Ensuring a just future for coal mining communities in Australia

23 May 2022
As the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels occurs, communities on the frontline must not be left behind. We hear from Dr Robert MacNeil on the barriers to achieving a just transition and our post-coal future in Australia.

Emma Holland: Your family comes from a small coal mining community in rural Canada. Can you tell us about your background, and what sparked your interest in the just transition space? 

Robert MacNeil: Yes, that’s true! The MacNeils come from an island in Nova Scotia called Cape Breton where bootleg coal mines helped sustain a lot of the smaller communities in the area for generations. I didn’t spend too much time there, but I grew up steeped in tales about life in the mines and the challenges that the career and lifestyle entails. Growing up in a small working-class town a couple hours north of Toronto definitely introduced me at a young age to a lot of the difficulties facing coal communities in Australia today. I remember endless discussions around economic transition and dislocation as the area deindustrialised throughout the 1990s.

I think those experiences probably bred an inherent sympathy for communities struggling with those challenges. My specific interest in Australian coal communities probably really developed during the 2019 election though. It was pretty upsetting to see that way that coal communities were being discussed in progressive circles across Australia, and the way that the climate movement was self-destructively alienating blue-collar workers in these areas.

The shift away from fossil fuels is such an important issue, especially in the context of the recent federal election. Can you tell us about your research findings on the just transition away from coal in Australia?

The findings from the work I’ve been part of are not particularly encouraging. We’re probably about 15 or 20 years behind where we’d need to be if we were on track to responsibly draw-down our fossil fuel extraction and ensure that these communities could thrive in a post-coal world. We’ve found that many of these communities have come a long way on the issue of transition over the past handful of years, with most acknowledging that coal’s future is indeed bleak, and that significant action needs to occur to ensure that new industries are able to fill the breach as coal fades out. But what’s even more apparent is that many people in these regions are deeply cynical about the notion of a ‘just transition’, viewing governments at all levels as untrustworthy and incompetent, and unlikely to produce the sort of strategy required to guide them through the looming changes. It’s in this context that many in Australia’s coal regions believe the best option is just to cling ever-tighter to the industry while they still can.  

Your work looks at the communities on the frontline of these transitions, such as coal mining towns. What do you imagine for the future of these communities?

I think it could really go a few different ways. On one extreme, it’s easy to imagine these communities coming to resemble the US coal regions of Appalachia or the deindustrialised Rust Belt of the American Midwest. These are places where the transition went unplanned, and the result was that jobs quickly vanished, local tax bases dried up, services eroded, housing prices collapsed, and most people just moved away. The people who remained behind were simply left to dwell in intergenerational poverty, diminished life chances, and an epidemic of substance abuse. 

On the other extreme, I can picture a future where proactive and intelligent planning eventuates at the state and federal levels, and our coal regions become highly prosperous economic powerhouses, home to thriving sectors in advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, tourism, education, healthcare, regenerative agriculture, mine reclamation, and green steel/aluminium. What’s clear to me, though, is that the future of these places is still very much an open question, and will be the product of choices we make right now. 

My specific interest in Australian coal communities probably really developed during the 2019 election though. It was pretty upsetting to see that way that coal communities were being discussed in progressive circles across Australia, and the way that the climate movement was self-destructively alienating blue-collar workers in these areas.

In the panel discussion for SEI’s Conversations with Coal Miners about Climate Change event, you were asked about existing models for achieving change in this space. Can you explain what has worked well globally, and why there are social/political barriers for moving forward in Australia?  

The templates that are most discussed in the ‘just transition’ literatures are places like Germany, Spain, and other parts of Western and Northern Europe. In these jurisdictions, we see all sorts of novel arrangements around local ‘transition authorities’ designed to attract new industries to mining towns, and policies designed to retrain younger workers, provide early retirement options for older workers, cushion families through periods of unemployment, and ensure that workers and businesses peripheral to the mining industry are likewise able to successfully reposition themselves for a post-coal future. 

I note that this will be very challenging for Australia not only because of how exceptionally reliant we are on the coal trade relative to these other countries, but also because the sort of planning described above is so far outside our wheelhouse. Over the past 40 years, Australia has leaned towards an intensely neoliberal model of transition planning where we basically just let impacted communities decay, and encourage them to ‘figure it out for themselves’. And as a result, we simply don’t have the sorts of institutions, traditions, or arrangements around industrial transitions that we see in these other places. This would be something very novel for Australia, and when you listen to our leaders talk about the situation in coal country, it’s not at all obvious that we’ll get this right. 

To learn more about Robert’s work and the issues surrounding a just transition in Australia, listen to the podcast of the panel discussion from SEI’s event, Conversations With Coal Miners about Climate Change.

Robert MacNeil is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics with the University of Sydney’s Department of Government & International Relations. His research focuses broadly on the relationship between neoliberalism and climate policy, with a particular focus on Anglosphere countries. Some of his current work focuses on Indigenous resistance to extractivism; the future of Australian coal communities; the impacts of bushfires on rural communities; and the nexus of pandemics, habitat destruction and factory farming. His recent books include Neoliberalism and Climate Policy in the United States (which looks at the complex influence of market fundamentalist ideology on American climate policy since the 1980s) and Thirty Years of Failure: Understanding Canadian Climate Policy (which looks at the cultural, economic and institutional drivers of climate policy in Canada).

Header image: a large yellow conveyor belt carrying coal and emptying onto a huge pile via Shutterstock ID: 57118456.

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