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.” 
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.