Painful Pasts, Uncertain Futures and “Just Transition:” How Two Historic Coal Communities Contend with the New Energy Order

Nadia Smiecinska, UC Davis

Decades’ long transitions away from coalmining have left historical coal communities reeling from consequences associated with economic downturn as no comparable industry replaces the former local, coal economy. New prospects for a brighter future in a renewable energy order have materialized via the concept of “just transition,” a concept that promises to leave no one behind during the green transition. However, coal communities approach “just transition” and the path to a more sustainable energy order, as dictated by elites in government, without much enthusiasm. This project addresses the politics of a waning coal industry and energy transition in two historic coal regions, Eastern Kentucky, United States, and Upper Silesia, Poland. These coal regions once stood at the center of the fossil fuel energy order, as coal powered the era of industrial development and human progress. Today they face uncertain futures due to the previous protracted transition and current pressures resulting from climate mitigation policies. Through an analysis of local history, community observation, and interviews with locals, I offer a local perspective of the energy transition. Existing plans for an energy transition that emanate from elites in government and technology, neglect tangible experiences of cultural and emotional loss by locals in declining coal communities, and the social well-being that the coal industrial order ensured. I hypothesize that there is a disjuncture between state policy agendas and affected communities, resulting from policymakers’ over-emphasis of future collective benefits without an acknowledgment of previous loss. Furthermore, communities suffering from post-coal transition duress struggle with questions about social wellbeing in the oncoming, post-fossil fuel energy order but policymakers neglect to address that in their plans. The aim is to elucidate the complicated dynamics of the energy transition, in coal communities and beyond, in order to engage existing scholarship’s overly-positive, elite-technical perspectives, and suggest policy correctives.

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 Presented in Session 37. Climate Change and labor