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We Need a Positive Vision for the Green Transition

Thorben Albrecht

5 mins - 21 de Noviembre de 2023, 07:00

Political communication about the green transitions is often a story of disaster and deprivation: "The planet is burning and there is little we can do about it - but we must seize the small chance and give up our lifestyles, our achievements and our jobs to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees". It is no wonder that this kind of communication does not work: too negative, abstract goals, no positive emotional message. Not only does it scare the public away from the green transition and any measures to promote it, it also gives space to populist (and all too often popular) responses.

What we need instead is a positive vision for the green transition. A positive vision that is not abstract, but connects to people's everyday lives and feelings. A tangible vision that can become reality in the not too distant future. A vision that does not deny the downsides and trade-offs of the green transition, but finds answers to them. Developing such a vision is certainly not an easy task. However, it is necessary if we are to win and maintain support for a green transition. 

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A "just transition" in the sense that people are compensated for losses is not enough. Instead, we need to find ways to make gains. Investments in new green and digital technologies can lead to productivity gains if they are supported by smart industrial policies. This will also require massive public funding. But these investments will help create wealth and revenue. The key point is that these revenues should not be privatised. Instead, they should be used to strengthen public infrastructure, education and good working conditions. In this way, they can help create the profits to realise a positive vision for our societies.

It is important that public support for citizens affected by the green transition goes beyond financial compensation. Especially when emotions are involved. Compensation for higher energy prices for low and middle income households may work, but compensation for a lost job will not. Money or abstract job opportunities cannot compensate for having to give up a central part of one's life. Even a new job with the same salary, benefits and quality cannot fully compensate for the loss. Emotionally, it is like losing a partner - even a new partner will not completely erase the sense of loss.

Thus, policy should help to preserve as many jobs as possible and change these jobs for the better. That they become green jobs is necessary, but not sufficient. Why not use the productivity gains of the transition to introduce a four-day week for workers. It increases health and well-being, supports a more balanced distribution of care work between the sexes and reduces commuting - and it would add a vision of a better life to the necessities of change. Steelworkers in Germany are demanding just that in the transition from coal to hydrogen-powered steel production. With the new technology, it will be possible to produce the same amount of steel with fewer workers. Why shouldn't this leap in productivity benefit workers who keep their jobs and have to work fewer hours? With this kind of vision, unions could go beyond simply "defending" workers' rights and become drivers of a different path of change with more and better jobs and new workers' rights.

Examples like this could move the narrative around the green transition from burden sharing to achieving gains, opening the window for a vision of transforming lives and society for the better. It would be a vision not only for the planet but also for people. It would require broadening the focus of the green transition and talking about societal progress that goes beyond simply reducing carbon emissions.

It would also be an opportunity to forge a coalition that goes beyond the climate movement. However, this would require policy choices that will provoke resistance on the conservative side: A more equitable distribution of wealth, time and opportunity would be required for this societal vision of a green transition. This would force environmentalists to make a choice: Do they shy away from discussing distributional issues or are they willing to support social struggles? As the old song goes, "Which side are you on?"

This challenge is inevitable if a new vision for the green transition is to be created that leaves behind an elitist approach. While right-wing populists will easily attack a green vision that is perceived as elitist, a more inclusive vision for social change could be attacked by conservatives but is more likely to find a majority.

It is also more likely to overcome growing divisions within our societies. In Germany almost half of the respondents said they were concerned about the social cohesion of society in a survey by the trade union based Hans Böckler Foundation conducted amongst working people. In the first survey in April 2020, the number was 24% - a doubling in just three years.

What is clearly missing here is a unifying element. Researcher Natalie Grimm from the renown Sociological Research Institute Göttingen says: "There is no vison. We are only told what we are no longer allowed to do, what is being taken away from us. It would be more important to create a picture of what we can gain." Especially in times of change and crises, politics needs to offer strong and positive images of the future.

We need a positive societal vision for the green transition - to build support and ensure its success.
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