The Clean Energy Transition Must Be a Just Transition

By Ben Jealous

When General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford – the “Big Three” American automakers – were close to extinction 15 years ago, their workers and the American people stepped in to save them. The United Auto Workers (UAW) gave back wages and benefits they had every right to get under a contract they had negotiated just a year before.

Now, rather than being paid back, union workers face getting left out of the future of the car business. And the rest of the country is being told we have Hobson’s choice when it comes to electric vehicles – we can have them, but only at a cost to our neighbors who build them.

We see this when Ford announces its slowing construction of a battery plant in Michigan. And when Donald Trump, who leads Republican presidential primary polls, goes to a non-union company outside Detroit to claim that “the auto industry is being assassinated” by the move away from dirty fuels.

Neither auto workers nor the climate can afford for us to fall for this false narrative. If anything, we should see that momentum is moving squarely and more rapidly in the other direction. That’s what President Biden means when he says that talking about the climate is talking about good jobs.

New York’s city council voted unanimously to move its fleet of more than 30,000 municipal vehicles – the largest in the country – to buy only zero emissions cars and trucks beginning in 2025, and heavier vehicles after 2028. By 2035, the entire city fleet will be zero emission.

That’s the same year that California, New York and 14 other states will require all cars and trucks sold to be zero emission vehicles. The standards they’ve agreed to ask carmakers to increase the share of electric vehicles they sell slowly and continuously over the next 13 years.

This isn’t a rash rush to abandon the internal combustion engine and gas pumps overnight, even if our warming planet may need quicker action. That fearmongering is inaccurate and misplaced. It’s a measured, unmistakable direction that UAW leaders see clearly. Their members must benefit from that, they told me when we met in Detroit last month.

Instead, the Big Three have been pushing battery making and electric vehicle assembly to states that don’t offer union workers protection or to plants created through joint ventures that allow them to operate outside the UAW’s deal.

This is an all-too-familiar pattern in this country’s history — corporations, billionaires, and the politicians representing their interests pitting poor and working Americans who actually aspire to the same future against each other. They do it with hyperboles like assassination and altering established expansion plans.

We’re well beyond 2008. Profits for the Big Three are soaring. Consumers want electric vehicles, and as a nation we’re encouraging them to buy them through tax credits passed last year. It’s those cars and trucks that we’ll drive into a livable future. We must ensure that clean energy transition is a fair one to the people who will make it possible.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” published in January.


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