A few years ago, I was asked to participate as a labour law expert on a giant research project run out of York University called Work in a Warming World. I set out to find out what labour law academics had been writing about when it comes to climate change. I found very little. It turns out that while scientists and economists mostly agree that climate change will have important effects on labour markets, labour lawyers have participated very little in discussions about how law should prepare for those changes.
So my project turned on a question: How can we bring labour law into the climate change discussion?
The outcome was a chapter in a new book called Transnational Labour Law, and a new article that is available for free download if you are interested.
The paper is called “A Law of Just Transitions?: Putting Labor Law to Work on Climate Change” I’ve presented drafts of this paper at conferences at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Toronto.
What is Just Transitions Law?
“Just transitions” is an idea developed by the North American labour movement (born in Canada, actually), but has since been adopted as a mantra by such global institutions as the ILO and the United Nations Environmental Program. Although there’s growing interest in the concept of a “just transition” to a greener economy, there has to date been little substantive dialogue by lawyers and law makers about what role law would play in developing policy driven by the theory of a just transition:
“There appears to be an emerging framework that allows for a Just Transition to operate on several levels, ranging from the global-societal level down to workplaces and local communities. This framework is grounded in some well-established social practices in the face of job challenges, and is reflected in the ongoing work of the ILO, the trade unions, national and local governments, business and industry, and community-based organizations. However, it is a framework that has been structured around a principle and a goal. The principle holds that the costs and benefits of a transition to sustainability should be shared widely across society. The goal is to generalize this principle at the level of policy. Steps are being taken here and there to turn the Just Transition approach into reality, but there is still a long way to go before it becomes a policy norm.”
United Nations Environmental Programme (p. 278)
Just Transition recognizes that some jobs and industries will change or disappear altogether as a result of climate change, while others will emerge as economies transition towards “greener” economies. Their will be winners and losers in this transition, as there always are when economies transition, and this distribution will be experienced at both the domestic, regional, and international levels. Check out this recent paper prepared by the Centre for Policy Alternatives exploring the meaning of just transitions in the Canadian context. Today, there is quite a lot of writing on “just transition” and what it means, but hardly any of it is written by labour law scholars. This is a shame, because labour lawyers know quite a bit about how law can shape and pursue economic outcomes while being guided by a theory of justice.
We could leave it to market forces to decide on how the risks and rewards of climate change and the economic transitions it will produce are distributed. Or, we could plan for the transition, and use law and policy to guide a transition based on a theory of justice. In my new paper, I propose that we study climate change and its potential impacts on labour markets through the lens of a new legal field called “Just Transitions Law“.
How we define the boundaries of legal fields influences how we perceive legal and policy challenges and how we craft legal solutions to those problems.
A Law of Just Transitions would re-draw the boundaries of a legal field around climate change, bringing together insights from labor law, environmental law, and environmental justice law in novel ways. The legal field would be defined by two boundaries:
1. A Factual matrix: Laws that affect or respond to a transition to a greener economy; and
2. A Normative Theory of Justice: The distribution of costs, risks, and rewards associated with this transition should be distributed in a “just” manner.
As I explain in the paper, Just Transitions Law would include much that is familiar to labour lawyers, since labour law is what we use to pursue justice at work. However, some areas of labour law will take on renewed importance, such as unemployment insurance law and retraining policies, to help bridge those workers whose jobs are lost in the transition. However, Just Transitions Law would also include areas of law that are new to labour law, including aspects of environmental law, immigration law, energy law, property law, and land use law, among other fields. The argument is that there may be value in re-bundling aspects of existing legal fields into a new legal boundary defined by the effects of climate change and the economy. Doing so would allow policy makers to better grasp legal and policy strategies that produce a more organized, less harmful transition towards a greener economy.
See what you think.