Laudato Si and the Just Transition

May 24, 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ widely hailed letter on the environment, Laudato Si. The remarkable letter reflects on our materialist culture, pointing to widespread pollution and the threat of global warming. He tells us that the Earth “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” [2]

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I find it troubling, not merely because I have myself consumed more than my share of the Earth’s goods, nor because of the Holy Father’s scientifically grounded warnings about climate change. As a member of Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), most of my brothers and sisters are employed in construction. And they aren’t spread evenly across the building industry: in fact, they are also disproportionately dependent on the carbon economy.

As union membership has declined over the past several decades, union contractors have virtually disappeared from single-family home construction and renovation. Most of the strip centers and many office buildings are now built by non-union workers who lack the job security, employer-paid health care, and pension benefits enjoyed by skilled but expensive union workers. In contrast, many sectors of civil construction remain largely in the hands of union workers, and much of this sector is indissolubly linked with the carbon economy. Union workers lay the pipelines that carry the crude oil and build the refineries that turn it into gasoline. They maintain the power plants that turn coal into electricity. They build the roads and bridges demanded by our nation’s massive fleet of cars and trucks.

This means that any dramatic action taken to reduce man’s carbon footprint won’t fall equally on all of us in society, but rather will fall particularly hard on my brothers and sisters in the building trades unions. And that’s not all: coal miners, auto workers, power plant operators and many other blue-collar union workers will almost certainly become collateral damage of a transition to renewable energy.

Some progressives, in their zeal for the environment, airily dismiss the concerns of these workers. More than a few even imply that their fears of displacement signify selfishness and greed, a willingness to destroy the planet for a few dollars in their pocket. I doubt the Holy Father would agree, though. Laudato Si critiques a “throwaway culture” that wastes both resources and human beings. If workers in the energy economy rely on these jobs to secure a living wage for themselves and their families, Pope Francis would be the last to casually wave aside their concerns and the first to counsel the need for a just transition.

It won’t do just to say that the new economy will create enough “green jobs” to absorb these workers. After all, the nation is filled with former industrial workers who were assured that with “retraining” they’d quickly find new jobs to replace those lost to automation or globalization. Too many of those workers today are serving hamburgers, stocking Walmart shelves or driving for Uber at a fraction of their former family-supporting salaries – if indeed they have jobs at all. It’s poor sport to retrain an unemployed West Virginia coal miner to install solar panels if the solar panel installations are all in Nevada. It’s not much help to send a laid-off SUV assembly line worker to IT classes if the corporate offices are hiring younger college grads to fill the available positions.

What will a just transition for these workers look like? I don’t know. It may indeed involve, as some have suggested, a Green New Deal, but it will take more than that. Will we need affirmative action programs that prioritize workers displaced from the carbon economy? Costly economic incentives to ensure that  new jobs are located in the same communities where the old jobs disappeared? Increased taxes on the rest of us to support all this? A just transition will require a practical and concrete plan to reemploy those employed in the carbon economy, and that will be expensive. We should all be prepared to sacrifice in order to share that burden equitably.

3 replies
  1. Susan Bruns
    Susan Bruns says:

    Thank you for this insightful commentary. This forced period of isolation has given me the time and space to contemplate many things among them how I can better contribute to my community and the world at large through my cautious use of nature’s bountiful goods.
    I have found that I do not need as much as I thought I did and I can support others through my own labor, my voice and my material contributions.
    It is late in life to realize that this is my calling, but at least I am awake and paying attention.

    Reply
  2. Fr. Sinclair Oubre
    Fr. Sinclair Oubre says:

    Clayton,
    Thank you for the balanced reflection. Southeast Texas does energy. We produce 16% of our all nations petroleum products, and about 90% of all the jet fuel consumed west of the Mississippi.
    So, when folks, who are in large metropolitan areas, start lecturing about the need for a carbon-free world, while every aspect of their lives are dependent on carbon-based fuels, I have a hard time taking them seriously.
    For decades the coal miners and their families suffered black lung, cave-ins, explosions, and exposure to toxic gases to supply our nation with the energy it needed to build the foundation of the society we live in today.
    Yet, when cheaper, more portable, and more efficient forms of energy were developed, our nationals stripped them of everything valuable, including their children, and then ridiculed them in “hillbilly” TV and movie stories.
    To buy an electric car does not make one carbon free. One must plug the car in somewhere, and the majority of our electricity is being produced by coal, fuel oil or natural gas. To think that because one is driving a Prius, that there is no carbon foot print, is to fail to see the full impact of one’s life style. To say nothing about failing to see all the petroleum-based parts like tires and hoses that are essential for these cars.
    So, in looking at the history of our country’s support for working class families in times of transition, the picture is not good. How did it go for coal mining families in West Virginia, how did it go for for small-town manufacturing in Indiana and Ohio after NAFTA.
    So, to think that carbon-based energy communities dependent will voluntarily fall on their swords by shutting down their refineries while at the same time, continuing to supply our country with home heating oil to warm our homes, the jet fuel to fly our planes, the diesel to run our trains, and not fight for the survival of their livelihood fails to appreciate the life-situation these folks are in.

    Reply
  3. Fr. Bernard Survil
    Fr. Bernard Survil says:

    Environmentalist activists in Pittsburgh, marching through downtown several years ago, were exposed to the counter-protests of coal miners who lined the parade route. More recently pro-labor historian and environmentalist Charles McCollester was one of the organizers of a panel presentation held at the site of the Homestead Strike Museum. A union worker at US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works admitted her good income derives from a highly polluting process. A union president who represents thousands of workers in the fossil fuel industry in Western Pennsylvania and SE Ohio made the same point.
    Yes, a JUST TRANSITION is absolutely needed on a national level. To do that, we need a White House, a US Senate and a US Congress motivated to do that. Which is why our Association of Pittsburgh Priests (APP) is preparing a short recommendation how local Catholics can make a positive contribution through their vote in the 2020 General Election. The APP is indebted to the Feb 6, 2020 talk by Bishop Robert McElroy in formulating their document.

    Reply

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