Contesting just transitions: Climate delay and the contradictions of labour environmentalism

Steven Harry*, Tomas Maltby, Kacper Szulecki

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The notion of ‘just transition’ (JT) is an attempt to align climate and energy objectives with the material concerns of industrial workers, frontline communities, and marginalised groups. Despite the potential for fusing social and environmental justice, there is growing concern that the concept is being mobilised in practice as a form of ‘climate delayism’: a problem more ambiguous than open forms of denialism as it draws in multiple and conflictual agents, practices, and discourses. Using an historical materialist framework, attentive to both energy-capital and capital-labour relations, we show how JT is vulnerable to forces and relations of climate delay across both fossil capital and climate capital hegemonic projects. We review this through an engagement with the climate obstructionism literature and the theory of labour environmentalism: the political engagement of trade unionists and workers with environmental issues. As tensions within the labour movement surface amidst the unsettling of the carbon capital hegemony, we assess the degree to which (organised) labour—as an internally differentiated, contradictory movement—is participating in climate breakdown through a ‘praxis of delay’. Trade unions and industrial workers are often implicated in resisting or undermining transitions, but this is related significantly to their structural power relations vis a vis the fossil hegemony. Notably, JT negotiations are themselves structurally embedded within the carbon capital economy. The general preferences of trade unions for social over environmental justice might be prevalent but are neither universal nor inevitable; JT is open and contested political terrain, and labour-environmental struggles remain imperative for building just energy futures.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103114
Publication statusPublished - 18 Apr 2024


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