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Building the New: Just Transitions & LPE


Angela P. Harris is Professor Emerita at the UC Davis School of Law.

Caroline Parker (@CarolineLParker) is a former co-president of the LPE student group and editor for the blog.

This is the opening post for our ongoing series on Just Transitions.


The director of the Churchill Marine Observatory at the University of Manitoba has been quoted as saying, “From the viruses and the bacteria right up to the whales, every single thing is being affected by climate change.” Human institutions, including the governance systems examined by Law and Political Economy, are no exception. This series employs a social movement-based framework — Just Transition — to consider how law and legal education might respond to the upheavals of climate change.

While the phrase “just transition” grew out of a specific labor struggle, as our contributor David Doorey explains, it is amenable to a wide range of applications, from energy to policing to housing to trade. In its broadest meaning, such as that employed by the Oakland-based organization Movement Generation, “Just Transition” is a call to infuse questions of justice into all human institutions as we fight for an ecologically sustainable future. This call is deeply connected with the core concerns of LPE in at least four ways. 

First, and most concretely, decarbonization – ending the planet-wide reliance on fossil fuels for economic production, distribution, and exchange – bears heavily on areas of law and policy in which many LPE scholars are critically engaged, including labor, technology, and global trade. Indeed, decarbonization is not only a technical and economic challenge, but a political and social challenge as well, inviting the kind of silo-busting for which LPE is known. LPE thus shares the perspective embraced by Just Transition activists—evident at COP26—that climate mitigation and adaptation should be viewed broadly as problems of political and social justice.

Second, the present failure of markets to respond appropriately to climate risk helps sharpen LPE critiques of the assumptions that undergird neoliberalism. As this blog has documented, central to the LPE movement is a shift away from the narrow methods of Law and Economics toward the rediscovery of “political economy” in analyzing and managing the social fields we commonly associate with market activity. Climate change exemplifies why the shift is important – and why we need new intellectual and policy tools to accomplish it. For example, Madison Condon argues in a forthcoming article that, despite the apparently newly “woke” statements from market actors from Blackrock Capital to BP on the subject, markets are not accurately incorporating climate change-related risks into asset prices — an observation that upends the conventional wisdom about the accuracy of the price system, and suggests that global markets may well worsen climate chaos through the misallocation of investment capital. 

Third, climate disruption invites us to consider the future of our institutions at their most basic level. In the context of “anthropocenic disruption,” René Reich-Graefe argues that all human systems will soon become “disrupted, unstable, and often non-resilient.” This fact raises deep questions about the competence and relevance of courts, law schools, and the legal academy itself.  Writing about tort law, Doug Kysar and Henry Weaver have wondered how courts will “hold up under a barrage of catastrophic harms.” We might ask similar questions about other legal institutions, including legal scholarship. 

Movement Generation’s call for political, economic and social transformations adequate to a radically unknown future presents the fourth, and potentially most daunting, challenge to legal scholars. As members of an inherently conservative profession, trained to take for granted its professional norms, procedures, and institutions, law students and faculty are seldom trained to think about world-building. Even our bold calls for society-wide “reparations” for colonialism and slavery are generally addressed to familiar state institutions. How do we imagine human flourishing in a world in which our institutions of governance are inadequate to forestall an existential threat? How do we inculcate the creativity, boldness, and hope necessary to “build the new,” as well as “fight the bad?” 

The authors we invited to kick off this series on Just Transition are not climate experts. Instead, from their perches in labor law, environmental law, international human rights law, corporate governance, and decarceration advocacy, they were asked to reflect on the implications of “just transition” for their work. The results touch on the full range of meanings of Just Transition, from the narrowest to the most expansive.

Because the Anthropocene (also known to some as the Capitalocene or the Colonialcene) really does change everything, however, these pieces are only the beginning of the conversation (or, for those with a dark sense of humor, the tip of the melting iceberg). We want to keep the conversation going, inviting in scholars from all fields. If you have a piece to add to the conversation, pitch us at Help us think into the future!