If you grew up in Washington in the 1980s and ’90s, like I did, there was no escaping the furious fight over the spotted owl.
Owls versus loggers was how the conflict was framed, with protesters chanting “families first, owls last” and a restaurant even advertising “fried or broasted spotted owl” on its menu.
But what the decadeslong, bitter debate did not take into account, was that pitting environmental protection against workers was a false choice.
Today, a different framework has gained traction, one that recognizes that solutions to limit the impacts of climate change or protect our environment are not viable if they come at the expense of workers and front-line communities.
That “both-and” approach is the core philosophy behind the “just transition” model.
The Just Transition Alliance describes just transition as “a principle, a process and a practice.”
“The principle of just transition is that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist,” they write. “The process for achieving this vision should be a fair one that should not cost workers or community residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets.”
The concept of just transition is often used around the transformation of whole industries — such as moving from coal power to renewable power — but the vote by the Seattle City Council’s sustainability committee over a week ago to begin the process of phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers offers a case study on how Just Transition principles can be applied on a smaller scale.
Gas-powered leaf blowers are noisy and toxic for human health, and their emissions are terrible for the environment. The California Air Resources Board says running a gas blower for an hour creates “roughly the same amount of smog-forming emissions as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 1,100 miles.”
But as much as many neighborhoods would like to flip a switch and just ban them altogether, it’s not that simple.
A just transition framework asks us to look not only at the health and climate effects of the change, but at the economic and worker impacts as well, with a goal of breaking through logjams on polarizing issues like climate change without sacrificing equity.
According to a June report to assess the impact of gas-powered leaf blowers commissioned by City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, nearly 50% of workers that rely on gas-powered leaf blowers identified as Hispanic, much higher than their proportion of the workforce.
To ban gas-powered blowers without any mitigation for the harm that Latino workers will disproportionately face would perpetuate inequality and economic hardship.
Deric Gruen is the co-executive director of Front and Centered, a Washington coalition of communities of color-led groups that work at the intersection of equity, climate and environmental justice. The organization uses a just transition framework to ensure those most affected by climate change have a seat at the table and influence policy.
We often focus on the technological aspect of change, he said, such as gas versus electric, but “it’s about people first, and moving together. We’re only going to be successful in this transition if we’re actually focused on the people that are going to be most impacted in every sector that we have to transition.”
So in the case of the gas-powered leaf blowers, how could policymakers provide a seat at the decision-making table for the small businesses and workers who would have to make the switch? How could incentives and rebates be created so that the burden does not fall inequitably on the people doing the work?
Pedersen’s report raises these questions and proposes several options for how to balance equity and environmental impacts in the transition away from gas-powered leaf blowers.
In a just transition framework, it’s critical that communities of color and others who are most directly harmed by climate change and pollution are leading the way. That’s where Njuguna Gishuru, a lab leader at the People’s Economy Lab, comes in.
The People’s Economy Lab works to move away from extractive economic systems and advance new sustainable and regenerative models centering communities of color. Their community fellowship program supports community leaders of color in projects that integrate just transition principles.
Gishuru said our communities may be tied to extractive economies by necessity and sometimes it can be hard to translate the just transition framework, but at its core, the model is bringing us back to our regenerative roots.
Regenerative approaches are, in the People’s Economy Lab’s definition, “cooperative, democratic, resilient, and just.”
“The vision of a regenerative economy and what we’re trying to transition to is something that I think is actually intuitive — particularly to Black, Indigenous and people of color. And if we look at our cultural heritage, and the systems we naturally come from, those systems are regenerative,” he said.
Whether it’s about leaf blowers or transitioning from fossil fuels, a just transition approach forces us to consider who will be most affected and how to mitigate harm.
As Gruen put it, “We cannot slow the transition, but we have to also accelerate the conversation about justice.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of the name of Seattle Council Councilmember Alex Pedersen.