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Just Transitions as a process with communities, not for communities

By Rebecca Shelton

Photo: James Holloway(CC-BY-NC 2.0)

This post originally appeared on Just Transition(s), which is published by the Just Transition Research Collaborative in partnership with the ISSC. 

In Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia, the clean energy transition comes at the cost of economic loss in communities that have produced and processed coal for over 100 years. A Just Transition is one in which the burden of the transition does not fall heavily on those who have already borne the burden of producing coal, but instead ensures that benefits are distributed and that communities have an active voice in the transition.

Coal communities should be granted the same benefits that other communities will receive from a changed energy regime. This means not only creating clean energy jobs and ensuring neighbourhoods are free of environmental contamination with clean air and water but also empowering these communities with the tools and resources that are needed for them to have agency in the creation of this new trajectory.

Currently, the transition in Kentucky is a diverse and dispersed effort with support from the federal, state and local levels. In 2013, the state of Kentucky brought together an initiative called Shaping Our Appalachian Region as a platform to communicate ideas and challenges and connect economic diversification efforts. Some major efforts put forth by this initiative include plans to connect the entire region to broadband internet services, create job opportunities that can be pursued remotely (i.e. Teleworks USA), and, recently, plans with AppHarvest to invest in high-tech greenhouses to grow food.

Photo: kartografia (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 2015, the Obama Administration proposed the POWER Plus Plan, an umbrella of federal initiatives that sought to assist struggling coal communities with economic revitalization and diversification. One of those initiatives, the POWER Initiative, offers grant money through several federal agencies. Another, the Reclaim Act, seeks to clean up abandoned coal mines and create new jobs in the process, thereby contributing to economic development. These external resources are often needed in order to jumpstart local efforts as the coal economy has left communities with depleted local capital.

Economic transitions tend to be framed through the lens of substitution: What kind of job will bring in equal or better revenue than the coal economy and serve as a foundation for a new rural economy? While this may be a part of the solution, many view the transition context as an opportunity to provide justice to entire communities rather than specific individuals. Adopting a holistic approach requires us to look at the adjacent economic sectors, such as the healthcare sector, that are also negatively impacted by the coal economy’s decline. It also means accounting for those who, historically, have not been given access to opportunities in the coal economy and/or have been excluded from community development. There have been many efforts to come up with and deploy alternatives that go beyond simple job creation and benefit community well-being. Through its efforts to increase the energy efficiency of buildings in the region, the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development has created new job opportunities, contributed to reduce carbon footprints and increased energy savings. The Letcher County Culture Hub is a grassroots collaborative that seeks to develop an economy that is based in cultural assets and thus, through both process and outcome, contributes to civic development. The FARMACY Program, sponsored by Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, increases demand for local farmers’ produce by providing individuals with dietary-related health concerns with prescriptions for fresh produce (through a system of farmers’ market vouchers).

Photo: Natalie Maynor (CC-BY 2.0)

However, local initiatives often grapple with integrating the cycle of resources made available by various policies and institutions with a community’s preparedness to receive and invest these resources. Some organizations are working to ensure that resources that are made available to support the transition can be accessed and invested by community members in a fair and effective manner. This work encompasses questions such as:

  1. Are community members informed of opportunities and equipped with the tools and logistical knowledge to submit proposals for community and economic development?
  2. Are ideas for projects and development vetted with the broader community? If so, which voices and priorities are represented?
  3. Who will have control over what is built or developed?

It is important to determine how external resources can be channelled into communities so that they are distributed equitably and are impactful for positive, sustainable change. Simultaneously, it is also essential to consider how people can regain access of what is left of their own internal resources such as their land and natural resources.

In Kentucky, through speaking with individuals that work to create new economic and community opportunities, I have come across the perspective that an energy transition that is a Just Transition for coal-production economies is conceptualized as a shift that is not only economic or environmental, but a shift in power that puts control of resources and the economy back into the hands of communities. Though conceptually clear, in practice this is difficult. How is a participatory process achieved in communities where neither participation nor ownership has been heavily encouraged in the recent past? How are conflicting priorities negotiated? Who is included in ‘community’? Conceptually, transitions, as a process of adapting to new societal and environmental circumstances, may be best understood as part of a pathway that has both a past and a future. Federal, state and local actors are all in the arena negotiating what kind of future is in the best interest of the community and deciding who or what qualifies as affected by the transition. One challenge for Just Transition advocates is ensuring that this process is just. Distributing benefits of the energy transition to communities that have had past coal economies in the form of financial and natural resources may be a first step. However, ensuring that communities, and all of the diverse and impacted individuals that are members of those communities, have an active voice in the transition is, perhaps, a more critical and difficult part of the work that must be done to support a Just Transition.

Rebecca Shelton is a PhD student at Arizona State University in the School of Sustainability. She is interested in understanding the emergence of economically, socially, and environmentally viable pathways for rural communities. This piece was co-authored by Lou Murrey, the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project Coordinator. Additional recognition and thanks goes to an anonymous contributor who is also working in Kentucky.

This piece was originally posted on Just Transition(s).


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