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What the US has done for us

While the US is not world-renowned for being progressive on climate issues, Heidi Bachram finds that grassroots movements there have something to teach environmentalists.

May 1, 2006
4 min read

The Black Mesa coal mine on Hopi and Navajo land in the US is about to close. This is a rare victory for local activists who have fought the mine, owned by Peabody Coal, for more than 40 years. Except this is not the end of the battle.

Local environmentalists threw another punch by demanding that funds from the closure be used to invest in clean energy to provide jobs for the now unemployed coal miners. The Black Mesa campaign groups state that: ‘For years, the Navajo and Hopi people made major sacrifices … The people provided labour, coal, pristine water and bore the burden of pollution. Now that the facility has closed, we have a right to ask the owners to help us make the transition to a better future, to repay the debt.’

As greens don’t normally put themselves out for jobless miners, this may be a surprising turn of events. However, the unemployed are local people, mostly Navajo, and the principle of ‘just transition’ – building alliances between workers in polluting industries and affected communities – is strong in the US.

The local Black Mesa groups are affiliated to a national movement, the Just Transition Alliance, and its education and training director, Jenice L View explains: ‘Companies will often drive wedges between workers and local communities, primarily by creating “job fear” and painting activists as the environmental bogeyman. Just transition principles bring those two parties together, building political power and identifying who the real culprits are – such as corporations and government institutions.’

The just transition movement was born out of community-based activism. Then, in 2003, mainstream NGOs and big unions in the US took some of these principles and formed the Washington-based coalition, the Apollo Alliance, under the banner of ‘Three Million New Jobs, Independence from Foreign Oil’. This raised hackles among community-based campaigners concerned that the new coalition’s concept of just transition was not necessarily progressive.

According to Tom Goldtooth of the environmental justice group, Indigenous Environment Network: ‘Apollo Alliance’s main focus has been on jobs and energy independence. It’s very white and very top-down. This is a common problem with policy organisations that have no accountability to the communities that are directly impacted by polluting industries.’

‘Just transition is a process, a principle and a practice, not a focused campaign,’ says Jenice L View. Missing from the Apollo Alliance are those key elements of practice and process – a failing that could equally apply to climate initiatives in the UK. On this side of the pond, just transition is barely on the radar of climate campaigners. As Ashok Sinha, director of the recently formed Stop Climate Chaos coalition – whose members include the UK’s largest environmental groups – accepts, ‘Just transition is not at the forefront of our lobbying efforts.’ Stop Climate Chaos has prioritised policy goals by focusing on getting the government to commit to a 3 per cent reduction in carbon emissions per annum.

While environmental groups give just transition low priority, unions have taken on-board some of the ideas, inspired in part by the movement in the US. Philip Pearson of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) explains: ‘Just transition is at the heart of our policies on climate change and we want to develop a UK model. To us, just transition means developing industries around renewable energy to create job opportunities. But you have to have strong grassroots engagement. Action on climate change won’t work if it’s top-down.’

The US debate around just transition is well-developed, in sharp contrast to the level of discussion in the UK. Even so, grassroots activists do see its relevance. Norman Philip, a community organiser based in Grangemouth, a major Scottish petrochemical town, says: ‘This is where America does it so much better. When NGOs don’t use processes like just transition, communities and workers who are at risk from polluting industries while being economically dependent on them, feel ignored and isolated. That doesn’t inspire them to sign up to campaigns on climate change.’

‘Climate change is fought and lost in Grangemouth every day,’ he continues. ‘People here are on the front-line of the main source of the problem, the petrochemical industry. If we don’t have communication and solidarity between fenceline communities, workers and environmental NGOs, then any work on climate change may fail the people most impacted.’

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