Racial justice essential to just transition to a low-carbon future, report says

Greenhouse gas-emitting facilities are disproportionately located in marginalized communities.

If the transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy focuses solely on the reduction of greenhouse gases, it will perpetuate historic injustices against Black and other marginalized communities that have already borne the brunt of the environmental and economic costs of fossil fuels, a recent report warns.

“Climate justice requires racial justice,” says lead author Mijin Cha, assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College. "The two issues are inseparably linked. Black communities can’t breathe because of a police officer’s knee on their necks and they can’t breathe because of a toxic legacy of pollution."

There’s no doubt that transitioning to a low-carbon future will be "complicated, expensive, and require broad-based public and political support, but inaction is not an option,” says Cha. “If we are to be successful, we need to make sure that we focus on the front-line workers and communities who have always had, and continue to have, the most at stake."

Transitioning away from fossil fuels in a way that addresses past harms and builds a more just, equitable future is often referred to as “just transition.” Cha and her co-authors' A Roadmap to an Equitable Low-Carbon Future: Four Pillars for a Just Transition focuses on just transition in California, which adopted the country’s first mandate for greenhouse gas emissions in 2006 and seven years later established its cap and trade program, one of the world’s largest. While California has successfully demonstrated that emissions can be reduced as the economy grows, “We need to aim even higher than California’s already ambitious goals,” the report says.

Research has found that greenhouse gas-emitting facilities are disproportionately located in marginalized communities. Yet the reduction of emissions under the California cap-and-trade program has yet to produce any meaningful reduction in local pollution in these communities, including hazardous material sites, water pollution and traffic density, the report notes. When thinking of how to redirect resources, these Black and marginalized communities should be targeted for direct investment to address the disproportionate environmental burden.

The report maps numerous clusters of front-line low-income communities of color in the East Bay, Sacramento, Bakersfield and Los Angeles’ South Bay that are in close proximity to oil and natural gas wells, storage and distribution facilities, refineries and power plants.

Despite bearing the burden of the environmental impacts of oil wells and power plants, the residents of these clusters have not shared in the high-paying jobs (fossil fuel jobs average almost $88,000 a year, compared to the $50,000 annual average) they generate. This underscores the need to adopt deliberate and targeted policy solutions that bring environmental and economic benefits to such communities, the report says.

“These front-line communities and the workers who live there will be hurt first and worst and do not have the resources needed to help address the challenges that will come from climate change—despite the fact that they are among the least significant contributors to climate change,” Cha says.

Based on lessons learned from previous economic transitions, the report lays out a framework of key elements –the four pillars--essential to a just transition that simultaneously address climate change and issues including health care, affordable housing and transportation. They are:

  • Strong governmental support that is needed for such projects that may not produce short-term profit returns or the high rates of return required by private investors.
  • A dedicated funding stream to support long-term transition efforts, including job creation, job training and financial support for laid-off workers. Carbon tax or cap-and trade revenues, similar to California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, could be a source for such funds.
  • Diverse and strong coalitions that include business and industry to craft transition plans that meet the specific needs of individual communities and its workers.
  • Economic diversification to shift from an unsustainable reliance on any one single industry. (This is why reliance on coal shouldn’t be replaced with a similar narrow reliance on solar, for example.)

The four pillars are based on examples drawn from around the world, including the restructuring of coal and steel production industries in the German region of the Ruhr; the closing of Southern California Edison’s Mohave Generating Plant in Laughlin, Nevada and the associated Black Mesa coal strip mine in the Four Corners; the closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant outside San Luis Obispo; and the economic action plan created by the town of Tonawanda, New York, in response to the closure of a local coal-fired plant.

Cha’s co-authors include Manuel Pastor, USC distinguished professor of sociology and American studies & ethnicity and director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE); Madeline Wander ’08, PERE senior data analyst; James Sadd, Occidental professor of environmental science; and Rachel Morello-Frosch, professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley.