Just Transitions and Green New Deals

The broad range of Just Transition proposals are necessary, but not adequate, to reverse climate heating. These proposals must be synthesized into a Democratic Just Transition that pursues an open-ended programme and strategy for transitions that unite all workers and communities.

For better or for worse there is now a plethora of “Just Transition” (JT) concepts and programmes. These are a response to the crisis facing humanity and the natural world with global heating. In some countries they are also described as a “Green New Deal” (GND). All of these and probably more will be promoted by their champions as humanity heads towards the Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow in late October.[i] Many, but not all of them, contain rich material that shows what can be done to reverse the momentum of climate crisis by 2030.

However, the plethora of JT proposals and the ideas behind them can itself be an obstacle to winning the changes of direction that are required before 2030 and, that cannot be reversed after that. Some share commonalities and are seriously researched, with specific and detailed strategies for broad action. Others are conceptual or narrowly focused. Some proposals argue that the climate and economic crises are interconnected. Key examples of Just Transition proposals can be viewed  here, and here[ii]. Some proposals have been reviewed to demonstrate that the response must move the economy beyond capitalism.

How do we assess, from the point of view of workers, the different ideas and programmes that come before us? How do we synthesize a programme that can unite peoples’ mass organisations in a focused effort that more adequately forces change in the face of opposition?

In 1977 Laurie Carmichael, former President of the CPA, ACTU Assistant Secretary and AMWU Assistant National Secretary[iii], set out the why and how to put together a Peoples Economic Programme for those times (click here). He emphasized a clear critical analysis of the prevailing macro situation – the continuity and changes in the development of capitalism happening at that time.

Carmichael’s lecture (later a pamphlet) suggests a framework to help us in the union movement and the broad left to evaluate what is being put forward in our times and, to help synthesize what is available into a “programme of and by the people”.

Principles of a Democratic Just Transition: programme and strategy

  1. The DJT programme is open-ended. Otherwise, it is not transitional. Thus, the points in the programme must be achievable within a time frame (see below). They must also lay a foundation for more of the necessary change that would take continuing effort to achieve and, make irreversible what has been achieved.
  2. The DJT programme reverses global heating by reducing and removing carbon, replaced with renewables – in all dimensions of the economy, perhaps starting with energy extraction and supply.

  3. The DJT programme raises the living standards of the working class - most of humankind. The proposals must ensure job continuity and new jobs. Job continuity means existing workers move to new safe jobs at the same or a higher rate of pay and at the standard working week. Here is an example: Tackling Inequality. This is a cornerstone of JT. The silent reluctance of many workers to actively drive transition requires this element of the JT programme.
  4. The DJT programme embeds existing and improved forms of democratic control that reduce the power and control of corporations and brown governments. Democratic just transition means local, regional, and state peoples’ councils define the priorities for de-carbonising in their patch and are assisted by parliamentary government to do so. JT requires enabling government, not controlling government. For example, it is important that government provides support funding for technical assistance and fixed capital where otherwise not available. Thus, Democratic Just Transition (DJT) destabilises and replaces established power and its opposition to the proposed DJT programme.

  5. The DJT programme enables rapid change. Effective momentum to decarbonise must be well under way before 2030. That’s what the science tells us (see here and here). The “urgency imperative” is real and is not negotiable. Associated reversal of trends to poverty and precarity are just as urgent to build and reinforce popular support for the required momentum shift.

  6. The DJT programme recognises the interaction between the climate crisis and economic instability and crisis. The economic crisis partly exists because of the system’s drive to find new sources of raw materials, extract them, and turn them into commodities for private profitability. We have climate heating in the extraction and production of commodities driven by private corporations whose reason for doing so is always profit and accumulation before anything. Private profiteering must be replaced by democratically driven public ownership, especially in energy production, supply, and distribution. This is also a cornerstone of DJT in each wave of transition and arises out of the logic of deeper democratic control.

  7. The JT programme draws on and escalates mass movements of the peoples. Does the JT proposal start with technical experts in technology, policy formation, lobbying knowhow and so on? If so, at what point does it transfer command and control to people’s organisations? Does it believe in or trust that process? If not, it will face setbacks and be repelled by those who currently own and control power.

A Just Transition programme is not a strategy

Much more discussion on strategy is critical, starting with people’s organisations, like the members in unions, school and tertiary students, pensioner organisations and anti-poverty groups.

DJT based on such principles will be opposed by some, including in the labour and environment movements. Some will wish to defend their own silo as the most important “director” of how change should happen, and then compete with others in doing so.

The Australian government is getting away with its disgraceful anti-climate change adaptation agenda partly because of inadequate efforts to synthesize the large and growing opposition to it.  Coordination and synthesis are the key to producing an effective response.

Those who argue for a JT but wish to exclude serious changes to how economic power is wielded (that regularly turns into economic crisis and instability) must explain themselves. That’s where most employers and their organisations stand. Their just transition is intended to maintain their power to exploit both humans and nature. They will not take seriously the requirement to carefully husband the new resources that replace coal for the “renewables economy”.

Starting locally or nationally, or both, the struggle for a DJT must be supported by a cohering mass movement that learns as it goes to defeat its privileged and powerful opposition. In this sense, the implementation of change is political, not just technical, or technological and it does not depend only on parliamentary processes as we know them. The popular learning must win the battle of ideas and then rise to higher levels of determination in the struggle to implement the programme and to prevent any future attempt to slow or reverse it.

Continuing with only a plethora of JTs is a self-indulgent luxury that no one on this planet can afford. It is time to discuss and act on cohering the efforts of people’s organisations, including those who prioritise the environment and those that prioritise the economic. The potential lies in the search for what is common, or potentially common, in the existing proposals of various organisations and at any level possible – local, state, or national.

Regrettably, at this time there is no single organisation in Australia that can take on this synthesizing task. Solving that problem is an urgent, immediate step. If not, we remain dependent on winning a change of government – as if that is going to be enough.



[i] COP26 is the next annual UN climate change conference, and the summit will be attended by the countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994. Its purpose is to produce global understandings, agreements, and commitments to slow down and reverse global heating. It is organised by the United Nations as an international government meeting. Significant numbers of corporations and people’s organisations also attend to lobby governments to make joint decisions that protect their divergent interests. The people’s organisations will be seeking support for a Just Transition outcome that takes into account the 2030 urgency that is required following the ICCP report just a few weeks ago.

[ii] Other major JT proposals include: https://unitedworkers.org.au/climate/ and https://www.sydney.edu.au/sydney-policy-lab/news-and-analysis/news-commentary/a-real-deal.html and https://www.hunterjobsalliance.org.au/declaration

[iii] Communist Party of Australia, Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (formerly “Metalworkers”)