to a sustainable economy and world have the resources they need to make this transition without being harmed. Some groups that are impacted include people working in the coal, oil, and natural gas industries and communities of color and those most impacted by fossil fuel infrastructure, among many other groups.
350Colorado includes the need for a just transition in the About Us page saying: “We are demanding solutions that protect our most vulnerable communities and workers. Together we are working to dismantle oppressive systems that enable poverty, racism, and inequity.”
What Does A Just Transition Look Like In For Coal Workers in Colorado?
The basic idea behind just transition may sound simple, but its implementation is complex, and may look different for different frontline communities. Especially for communities like Craig, Colorado that rely on coal jobs to support their families and economies, good alternatives are hard to find. In all cases, it is important that governments, politicians, and others in power listen to the communities impacted by climate change and the energy transition as they communicate their needs, and help obtain resources that are most helpful for them.
To get a better idea of what just transition looks like for coal workers and communities in Colorado, I spoke with my uncle Wade Buchanan, Director of the Colorado Office of Just Transition (OJT), an office created by House Bill 19-1314 in 2019, and the first office of its kind in the United States, according to Buchanan. Focusing on just transition for coal workers and communities in Colorado The OJT website describes its purpose as: “to support coal workers, employers, and communities as they plan for the future closings of coal plants upon which their communities depend.” To achieve this, the OJT aims to replace resources lost during coal plant closure including “more family sustaining jobs” and “a broader property tax base.” This and the OJT’s other main goal to “help coal workers prepare for closure, secure good new jobs, or enter secure retirements without sacrificing family economic well-being in the process” contributes to just transition by helping to ease the uncertainty many coal communities are feeling around employment and economic security.
In our interview, Buchanan described just transition as “not leaving communities behind” and that the OJT is a part of this by building trust-based relationships between the OJT and coal communities by listening to what communities need. He also noted that in this type of just transition work, “minimizing the disruption” to coal reliant communities is the goal, not necessarily having a climate change discussion. When thinking about just transition for coal communities, clean energy jobs often come to mind, and may be part of the solution, but Buchanan urged people to “think of them as workers that have a wide range of opportunities, skills and dreams” that could extend beyond energy sector work.
What Does Just Transition Look Like For Frontline Communities in Colorado?
Coal workers and their communities are not the only ones who need support through the clean energy transition. As with many parts of climate change, poor communities and communities of color are often hit first and hardest. The need for just transition is also important in communities of color and poor communities, which are more likely to live close to coal, oil and gas projects, and live with the resulting health impacts. For example, the article “Black, Latino communities have a higher level of oil drilling and pollution” summarizes a recent study: “Majority Black and Latino communities that received the worst grades under a racially discriminatory federal housing program known as redlining have nearly twice as many oil drilling wells as mostly White communities, a new study says.” This means that communities of color live near more oil and gas projects, and are more likely than predominantly white communities to live with the pollution and health impacts. According to a separate study quoted in the same article, these health impacts can include “higher risk of cardiovascular disease, impaired lung function, anxiety, depression, preterm birth and impaired fetal growth,” Because of the health impacts and increased proximity to oil and gas drilling, it is important that communities of color receive support during a just transition.
To achieve this locally, 350Colorado is helping target oil and gas projects that negatively impact communities living on the frontlines of oil and gas infrastructure projects.. For example, 350Colorado’s blog post “What is Climate Justice?” explains the connection between the Suncor oil refinery, and increased pollution in the 80216 zip code, described as “This densely-populated, working-class neighborhood is 80 percent people of color while Denver itself is 80 percent white.” Thus, the issue of communities of color being at greater risk for the impacts of pollution and climate change is not just an idea but a lived reality for many people in Colorado.
Though not the only pollution source North Denver is dealing with, Suncor has a devastating impact on the community, which becomes clear when considering the chemicals it puts into the North Denver area: “ Suncor pollutes North Denver air with hydrogen cyanide, which interferes with the body’s use of oxygen and can harm organs. Suncor also spews benzene, which can cause leukemia from long-term exposure.” This solidifies the need for Suncor to close, but equally striking was the response from residents: “Earthjustice organized a summit to hear what environmental issues most concerned the community. The focus turned to Suncor, the refinery that was violating its air permit limits ‘Suncor was a big issue. We were hearing: ‘We’re sick of this,’ Farouche recounts.” This reinforces that it is not acceptable to hide pollution away in low-income and communities of color, because the pollution of Suncor and other projects has a devastating impact on the health and well-being of these communities. Shutting down Suncor will help reduce the pollution in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, and a just transition means doing this while not forgetting the needs of the over 400 workers Suncor employs.
In the case of both coal mining communities, and increased pollution in communities of color, just transition must work to minimize harm to the communities most at risk, and respond to what those communities say they need most to help them make the transition.
What are 350.org and 350 Colorado Doing to Advance Just Transition?
350.org activists have already organized a Just Transition Day of Action in Canada. The event included “imaginative green job fairs,” and other actions meant to show politicians and others in power the positive impact a robust just transition program could have on Canada. Back in Colorado, the local branch of 350Colorado has created the Just Transition For Suncor mentioned above, and is expanding its just transition efforts with more blog and website content, and future campaigns. If you would like to be involved in these growing efforts, check out the “What Can I Do?” section below.
What Can I Do?
- Educate yourself more on just transition by listening to the Climate One podcast episode “What Is A Just Transition?” a conversation about just transition with representatives from several groups that are being impacted.
- Get involved with the Just Transition for Suncor campaign to shut down the Suncor Refinery in Commerce City, Colorado.
- Join 350 Colorado’s Move Beyond Coal Campaign, currently pressuring Xcel to retire its coal fleet, while simultaneously providing a “just and equitable transition for workers.”
Want to learn more about principles of climate justice and just transition? Check out the Climate Justice Alliance Just Transition Principles here.
Have ideas about helping 350 Colorado expand its commitment to just transition? Email Deborah McNamara at firstname.lastname@example.org