Social justice and climate action are two pieces of the same puzzle

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Activists gather with banners during a Fridays for Future demonstration against climate change in Genoa, Italy, 19 March 2021 [LUCA ZENNARO / EPA-EFE]

Politicians attending the Porto Social Summit this week must understand that social justice and climate action go hand in hand and are key to preventing the loss of a generation, writes Tea Jarc and Adélaïde Charlier.

Tea Jarc is President of the Youth Committee of the European Trade Union Confederation. Adélaïde Charlier is a youth climate activist. 

COVID-19 has marked our young adulthoods. We’ll look back at it and see months trapped at home, jobs lost, education turned upside down, travel banned, grief. It’s changed the course of our adolescence and young adulthood so much that it would be easy to focus forever on it. 

But we have no choice but to look to the future.

A century ago, European young people were the first lost generation. Millions of lives were lost at war or marked by trauma for decades afterwards. Now, we’re at risk of being the next lost generation – with our early lives turned upside down by COVID-19 and climate breakdown making our adulthood more difficult than we can even imagine.

We are part of a generation growing up seeing forests burn, waters rise, glaciers collapse, heatwaves kill. We know that unless we transform the way we live, we face even worse in future. That’s why a recent poll of 22,000 young Europeans found that climate change and environmental degradation were bigger concerns than the spread of infectious diseases – even amidst a pandemic.

We each come from different traditions. In Europe, the climate movement has historically existed alongside movements for social equality – like two train tracks, separate but moving forward in the same direction. 

Now, in the face of huge threats, it’s time to recognise that these movements are converging. The powerful youth climate movement, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, and the trade union movement are already speaking the same language.

Both recognise that we will not manage to stabilise our climate without transforming our economy. In this transition, workers must be treated fairly and have a social safety net to catch them. And we won’t live in a just world if we allow rising temperatures to destroy the lives and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people, who climate change affects most. 

Politicians must take the lead and look to the future. They are lobbied relentlessly by people who try to make us believe that our fights oppose each other. But the truth is, social justice and climate action are two sides of the same coin. Thinking of them as two separate things is a relic of the past – and policy-makers cannot be blind to it.

This summer will be make or break. In July, the EU will lay out its Fit for 55 agenda, explaining its plan to cut emissions by more than half before 2030 – which is only a first step to bring its climate targets closer to scientific recommendations, but still not ambitious enough to face the climate crisis.

This will be the first test for our politicians: can they throw their weight behind decisions that transition away from fossil fuels, create a Just Transition and create well-paid, quality jobs and good lives for people across Europe?

There are so many ways to do it. Imagine that instead of just standing by and watching skyrocketing youth unemployment, we guide young people into skilled trades while renovating polluting buildings, updating them with modern technology. Imagine investing in renewable power plants in areas where communities depend on insecure coal mining jobs and training up workers and creating thousands of quality jobs and new infrastructure that brings hope to left-behind towns. 

The key first step to achieving this is at the Porto Social Summit this week – where all eyes will be on European leaders acting on the European Pillar of Social Rights. They’ll need to commit to the social security policies that will make our transition towards a carbon-neutral society a success.

How do we bring jobs to the hardest-hit areas in Europe? What does a social safety net need to look like in a world where climate disasters will hit more of our lives? And what steps will they need to take immediately to start the recovery and address social justice and climate change? 

Recovery plans are a golden opportunity for national governments to bring these things together. Leaders have the political license to invest huge amounts of money, making this a once-in-a-career moment to create a green, equitable and inclusive recovery for citizens at risk of becoming disillusioned by the European project. 

If they fail, they’ll be left struggling to deal with the consequences – because social justice boosts climate action, and climate action boosts social justice. What good is an emissions reduction plan if we don’t invest in workers who roll up their sleeves and build the technology of the future? What good is rising GDP and the growing fortunes of few individuals if this puts humanity at stake? This is a time when political reputations are won or lost. 

In ten years time, will we still be divided by propaganda from fossil fuel lobbyists convincing politicians that saving jobs can only come from polluting the planet? Or, will a new generation of workers see their regions revived by new, quality jobs in industries that help humans and the planet thrive?

We will keep moving forward, leading the way – and we’ll be watching every step politicians take. It is their choice now to decide if they will join a generation of young people who understand: climate action and social justice are two sides of the same coin. 

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