As any map will tell you, Australia is a long way from Appalachia. Despite the distance and differences, their coalfield communities share striking similarities: the fossil fuel industry’s problematic political power, economic challenges, and mining-related environmental and health concerns. As in Appalachia, there is a growing dedication to a just transition from a single extractive industry to a diverse and sustainable economy that works for everyone.
I was fortunate to spend almost two weeks learning about these shared challenges and Australians’ approach to a just transition. I was invited to talk about just transition work in Appalachia and the way the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation supports it. Before coming to the Foundation two years ago, I spent 13 years doing related work in the Appalachian region.
It was something of a whirlwind trip, with more than 30 presentations or meetings in the Latrobe Valley, Hunter Valley, Newcastle and Melbourne. Twelve days is not very long to engage in complicated issues, but I am appreciative of the many conversations, meetings and hours I spent learning and sharing. I wanted to lift up a few highlights.
Like much of the American South, the Latrobe Valley is perceived as a region in distress, reeling from economic dislocation, struggling with and suffering from a range of social and community challenges. Three years ago, a huge fire fueled by soft brown coal lasted 45 days and sickened several communities. More recently, an economic blow came in the form of the closure of an old, high-carbon-polluting, coal-fired power plant. While some welcomed the closure for environmental and health reasons, others feared for their livelihoods. As in the U.S. South, however,
There could be better alignment between these community efforts and those of some of the local government officials we met – another all-too-familiar challenge of transition work. While significant new federal and state resources are coming to the Valley with some attention to innovation, it seems there is more opportunity to let local people inform these initiatives. We heard from state agencies trying to coordinate planning conversations with small cities and local leaders, but communities felt the state development ideas often looked backward, including coal-to-diesel conversion, a process proven to be incredibly polluting and expensive.
Next, we traveled 1,100 kilometers northeast to the Hunter Valley, where the black coal economy continues to thrive because of export markets. The beautiful region hosts a complicated set of economic interests. It’s the country’s wine production hub, a center of thoroughbred horse breeding, agricultural pursuits and huge coal mines. Sixteen percent of the Valley has been mined, and multiple expansions are in the works, threatening to encroach on people’s property and further contaminate natural resources. The community is fighting back to protect its land and water, challenging expansion permits and trying to shut down dirty coal plants. There is a big push to produce large-scale solar projects in New South Wales to wean the country off coal. These battles can exact a steep price. We met a 70-year-old woman who had been arrested for protesting a mine and could serve up to seven years in prison, thanks to a recent change in state law.
There was a very real sense that while the near-term future of the Hunter Valley’s coal industry was bright; the long-term was not so much. Local leaders told us, given the international appetite for the region’s coal and the promise of new jobs from expansion, the economic transition conversation is hard. Community leaders recognized they need to do more to bring more Valley residents into the dialogue and come up with alternatives that could provide meaningful work and income.
While there are echoes of Appalachia in these coalfields, there are some important differences worth mentioning. Labor unions remain a key part of the Australian landscape. Union representatives took part in many of our conversations, and have recently embraced an economic transition framework for energy sector workers. This shows up in plans for large-scale retraining strategies and new employment opportunities. Though the energy sector is male-dominated, most of the representatives we met were women with a strong interest in making sure transition efforts are gender-balanced.
As in the rural American South, power and local politics are central to successful transition efforts in these communities, which look to the local and state government to provide planning support, financial resources and technical assistance. Generally, it seemed like the role of local government was stronger than in the U.S. The provision of a strong safety net, including universal healthcare, seemed central to Australian communities, yet some bemoaned the shrinking of this role and not enough opportunity to shape the direction of local government work and investment.
A History of Marginalization
One other similarity came through in our short time there. Australia struggles with its colonial history, and its remaining indigenous people face major challenges. Many of our meetings started with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land we were on, yet many of the rooms we were in were almost exclusively white. While we saw some important evidence of efforts to engage indigenous people, I wondered how these communities think about healthy land and economic opportunity. How are aboriginal people connected to the economic transition work in the coalfields? What is working to empower those communities and make those connections stronger and more productive?
We were hosted by the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network and attended its annual meeting. As in the U.S., there is a growing movement of funders who recognize the collision of environmental, economic and political issues in communities. There is an appetite to learn more about what just transition strategies look like. They are wrestling with the same questions we hold: What does economic opportunity look like in the face of the climate crisis? How can equity undergird the way we think about natural resources and the economy? How can political power be built fast enough to support short-term gains while keeping future generations squarely in mind?
The questions are big, but there are glimmers of solutions we all need in this work. As our trip wound down, we heard from a Wurundjeri man about the importance of the Yarra River to his people, and how it could again become central to their culture and economy. A young Worimi man talked about his values, farming practices and efforts to engage other farmers in climate-smart agriculture practices. We heard environmental organizations, unions, community groups, academics and others talk through how to work together on just transition issues.
While there is much to learn about the transition to a less fossil-fuel-dependent world, I’m encouraged to see some things we know will be critical to our success in Appalachia and Australia: leading from communities, smart collaboration, cross-sector partnerships, building from our assets, sharing stories and making space at the table for everyone. My time with the folks in Australia crystalized a few key lessons:
- Process matters. Engaging a broad range of people, developing a shared vision and creating effective ways to work together are critical.
- There is no silver bullet. Given it is unlikely there will be one new economic driver in most communities, it’s important to understand the range of assets, then figure out how to build on them and meet more needs locally (for food, energy, heath care, fuel, etc.) to benefit a community and its economy.
- Be a catalyst, not a container. Creating a big tent many people and organizations can get under means defining the future you are working toward to create clarity for joint working opportunities and let participants contribute their strengths.
What is clearest to me after this visit is that just transition is a journey, not a destination. There is much to learn from others who are also on the trip. It is likely to look different in different places, but targeted sharing and learning will help everyone along the way.
Thanks to the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network for the invitation and support of this trip, particularly the serious efforts of Esther Abram and Sue Mathews. I am deeply appreciative of the time spent by many people in the communities of the Latrobe Valley, Hunter Valley and many organizations we met throughout. I also want to thank Lisa Abbott of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth for her hard work on the many presentations we gave, the wisdom she shared and her companionship throughout the trip.