We Need a Just Transition—Because We Should Abandon Coal, Not Coal Workers
By Jeff Turrentine
The coal industry is dying. But we can't allow the communities that have been dependent on coal to die along with it.
Even if clean energy champions, environmentalists, and climate activists weren't working together to end the burning of coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels would still be on its way out. The free market is seeing to that. As the cost of renewables continues to fall and the production of cheap natural gas continues to rise, coal has lost whatever competitive advantage it once enjoyed over other energy sources. By next year, coal consumption in our country's power sector is expected to drop to its lowest level since 1978. That would represent a decline of 27 percent since 2016.
The nation's older, smaller coal plants have been disappearing for more than a decade; now, even the newer, larger ones are being retired at a rapid clip. On the one hand, that's to be celebrated: Every coal-fired power plant that goes offline, be it large or small, means fewer pollutants poisoning our lungs and water and fewer greenhouse gases warming the planet. But on the other hand, there is cause for real concern. Whenever a coal-fired power plant or a coal mine shuts down, jobs are lost and workers, their families, and their entire communities suffer.
To address these unfortunate consequences, organizations and governments pushing for a coal phaseout have begun to emphasize the importance of establishing a "just transition" for those who have been, or will be, most affected by these closures. The still-young concept is deliberately amorphous, since each community's needs will differ from the next. But however the transition manifests, the goal is the same: ensuring that no one gets left behind as we shift from one energy economy to another, and that everybody who wants one has a role to play in what's to come.
In Brussels last week, members of the European Commission— the executive arm of the European Union, responsible for crafting and implementing policy — met in a high-level conference to discuss the immediate social impacts of the European Union's commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Among the topics discussed: whether the €4.8 billion recently proposed for an Energy Transition Fund is actually enough to aid Europe's coal-dependent regions as they move from fossil-fuel production to the clean energy future, or whether it's just "a drop in the ocean in terms of the challenges that these places face," in the words of one critic.
The Europeans are vigorously arguing about what a just transition should look like — but that's a good thing. Here in the United States, the conversation about how to help communities adapt to a post-coal reality has barely begun. One organization, the Just Transition Fund, has moved beyond stipulating the need for such assistance and is actively providing it by funding "community-based transition efforts that align with our commitment to sustainable economic development, equity, and energy resilience" in more than a dozen states throughout Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Mountain West. As the only national organization of its kind, the Just Transition Fund has converted millions of dollars in grant money from Google, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and others into retraining programs, job creation, and new business development for areas hit hard.
When she was a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton made a $30 billion economic redevelopment plan for coal country central to her climate policy, stating the need "to ensure that coal miners and their families get the benefits they've earned and respect they deserve, to invest in economic diversification and job creation, and to make coal communities an engine of U.S. economic growth in the 21st century as they have been for generations." By contrast, the man who defeated her, Donald Trump, once proposed eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission, a major source of economic relief for coal-dependent areas in the Southeast — very odd behavior for someone who claims to care deeply about the plight of coal workers. (Trump later changed his tune, but apparently only after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentuckian, quietly but forcefully intervened.)
Thankfully—as has been so often the case during the current presidential administration — leaders at the state level are taking seriously what the president so clearly doesn't. Earlier this year, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed legislation inaugurating his state's Just Transition Office, the first of its kind in the nation and a potential model for other states (or even the United States as a whole) to follow. Polis, who has made getting Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 a top priority, understands that the road to a post-coal future will be a bumpy one for thousands of people in his state, which ranks 11th nationally in coal production. Among its other duties, the new office will administer workforce retraining grants and other benefits to displaced coal workers in rural Colorado counties that contain at least 50 employees affected by the phaseout of fossil fuel production. One provision in the legislation even mandates that the state pay a "wage differential benefit" to workers whose new jobs pay less than their old ones.
The language of the bill that led to the creation of the Just Transition Office summarizes the situation that Colorado and other states now find themselves in — a situation with not only economic but ethical dimensions. "The communities that host retiring power plants may lose principal contributors to their tax base and revenue for vital local government services," its authors observed. "A strong and comprehensive policy is needed to invest new financial resources in coal communities that are seeking to diversify and grow their local and regional economies in a manner that is both sustainable and equitable." The bill's drafters also noted that policies "must ensure that the clean energy economy fulfills a moral commitment to assist the workers and communities that have powered Colorado for generations, as well as the disproportionately impacted communities who have borne the costs of coal power pollution for decades."
Or to put it another way: Coal workers gave to their employers, and to their communities, for many years. Their labor was difficult and often dangerous. As we say goodbye to the coal industry and the jobs it supported and usher in a new era of renewable energy, these workers should be thanked for all that they've done. And the best way to show our appreciation to them is to make sure that they're given every possible chance to take part in the energy economy of the future — and that they're well taken care of in the meantime.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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