Leaf blowers: Gas vs. electric shouldn’t pit people vs. people

If you grew up in Washington in the 1980s and ’90s, like I did, there was no escaping the furious fight over the spotted owl.

The greatest battle was between loggers, owls. Conflict was framedProtesters chanting “families first, owls last”A restaurant can even advertise “fried or broasted spotted owl”On its menu.

However, the bitter, decades-long debate didn’t consider that workers and environmental protection were not mutually exclusive.

A new framework has emerged that recognizes that solutions for climate change and protecting the environment cannot be achieved if they are at cost of workers or front-line communities.

That “both-and”approach is the core philosophy behind The Approach “just transition” model.

The Just Transition Alliance describes Just transitionAs “a principle, a process and a practice.” 

“The principle of just transition is that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist,”They write. “The process for achieving this vision should be a fair one that should not cost workers or community residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets.”

The concept of just transition is often used around the transformation of whole industries — such as moving from coal power to renewable power — but the vote by the Seattle City Council’s sustainability committee over a week ago to begin the process of phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers offers a case study on how Just Transition principles can be applied on a smaller scale.

Gas-powered leaf blowers produce toxic fumes that are loud and obnoxious to human health. The California Air Resources BoardAn hour of running a gas blower creates “roughly the same amount of smog-forming emissions as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry 1,100 miles.”

But as much as many neighborhoods would like to flip a switch and just ban them altogether, it’s not that simple. 

To have a just transition framework, we must consider not only the climate- and health-related effects of the changes but also the economic and worker implications.Our goal is not to sacrifice equity, but to break the logjams in polarizing topics such as climate change.  

According to a June reportAlex Pederson (City Councilmember) was commissioned to evaluate the impact of leaf blowers powered by gas on workers. Nearly half of those who depend on leaf blowers are Hispanic. This is a much higher percentage than their share of the workforce.

An imposition of a ban against gas-powered blowers without any mitigation for the harm that Latino workers are disproportionately exposed would perpetuate inequalities.

Deric Gruen serves co-executivedirector Front and CenteredWashington coalition of communities that are led by people of colour, which works at the intersection of climate justice, equity, and climate. The organization uses a just transition framework to ensure that those most affected are represented at the policy-making table and have an influence on policies. 

He said that technology is often overlooked during discussions of change. For example, electric versus gas. “it’s about people first, and moving together. We’re only going to be successful in this transition if we’re actually focused on the people that are going to be most impacted in every sector that we have to transition.”

How can policymakers ensure small businesses and workers have a place at the decision-making tables for gas powered leaf blowers? How could incentives or rebates be created to ensure that the burden of the work is not unfairly shared? 

Pederson’s report raises these questions and proposes several options for how to balance equity and environmental impacts in the transition away from gas-powered leaf blowers.

In a just transition framework, it’s critical that communities of color and others who are most directly harmed by climate change and pollution are leading the way. That’s where Njuguna Gishuru, a lab leader at the People’s Economy Lab, comes in. 

The People’s Economy LabIt works to end the extraction of economic systems and promote new sustainable, regenerative models that center communities. The community fellowship program supports community members of colour to implement transition principles in their projects. 

Gishuru suggested communities could be tied to extractive economies by necessity. It can sometimes be difficult for communities and individuals to implement the just Transition framework. The model’s core purpose is to bring people back to their regenerative roots.

Regenerative approaches are, in the People’s Economy Lab’s definition, “cooperative, democratic, resilient, and just.”

“The vision of a regenerative economy and what we’re trying to transition to is something that I think is actually intuitive — particularly to Black, Indigenous and people of color. And if we look at our cultural heritage, and the systems we naturally come from, those systems are regenerative,”He said.

Whether it’s about leaf blowers or transitioning from fossil fuels, a just transition approach forces us to consider who will be most affected and how to mitigate harm. 

As Gruen put it, “We cannot slow the transition, but we have to also accelerate the conversation about justice.”

Leaf blowers: Gas vs. electric shouldn’t pit people vs. people

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