How to communicate “Just Transition” to union members and communities

Climate Outreach, a U.K.-based organization of  social scientists and communication specialists, has published new research, summarized in the handbook for a general audience, How to Have Conversations about Climate Change, released on December 5.  An earlier handbook released in September was aimed at NGO’s, policymakers and academics who seek to communicate better about Just Transition. Broadening engagement with Just Transition: Opportunities and Challenges is an 18-page handbook with practical recommendations for the language and imagery which reaches people across the political and economic spectrum – with very specific attention to union members. It is based from experience since 2010, including 55 workshops in Alberta in 2017 (7 of which were with oil workers), and interviews with UK union leaders about just transition in 2019. The full reports concerning the Alberta Narratives project is here.

Recommendations from Broadening engagement with Just Transition include:

…..The idea of just transition prompts negative reactions amongst some union representatives, who see it as a conversation about job losses, with little realistic chance of recompense.

…. In previous testing, the imagery and language of ‘justice’ has not resonated well across the political spectrum with centre-right audiences, suggesting that ‘just transition’ may prompt the same response. The subtly different framing of ‘fairness’ may work better with people who hold these values. Fairness is about doing right by everyone involved; justice, by contrast, may imply wrongdoing in the past that must be atoned for.

…People’s sense of identity is often closely bound up with the work they do. Extractive industries like coal mining are often, for example, closely associated with pride and a strong sense of place. Demonstrating gratitude and respect for the contribution of fossil fuels can create a strong basis for mutual discussion in the future – with renewables and natural resources as an extension of that pride.

….When people feel criticised and devalued, they are much less likely to engage. Approaching a conversation without a sense of blame is an important part of a productive dialogue.

….Many communities are turned off by the imagery and stereotypes associated with environmentalism, and will speak more openly with trusted members of their own community. In successful communications, trust between all parties is essential.

A good Canadian example of some of these principles  recently appeared on the CBC website in the form of  an OpEd by Rylan Higgins, now a professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, but formerly an oil worker.  He writes about his experiences in the oil fields in   “‘It’s pretty brutal, pretty unforgiving’: Why the West should move beyond an oilpatch economy” (Nov. 15), and  argues that the fossil industry has “long been one based on inequality, bootstrap individualism, and high-octane opportunism.” Importantly, he urges those working to transition Canada into the green economy “to consider the workers and families in the industry as we do so.” He adds that “the next economic arrangement should put workers [to whom he “tips his hard hat”], families, and the environment first—and investors and corporate bigwigs last.”