What is Environmental Justice and a Just Transition? 

Environmental justice refers to the right to a safe and healthy environment for everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, ability or other considerations. From this perspective, the environment is not something that is separate from society and “out there”, but where people live, work, play, learn, and pray. Research documents that environmental and climate-related problems and hazards often disproportionately impact the health and economic opportunities of racial and ethnic minorities, Indigenous communities, workers, low-income people, women, the young and the elderly. This pattern is related to systemic forms of inequality in society, including unequal representation in environmental decision-making and leadership, racism and other forms of oppression, and the neglect of diverse values-systems.

The concept of a “just transition” recognizes that sustainability solutions should prioritize the needs and leadership of those frontline communities who most directly experience the impacts of a warming climate and who have the most at stake in the transition to a renewable energy economy. It raises questions such as: how can we ensure that “green jobs” are socially just and accessible to all? How can we create a fair transition for workers currently in fossil fuel-related industries? How can public investment in solar energy and energy efficiency benefit those most impacted by higher utility rates when/if they occur? How can we ensure that low-income people and communities of color are not disproportionately impacted by more frequent heat waves, floods, and storms due to climate instability? Since there is no one-size-fits all solution to this transition, what is needed to ensure that decision-making processes for climate and energy solutions are truly public and representative of those most impacted?

The idea of a just transition was developed by labor and climate justice movements to advocate that the major transformation we are undergoing as a society should incorporate ecological and social justice. Movement leaders such as Tony Mazzochi, José T. Bravo, and Jihan Gearon, and organizations such as the Just Transition Alliance, have worked for proactive plans for workers losing jobs as a result of environmental policy, for community-led transformation, and for a society that strives to harm no one.

We believe that a just transition should bring justice to the center as we address three major interlinked challenges: a carbon-based economy dependent on the unsustainable use of fossil fuels; a climate that is rapidly destabilizing; and global systems of production and consumption with adverse and unequal health, cultural, and social impacts. Addressing these challenges will require much stronger representation for those most vulnerable to forms of environmental harm, public decision-making spaces not dominated by profit-driven interests, explicit attention to issues of structural racism, equity, and fairness, socially just employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, and creative solutions to not just bounce back, but forward into a world that enables us all to thrive.