David Brown, University of Warwick.
If we are to limit the most profound impacts of the climate crisis, it is well-recognised that we need globally-coordinated, bold and unprecedented action on climate change and an energy transition away from fossil fuels. In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, scientists from the UN’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) state that we need to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050. At the same time, warnings have been made over underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ‘ghastly future’, marked by climate catastrophe and intersecting global environmental crises (Bradshaw et al, 2021). Driven by pressure from the climate movement, shifting public opinion and climate divestment campaigns, climate change mitigation pledges from some governments and corporations have become increasingly ambitious, notably in recent nationally determined contribution (NDC) targets submitted to the UN and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development setting a target of net zero emissions by 2050 for its members.
However, there remain many reasons to be sceptical of recent moves on climate action in terms of attending to both effectiveness and equity: the progress across different sectors currently being far too slow for the world to meet the 2030 and 2050 climate change targets; the often stark gap between political rhetoric and radical action on climate change; the climate change mitigation delays, deflections and deterrence that emerge through commitments to vague and misleading net zero emissions targets (Carton et al, 2021); the increasing shifts by oil companies towards investments in petrochemical production in order to serve expanding global plastic markets (Mah, 2021). All of these issues reflect decarbonisation strategies occurring within a paradigm of perpetual, unsustainable growth, a paradigm at odds with alleviating the climate crisis.
Without close attention, the heaviest socio-economic burdens of the low-carbon energy transition will be disproportionately borne by marginalised, low-income and minority communities, much as they have been in the fossil fuel era, in other words generating ‘green sacrifice zones’. There is a need to avert the renewable energy transition simply reproducing- or even exacerbating- many of the injustices and inequalities associated with (racialised) petro-capitalism. What’s more, Green New Deal proposals in the US and Europe may provide green jobs and infrastructure in the Global North, but displace socio-environmental harms of renewable energy generation to marginalised communities in the Global South, highlighting profound climate injustices, persistent logics of extractivism and a form of neocolonialism. Hence, as a counterpoint to these fears, some scholars have called for a ‘global green new deal’ (Paul and Gebrial 2021), or a ‘planetary just transition’ (Stevis and Felli, 2020), advocating a just and inclusive energy transition across multiple scales and temporalities.
Generating significant interest in recent years- among scholars, activists and climate change policy-makers- just transition seeks to mitigate the socio-economic costs of an energy transition away from fossil fuels for workers and communities and calls for an managed, inclusive and equitable shift towards a low-carbon, green economy (Morena, Kraus, and Stevis 2020). Just transition advocates, thus, recognise that energy transitions are more than simply technical challenges, drawing attention to the social justice issues that need to be placed at the forefront of a transformative decarbonisation strategy. With its origins in the labour movement, just transition seeks to overcome the so-called ‘jobs-versus environment dilemma’ through protecting the livelihoods of workers employed in fossil fuel industries and other negatively affected populations in moving towards clean energy, e.g. via compensatory measures, jobs guarantees, etc. (Healy and Barry, 2017).
This issue of Toxic News is focused upon just transitions, places and communities, foregrounding the importance of place attachments and place identities in orienting perceptions (of justice) and experiences of energy transitions, as well as conflicts around these, across frontline communities. These communities cut across rural and urban spheres and across places that have both developed around the fossil fuel industry or have been only more recently touched by energy infrastructures, e.g. wind energy farms. On the one hand, the closure of sites of fossil fuel extraction and production has place-based and socio-cultural resonances for communities that are economically dependent upon and have long-standing connections with locally-embedded industry, making it more likely that such communities will oppose low-carbon transitions. On the other hand, wind solar and hydropower developments can threaten people’s land, livelihoods and sense of place and cultural identity if they are not deployed in socially just and inclusive way and if they are based on top-down, extractivist models of development.
Embedded in particular socio-cultural contexts and cutting across lines of race, gender and class, multiscalar conflicts and struggles around energy transitions and the future of the fossil fuel industry are entangled with economics and materiality, but also with the cultural, symbolic and affective meanings of place and of belonging. Often intersecting with proud industrial histories and experiences of industrial decline, affective meanings of the past and future configure how such locales envision and anticipate energy transitions (e.g. Bell and York, 2010; Fent and Kojola, 2020). More firmly grasping divergent meanings of place and competing visions of the future can allow us to better make sense of the root of social conflicts over energy industries and infrastructures. As Della Bosca and Gillespie (2018) have called for, critically considering collective identities, meanings of place and cultural frameworks in energy transition policies is not only an equitable ambition, but an effective one too. Disruption to place attachments by external forces (i.e. renewable energy developments) can be conceptualised as a kind of environmental injustice, given the potential harm to people’s individual and collective well-being and anticipated futures (Groves, 2015).
Across interdisciplinary perspectives and international case studies, each of the contributions in this issue of Toxic News explores struggles and contestations over energy transitions that are deeply and intimately bound up with particular places and senses of home, revealing connected but distinct challenges for the green economy over declining coal mining communities, ‘critical mineral’ extraction for electric vehicles, recycling plants, and solar power and wind energy park developments.
Firstly, J. Mijin Cha explores hostility and contestation around the energy transition in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB), an important coal mining region in the United States and one which has been in decline for over a decade. The author assesses the impact of the sudden closures of two large coal mines in the PRB in 2019 on local residents’ support for the industry and openness to just transition. They found that industry decline did little to alter opposition to or support for energy transitions in the region, pointing to deeply-embedded cultural and economic ties to the coal industry, likely to persist without a managed transition plan.
Secondly, Jessica Crowe and Ruopo Li investigate support for renewable energy in the United States through the case of Brightfields Development LLC and the City of Carbondale, IL where the company proposed the development of a solar panel array on a remediated brownfield site where a wood-treating facility previously operated. While polls show perceptions of renewable energy to be broadly favourable in the US- even in historic fossil fuel communities- this case involved local contestation due to fears over toxic contamination and long-running health impacts, calling for additional testing to be done before allowing the project to begin.
Thirdly, Dayna Nadine Scott draws attention to the renewed push to extend the extractive frontier of “critical minerals” into the boreal forest in the far North of Ontario, minerals which are deemed vital for the renewable energy transition. Such extraction threatens remote Anishinaabe and Anishini communities that depend on the cultural and ecological integrity of the Attawapiskat river watershed and which already live in a constant state of social emergency. Colliding with a wave of Indigenous cultural and political resurgence, a struggle over the mineral extraction has been playing out over the last few years where one indigenous community is adopting a ‘politics of refusal’ and defending their land, directly challenging extractivist logics.
Fourthly, David Rudolph explores the growing place-based opposition and social contestation around new wind farm proposals in Denmark, a global frontrunner in the large-scale utilisation of wind resources. In the context of increased competition for land and the increasing corporatisation of wind farm deployment in Denmark, an intriguing component of the local opposition to wind energy in this case is the activation of the territorial stigma of ‘Outskirts-Denmark’ by wind farm developers in strategically targeting marginalised areas, with wind energy portrayed as the solution to rural decline.
Finally, Susana Batel highlights the uneven socio-environmental harmful impacts that can result from renewable energy developments and points to different contexts where social and place-based contestation has emerged around clean energy infrastructures and technologies, whether this be protests against the siting of a metal recycling plant in an already heavily polluted neighbourhood in Chicago where most residents are black or Latino, or Welsh communities’ opposition to the construction of new high voltage power lines to connect wind farms in Wales to the grid in England, given the colonial histories of energy infrastructures connecting Wales and England. Ultimately, Batel calls for understanding the scalar dynamics of these place-based issues- reigniting the popular call for ‘Think global, act local’- in a historical, multi-layered way.