The case for just transitions

For Catholics, protecting workers, families is critical when transitioning to renewable energy

The United States based Catholic Climate Covenant is tackling a critical issue on March 23rd with its free webinar “Just Transition: Shrinking our Carbon Footprint While Leaving No One Behind.” As the title tells us, the one-hour event will focus on the human impact of shifting away from fossil fuels.

“For the Catholic community, we need to always be 'both/and,'” said the organization’s executive director, Dan Misleh. “We need to both take care of our common home and those impacted by our efforts to conserve energy and deploy renewables. Catholic Climate Covenant offers this webinar to begin these important discussions.”

Misleh added that as Catholics “we know that striving for clean energy has to include caring for the workers being affected by shifts in energy policies. It’s just a part of who we are.”

Guided by the United States bishops

At its foundation, next week’s webinar follows the lead of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Their “Legislative Response to Climate Change” identifies three criteria that any morally acceptable greenhouse gas reduction or energy policy must satisfy.

First, it must “ease the burden on poor people.”

Second, it must “offer some relief for workers who may be displaced because of climate change policies.”

And lastly, it must “promote the development and use of alternate renewable and clean-energy resources, including the transfer of such technologies and technical assistance that may be appropriate and helpful to developing countries in meeting the challenges of global climate change.”

"There's something incredibly poignant about the crisis of the worker in the Appalachian coal communities, as in all fossil fuel communities struck by boom and bust cycles.” Erin Lothes Biviano

But putting this guidance into action requires some thought. That’s where the webinar comes in.

Presenting at “Just Transitions” will be two theologians sharing how these criteria are rooted in Catholic teachings, and how they can be applied to often complex realities.

In particular, the webinar will look at the impacts of moving to clean energy in Appalachian coal communities in the eastern United States.

An intense feeling of sacrifice

"There's something incredibly poignant about the crisis of the worker in the Appalachian coal communities, as in all fossil fuel communities struck by boom and bust cycles,” Dr. Erin Lothes Biviano, one of the presenters, told Catholic Ecology.

Lothes, a theologian specializing in energy ethics at the College of St. Elizabeth in New Jersey, said that because of recent reductions in coal use, “there's just an intense feeling of sacrifice in those communities historically connected to coal.”

She added that coal connects to deeply-rooted American narratives, such as “the expanding frontier thrown open by coal-powered railroads, the humming steelworks, the skyscrapers in great new cities, and all of that built on the backs of coal workers.” She said that while the suffering, risks, and courage of coal workers have always been part of this American narrative, “these issues are intensified today by the health risks confronting coal communities and the global risks of climate change.”

And this, Lothes said, gets to the crux of ethical decision-making around energy policy.

“Given that concern for workers is at the very core of modern Catholic social teaching,” she said, “for the industrialized worker, questions about our moral obligations to coal workers takes on new, burning, relevance today. How can a coal worker be protected when it's not simply a question of fair wages and just working conditions, but ensuring their health and job security when planetary health requires transitioning to a post-coal, post-carbon future? What criteria does Catholic social teaching provide to address justice for coal communities, and in what ways can Catholic social teaching be developed for this critical new context of climate change?”

Helping answer those questions with Lothes will be Dr. Jessica Wrobleski, a native West Virginian and Associate Professor of Religious Studies & Theology at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia. Wrobleski is also a member of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia.

“While coal has been on the wane for decades in Appalachia, it is still necessary to confront the needs of economically vulnerable communities." Jessica Wrobleski

Referring to a 1995 pastoral letter At Home in the Web of Life by the Catholic Bishops of Appalachia, Wrobleski said that that document’s holistic vision of sustainability can begin answering the questions arising out of today’s realities. Wrobleski told Catholic Ecology that At Home in the Web of Life “can be seen as an early articulation of Pope Francis's ‘integral ecology,’ which emphasizes the relationships between ecological and social issues. Due to their proximity to the struggles of coalfield communities, the Appalachian Bishops understood the importance of accounting for environmental, economic, and cultural factors when promoting a vision of social justice.”

Wrobleski added that as important as sound principles may be to a program of social justice, “it is equally crucial not to lose sight of the particular contexts in which those principles are actualized. We know that a transition away from fossil fuels is necessary to the health of our planet and the sustainability of our civilization, but this can mean pain in the short term for those whose lives and livelihood are based in these industries.

“While coal has been on the wane for decades in Appalachia, it is still necessary to confront the needs of economically vulnerable communities as part of a just transition to more sustainable energy sources.”

Global implications of a ‘resource curse’

While the Just Transitions webinar will focus mainly on the Appalachian region of the United States, Lothes and Wrobleski will be presenting teachings and discussing practical realities that apply around the world.

“These issues are absolutely relevant on an international level,” Wrobleski said. “Any time an economy is shaped by dependence on a single industry—especially an extractive, ecologically exploitative industry—similar patterns emerge. Some political economists even speak of a ’resource curse’—the idea that the more geological wealthy a place is, the poorer its people are due to speculation and control from outside interests.”

Wrobleski added that in many cases, “it appears that those who are most economically vulnerable are in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don't’ position with respect to these industries: there may be a recognition of the destruction they cause, but when people see no other viable option, they are willing to accept these risks for the sake of economic subsistence.”

Transitioning to the Gospel

Living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this fallen Eden is never easy. Providentially, the Just Transition webinar will be held on March 23rd, a day when the Catholic calendar remembers Saint Turibius of Mogrovejo (November 16, 1538 – March 23, 1606), a scholar and lawyer who served as a bishop in Peru for almost three decades at a time when colonial treatment of indigenous peoples was often not gospel oriented.

Turibius is known for the sufferings he lived through for defending the people of Peru form those who would aggressively take the resources of the land. And he did so always with a profound trust in Jesus Christ.

In important ways, the Catholic Climate Covenant’s webinar next week will be a twenty-first century continuation of the bishop's work.

And so let us pray to Saint Turibius for this effort—and for the work of Drs. Lothes and Wrobleski—so that we may better understand how best to live that point made by executive director Misleh: to both protect creation by moving away from polluting industries and to do so respectful of the men and women who today need those industries to earn a living.

Visit here for more information and to register for the Just Transition webinar.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.