The Relevance of Choice in a Just Transition

16 September 2019  |  BY Daniel Burkett, UNSW  |  Just Transitions

In 2015, nearly all countries agreed to limit the global average temperature rise to no more than 2°C compared to preindustrial levels. Attaining this goal will come at a cost to carbon-intensive industries—and this will have flow-on effects for others. To take one example, the closure of the Hazelwood Power Station in Latrobe Valley saw the loss of 750 jobs. But the closures of these industries entail loss and damage beyond the immediate unemployment of their workers. They are high impact economic events that have far-reaching implications for the employees’ dependants, local governments, local businesses, community organisations, financiers, and investors.

Just Transitions and Choice

A just transition will seek to distribute the costs of transition in the right kind of way. One method for doing this is to provide transitional assistance to those who are negatively impacted by the transition. Unfortunately, political realities often mean that resources are finite, and that recipients of transitional assistance must therefore be prioritised. Should this prioritisation take into account the extent to which an agent’s predicament is a result of their own choices? As Connie Van Eyk—wife and mother of employees at the now-closed Hazelwood Power Station in the Latrobe Valley in Australia—states: “We’ve raised our family in the Valley, we chose to live here, with the knowledge that eventually Hazelwood Power Station would close…” How relevant is the employee’s choice to work in this industry? How about the carbon-intensive industry’s choice to continue to pursue a particular kind of economic activity, or the financier’s choice to finance, or the investor’s choice to invest?

Even if choice is relevant, it will not be enough to merely show that an agent’s current situation is a direct result of a decision they made in the past. If Amy drinks a glass of Cholera-laced water thinking it to be clean and pure, we are unlikely to claim that her choice will diminish the aid we should provide to her. In order to be responsible for our choices, our decisions must be informed—and informed in the right kinds of ways. Amy’s choice may also be less relevant where she was forced to drink the water out of necessity (say, because she was dying of thirst) or because of compulsion (say, because a kidnapper held a gun to her head and insisted she drink). In this way, then, our choices must—to at least some extent—be free.

The Choices of Carbon-Intensive Industries

Consider, then, the choices that have led carbon-intensive industries to their current predicament. These are usually omissions rather than actions: the choice to not modernise, to not diversify, to not engage in research and development—that is, to not do all they could to mitigate future losses and insure against inevitable economic downturn. Did carbon-intensive industries make these choices knowing that their activities were (1) contributing to severe environmental damage, and (2) were therefore likely to be curtailed or prevented in the future?

In truth, it will be hard for any carbon-intensive industry to argue that they did not. At the very least, 1990 can seen as a watershed point past which claims of ignorance can no longer hold force. It was in this year that the International Panel on Climate Change issued its first—and widely publicised—report linking human-produced greenhouse gas emissions and harmful climate change. There is evidence, however, that carbon-intensive industries knew of this even earlier. In 1982 Exxon predicted that atmospheric CO2 levels would be double pre-industrial levels by 2060, raising average global temperatures by 2°C. A similar report by Shell in 1988 predicted that this same increase would occur much earlier, by 2030. Such was Shell’s concern, they redesigned a $3-billion North Sea natural gas platform to sit higher above the ocean surface in order to account for sea level rise resulting from global warming. Indeed, evidence suggests that Humble Oil—a predecessor of ExxonMobil—was aware of rising CO2 levels and its ability to cause global warming as far back as 1957.

Not only have many carbon-intensive industries knowingly chosen their current predicament, but they have also done so freely. These companies are large, powerful entities that have near absolute freedom to operate as they desire. The failure of any carbon-intensive industry to modernise or diversify cannot be seen as a result of necessity, compulsion, or a lack of reasonable alternatives.

The Choices of Employees of Carbon-Intensive Industries

Considering how choice applies to the employees of carbon-intensive industries is more complex. An employee’s predicament is the product of several different decisions, including the choices to commence—and continue—employment for the carbon-intensive industry, and the choice to pursue that career to the exclusion of all others (that is, by not seeking alternative training and/or education).

We must then consider what knowledge these employees had concerning the future feasibility of their chosen industry. While the watershed date of 1990 has some relevance, merely knowing that you work in a carbon-intensive industry is not enough. While Connie van Eyk confessed that her family chose to build their livelihood around employment at a coal-fired power station, she goes on to say that they did so with “an expectation there would be an investment, or at least some science applied, to develop new sustainable energy”. In this way, knowledge and beliefs regarding the plans of a carbon-intensive industry to modernise and diversify are of great importance. This will be particularly important where a carbon-intensive industry has deliberately deceived its employees about their future job security.

Further, we must consider whether or not an employee made their choices freely—specifically, inquiring whether they had any other reasonable alternatives available. Many factors might have limited the options of these employees upon entering the workforce. An individual who is born and raised in an isolated community that’s built upon one particular industry might have great difficulty doing anything but going into that same industry. While an employee could move location to explore other careers, it’s questionable whether departing one’s home—leaving one’s family and community—for work opportunities can indeed be counted as a ‘reasonable’ alternative.

In this way, the relevance of choice in a just transition for employees is far less definitive than it was for carbon-intensive industries. While the knowledge and freedom of carbon-intensive industries (both of which are very high in degree) can be largely generalised, there is much greater variation among employees. There may be employees whose knowledge and freedom will be such that their previous choices could possibly diminish or disqualify their claim to transitional assistance. On the other hand, there will be many employees who were so deceived—and whose options were so limited—that their claim to assistance remains strong.

Ultimately however, distinctions between these different cases of employees may be largely irrelevant. Whatever role choice comes to play in assessing a just transition, there will most likely be at least one other important principle in play: namely, that regardless of what decisions an individual has made, justice will consider it unacceptable for us to allow people to suffer extreme hardships. When an individual’s livelihood is at stake, justice may require us to intervene no matter what—even if an agent’s predicament is purely of their own making.


International Labour Organisation (2017). Global Forum on Just Transition – Climate change, decent work, and sustainable development <—ed_emp/—emp_ent/documents/publication/wcms_617967.pdf>.

International Panel on Climate Change (1992). Climate Change: The 1990 and 1992 IPCC Assessments <>.

United Nations (2015). United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement <>.

Van Eyk, Connie (2019). “Opinion: Politicians – stop bickering and start listening” <>.