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A path to get out of Code Red

This op-ed first appeared in The Tyee on October 28, 2021.

As world leaders prepare for the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow next month, our survival demands their commitment to a rapid, just transition to a sustainable, decarbonized economy.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by what we face, but inspiration can come from unlikely places.

At the climate summit in Paris in 2015, I listened to the leader of Alberta’s oil workers’ union explain why he was there to press for ambitious climate action.

“Imagine you have a decent life, working hard, raising your family, with a home on the edge of a town and the forest,” Ken Smith told a room full of climate activists from around the world. “Then one day, a forest fire breaks out and threatens to engulf your home. You grab everything you can in your two arms and flee with your family. The fire continues to follow, until as you run you come to a river.”

“You have only two choices,” Smith went on. “To perish or to discard everything you own and swim across.

“Or, if you had started earlier, you could have built a bridge.”

Just months after he spoke these words, Smith was back home in Alberta evacuating his own family from an epic fire in Fort McMurray — a prophetic fulfilment of his own warning.

There is a saying about the dynamics of change. “Transition is assured. Justice is not.”

Without a managed transition plan in place, workers and communities in Canada that rely on the oil and gas industry for their jobs and livelihoods face only the grimmest choices. 

Working people have witnessed too many hollowed out communities and poverty wage jobs left behind from market booms and busts or unjust trade deals. Empty promises or half-measures are not enough. We need a comprehensive approach that creates good green jobs and drives inclusive workforce development, led by and including affected workers and communities.

The federal task force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities has outlined some of the principles needed to achieve change with dignity, but it didn’t go far enough.

We need just transition legislation that reaches much further across society and the economy.

Relying on market forces won’t be enough, either. In fact, justice won’t happen without strong public leadership. Canada should create new public economic institutions and expand public ownership of services and utilities across the economy to implement the transition.

In his recent book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, Seth Klein details how during the Second World War this country created 28 Crown corporations to regulate the economy or produce needed material for victory.

Canada financed this effort because, in the words of one cabinet minister, “if we lose the war, nothing else matters.”

We can’t afford to lose the war for survival on this planet. There is no doubt that achieving a job-rich transition to a low-carbon future will require investment of time and money.

But there are precedents. Society has enacted sweeping reforms to tackle tainted food, workplace toxins, polluted water, child labour and women’s rights. These “disruptive agendas” forced a change in prevailing business practices, and they succeeded in dramatically improving our world.

Addressing the climate crisis calls for an even more comprehensive approach. Sound, well-planned legislation for a just transition must help protect and strengthen worker rights and empower workers in the process.

New laws could mandate financial supports and training for those impacted by the transition to give them a bridge between jobs and keep their communities economically vibrant.

Just transition planning can also safeguard good-paying jobs by protecting workers’ rights to unionize and have a place at the table as change happens. It can ensure migrant justice by guaranteeing full and permanent status for migrant workers.

And it can respect and bolster Indigenous rights, sovereignty and knowledge by including Indigenous peoples in climate policy planning and implementation.

The fact is that every workplace will be changing to reach low-carbon or net-zero standards. A Green New Deal means ensuring that those who have often been left out of the existing economy are explicitly included in our shared sustainable future. Employment equity and community benefits agreements are essential aspects of this work.

In its recent roadmap for a just transition, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has laid out a central role for a Crown corporation investing in new infrastructure and helping accelerate economic diversification away from fossil fuels.

Public ownership would emphasize the public interest — job creation and community power — rather than corporate profits.

Meanwhile, expanding public ownership of services like transit and electricity and adopting an industrial strategy for manufacturing new green products, can grow job opportunities in those sectors too.

Earlier this month, more than 50 local initiatives were working across the country to build grassroots support for a just transition as part of a week of action.

And yet another poll revealed that Canadians want their government to take faster and bolder action to facilitate a just transition away from fossil fuels.

These are good reminders that when governments are too slow or weak to act, and despite the efforts of powerful adversaries like the oil and gas lobby, the people won’t wait.

In the years ahead, Canada will be tested by storms, droughts and wildfires, as well as our treatment of climate refugees.

I hope we meet that test.

Sign our letter to Trudeau demanding just transition legislation now!