Rise to the Challenge: Advocate for a Just Transition 

By Kelly Campbell, Policy Director

The Columbia River has been at the center of the region’s economy and energy systems since time immemorial. It has always been a place where communities have come together to share ideas and goods, and harvest life-giving salmon and other sustaining foods. The river has been a place of abundance, connection, and energy. 

In the past 150 years, the river and those who call it home have borne the brunt of the extraction of energy from the Columbia. Industrial discharges, dams, and the Hanford Nuclear Site are just a few examples of how an extractivist attitude has harnessed the energy of the Columbia in ways that have caused devastating harm to the river and people who depend on it. 

Today, as we face climate chaos, those of us who were raised to understand this extractivist mindset as “normal” must embrace new paradigms to ensure that a life-sustaining Columbia River is here for future generations. Our challenge: apply the principles of a just transition to a clean energy future to the Columbia Basin. 

What is a Just Transition? 

The phrase “just transition” has been thrown around in recent years and definitions abound. About 10 years ago, a colleague in the environmental justice movement introduced me to the Movement Generation’s “Strategy Framework for a Just Transition,” and suddenly it all clicked. Here was a framework that explained both our current reality and a vision of where a just transition from fossil fuels would take us. It begins with the premise that transition is inevitable, justice is not. I was intrigued. 

The strategy lays out the tenets of our current extractivist economy, which is based on exploitation, consumerism, extraction of resources, and a colonial mindset of hoarding wealth and power, propped up by militarism. It outlines a way out of this economy by “stopping the bad” and “building the new” to create a living economy that centers on cooperation and is supported by regenerative resources, caring and sacredness, ecological and social well being, and deep democracy. 

The just transition framework values include driving racial justice and social equity, shifting economic control to communities, democratizing wealth and the workplace, advancing ecological restoration, relocalizing most production and consumption, and retaining and restoring cultures and traditions. 

You may be thinking, this all looks very neat and tidy in a theoretical strategy framework, but how does it play out in real life? And what does it look like on the Columbia River? 

An Energy Vision for the Columbia

As we transition to a living economy and clean energy future in the Columbia Basin, we must examine and learn from the mistakes of the past. This means a shift in power of who makes decisions, a shift from a colonial, extractivist mindset to a living economy mindset, a shift in the questions we ask, the values we hold, and the vision we seek. 

Some of the campaigns Columbia Riverkeeper is best known for fit squarely in the “stopping the bad” framework outlined in the just transition strategy framework by preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure along the Columbia River. Along with coalition partners, and in large part thanks to Tribes putting their treaty rights on the line, we have shared in phenomenal successes preventing multiple attempts to build huge coal, oil, and gas infrastructure along the river and the region. These wins should be celebrated as a critical component of the just transition.  

A just transition shifts power, putting those most impacted at the center. For the Columbia River Basin, this includes Tribal Nations and Indigenous peoples who have been the stewards of the river since time immemorial. Their knowledge will be invaluable in creating a just transition to the living economy. Columbia River Tribes are not just “stakeholders” to be consulted, but sovereign nations that should hold significant decision-making power in determining what the just transition looks like for the region. 

We are fortunate that the four Columbia River Tribes that make up the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC)—the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama Tribes—have developed a fantastic resource for a just transition along the Columbia.

The CRITFC Energy Vision for the Columbia River Basin looks at the four major challenges facing the region: salmon and steelhead near extinction, the climate crisis, the need for renewable energy, and the importance of properly siting new energy projects. The report includes a series of specific recommendations that lead to a “vision of a Columbia Basin electric power system that supports abundant and sustainable fish and wildlife populations, protects tribal treaty and cultural resources, and provides clean, reliable, and affordable electricity.” One main takeaway is an emphasis on maximizing energy efficiency as a way to address the climate crisis and support healthy fish and wildlife populations. The vision provided by CRITFC is a guidebook for a just transition in the region and beyond. 

Campaign to Protect Pushpum: Just Transition in Action

Holding the values of a just transition has led Columbia Riverkeeper to make some choices that in an extractivist worldview might appear controversial. A current example isour campaign in solidarity with the Yakama Nation and other Tribes to protect Pushpum (the mother of all roots) by opposing the Goldendale pumped storage development, which is billed as clean energy. In our view, it’s not clean energy if it exploits and destroys irreplaceable Tribal cultural resources. In the strategic framework this campaign embraces the value of retaining and restoring cultures and traditions. It points us toward the caring and sacred worldview. 

Simone Anter, Columbia Riverkeeper’s staff attorney who leads our Protect Pushpum campaign, spoke at a recent community forum hosted by local group Friends of the White Salmon River. It was held in the Klickitat county seat of Goldendale, Washington, near the project site. 

When I talked to Simone before the event, she was nervous about who would turn out for the forum. The project backers have promised significant economic support to local residents, which resulted in a heated and contentious local hearing last year. 

In contrast, this time Simone reported that the forum attracted over 50 participants with a variety of viewpoints who engaged in an honest and productive dialogue about the project, its harms, potential benefits, and alternatives. Other speakers included Yakama Nation Rock Creek Band members Elaine Harvey and Bronsco Jim Jr., who shared their knowledge of the devastation the project would cause to cultural resources, and Eric Strid of Columbia Gorge Climate Action Network, who presented the case for battery storage that would be more cost effective and less destructive than a pumped storage project on sacred land. 

While the forum didn’t resolve the issue of the pumped storage project, it did open up a space for robust dialogue and a shift towards a deeper democracy, which moves toward the vision of cooperation in the living economy. It also underscored the importance of careful siting of energy projects highlighted in the CRITFC Energy Vision. 

Addressing Climate Panic

One dangerous dynamic in the climate movement is what I am calling “climate panic.” It goes like this: because climate change is the existential threat of our time, we must immediately build [insert favorite energy project here] without a thorough vetting of the consequences because climate chaos trumps all other concerns. While I am hugely sympathetic to the urgency of action required by the climate crisis, generally operating out of panic mode doesn’t produce wise decisions. This behavior needs to be called out as an impediment to the just transition. 

The climate panic argument is often connected to a specific silver-bullet type of energy project, as in, “We must build new nuclear, an energy cable through the river, a renewable fuel terminal, poorly developed green hydrogen, etc.” in order to save ourselves from climate chaos. Sometimes, when examined closely, these projects are harmful greenwashing and come straight out of the extractivist playbook, even by the same corporations that got us into this climate crisis in the first place. Operating from a place of climate panic can also divert huge amounts of funding to corporate interests and away from genuine climate solutions. It often includes the idea of sacrifice zones–areas that “don’t matter” to the dominant society. A just transition rejects the idea of sacrifice zones or sacrifice people–these come from an extractivist worldview. Instead of operating out of climate panic, we must engage with organizer adrienne maree brown’s concept of “moving at the speed of trust.”

We have to get serious about following a just transition mode that challenges us to act deliberately and to ground our actions in values. A just transition acknowledges that the transition won’t be easy and it won’t be based on old models of urgency and pushing projects forward without looking at the possible negative consequences. It will require us to stand up for building the new regenerative economy, and rejecting the extractivist economy we are so accustomed to. Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets or quick fixes. We have to be in this for the long haul–moving at the speed of trust. 

Columbia Riverkeeper’s Role in the Just Transition

A just transition challenges Columbia Riverkeeper and other organizations to reimagine our roles in shifting power and leadership to those most harmed from the current economy. Are we centering racial justice in our work? What is our theory of change? How do we connect to broader social justice movements? These are all important questions organizations like Columbia Riverkeeper must grapple with as we determine how to use the power and privilege we have towards creating the just transition.

Operating from a just transition framework comes from a place of hope and a belief that another world is possible, that there is a place for us there, that we can build it. It’s a place of creativity, abundance, and joy. A place like the Columbia River. 

To learn more about the concept of a just transition, check out the strategy framework, and the accompanying zine, “From Banks and Tanks to Sharing and Caring.”