Blue banner with white text
A banner bearing the slogan “UMWA demands jobs with justice” hangs on the wall at the United Mine Workers of America career center in Beckley, West Virginia.

“The Future of Coal Regions” study group participants share insights from their trek to West Virginia.

By Weila Gong and Poorva Kaushik

Low-carbon energy transitions are not just about phasing in renewable energy, but also about phasing out fossil fuels. Given coal’s outsized share of global greenhouse gas emissions – about 20% - the world will not be able to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius without transitioning away from coal.

However, closing coal mines and plants poses significant economic and social challenges to the people employed there, their communities, and the economies of the wider regions in which they live. Helping coal regions develop high-quality, secure employment alternatives will be critical not only for realizing a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon economy for these regions, but also for accelerating global progress on climate change. 

Natalie Tennant
Natalie Tennant, former West Virginia Secretary of State and 2022 IOP Fellow, welcomes the study group to Charleston, WV.

During the spring 2023 semester, two dozen Harvard Kennedy School students and fellows convened a study group on “The Future of Coal Regions,” with the aim of learning and sharing knowledge about the challenges facing the world’s coal regions, as well as identifying opportunities for overcoming these challenges. The study group was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) and the Malcolm Wiener Center’s Reimagining the Economy Project. Over the course of the semester, the student-led organizing team invited policy practitioners and experts to discuss how just transitions in coal regions might be achieved through workforce development, investment, and local economic development, mainly in the United States, but also in China, South Africa, and Indonesia. The study group culminated in a trek to West Virginia, led by former WV Secretary of State and 2022 IOP Fellow Natalie Tennant, to hear firsthand the perspectives of stakeholders who could be negatively impacted by the coal transition.

Weila Gong, ENRP Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and Poorva Kaushik, MPP 2023, shared their reflections on the study group and trek.

Weila Gong

As a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HKS, I was grateful to be part of the organizing team for the Future of Coal Regions study group. I was initially drawn to coal transitions due to my interest in understanding the driving factors that promote or hinder low-carbon energy transitions, with a special focus on China. 

Coal transitions are not just about technical change – they are also about social justice, particularly for major coal-producing areas like West Virginia, which face the prospect of significant change and potentially great losses. Even so, I was surprised to learn that, despite how much international attention coal transitions have attracted, such as the international pledge for a coal phase-out at COP27 in Glasgow, public consensus on the transition in West Virginia remains starkly divided. 

During the field trip to West Virginia, we met with multiple stakeholders related to the coal transition, including coal miners; the coal miners' union, United Mine Workers of America; WV House Delegate Todd Kirby; and the West Virginia Community Development Hub. Throughout our conversations, I was struck by the gulf between different local stakeholders’ perceptions of the urgency of the coal transition.

UMWA administrators
The study group participants visited the United Mine Workers of America Career Center to speak with coal miners and career center administrators about the training for the transition.

The coal miners and coal miners’ union recognized the ups and downs of the coal mining business locally without mentioning an urgent need to change. One coal miner called coal mining jobs good careers, with an hourly rate of $35-50, and described how the union helped him retrain as a truck driver and find a job in a hospital after the coal mine laid him off. Although both the coal worker and the union observed that mechanization of the coal mining industry is replacing labor in the coal mining business, the union saw a faster transition away from coal as a threat to the interests of coal miners. Delegate Kirby perceived coal revenue as a more secure and stable source in comparison to emerging industries centered on new energy technologies, even though West Virginia public broadcasting has reported that renewables are cheaper than coal plants  in West Virginia.

In contrast, the leaders of the West Virginia Community Development Hub have embraced the transition to renewable energy. The Hub is a leading non-governmental organization that assists in the building of sustainable, resilient communities through economic transitions in West Virginia. Many of the Hub’s leaders have spent substantive time outside West Virginia before moving back. The Hub has been able to secure a variety of external funding sources from state and federal levels of government and foundations for local communities undergoing transitions. For example, the Hub has worked with local leaders to engage West Virginian towns in a national network of coal communities, the National Association of Countries Building Resilient Economies in Coal Communities Commitment Coalition, which is supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. The network aims to equip coal communities with individualized strategic economic planning and stakeholder collaboration during the transition process. While recognizing the importance of working with coal miners and unions, the Hub’s leaders acknowledged the challenges of communicating with local communities about the transition =, especially the lack of dialogues with coal miners and unions.

As a scholar of low-carbon energy transitions for many years, I was amazed by the level of effort and care put forth by the West Virginian stakeholders we met, as well as their generosity in sharing their views and concerns with us. They are deeply invested in the wellbeing of their local communities. I continue to be fascinated by how people living in the same locality can have such contrasting views on their communities’ futures; the challenge is how to bridge those opposing views as they relate to the urgency and feasibility of the coal transition. 

Poorva Kaushik

As the world transitions towards a sustainable future, the energy industry is changing rapidly. While some sectors stand to gain from this transition, others face the prospect of significant losses. The question facing policymakers is how to ensure a just transition for all stakeholders.

West Virginia Coal Miner statue by Burl Jones
The West Virginia Coal Miner, a bronze statue by sculptor Burl Jones, stands on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capitol complex in Charleston, WV, as a testament to the industry's importance to the state.

Our discussions with coal miners in West Virginia provided valuable insights into their perspectives on the industry, highlighting its importance as an integral part of the identity and culture of these regions. Coal miners associated their profession with a strong work ethic, camaraderie, and commitment, further contributing to their attachment to the industry. This deep connection influenced their perceptions of its prospects and impact on the local economy. Despite the global transition to renewable energy sources, the coal miners we spoke with expressed optimism regarding the industry's future. This mindset, however, poses a challenge to addressing climate change, potentially hindering the acceptance of alternative energy sources and the need for a more sustainable approach to energy production.  

The coal transition presents not just economic challenges, but also social challenges: the loss of the coal industry can have far-reaching consequences for communities, leading to a sense of dislocation and loss. Policymakers are faced with a delicate task in effectively communicating with the coal communities and ensuring a just transition for all stakeholders. They must carefully consider the importance of community identity and culture in the transition process and identify common interests among stakeholders. It is crucial to frame policies in a way that resonates with the local community and promotes a better understanding of the underlying issues.  

Local organizations such as the West Virginia Community Development Hub and Fruits of Labor have highlighted the complexities involved in effective communication with coal communities and building trust. For instance, while coal miners may not be inclined to discuss climate change, they express concerns about job security and their children's future. Thus policy framing should take a cue from these considerations and shared interests. Further, community involvement and awareness-raising efforts can help ensure that elected officials at the state and federal levels understand the challenges and opportunities in transitioning to a more sustainable future for the coal region.

Policymakers’ prioritization of economic diversification and workforce transition will go a long way toward securing that future. Retraining and education programs can help workers find jobs in new sectors, but there are potential downsides, such as reduced wages and lower living standards in alternative jobs. Therefore, policymakers must design policies that promote alternative job creation and ensure that these jobs provide livable wages and opportunities for career growth.

One potential solution for the transition away from coal is the promotion of high-paying careers in the renewable energy industry. The renewable energy industry is growing rapidly and offers the potential for significant job creation in regions like West Virginia. However, this transition requires substantial investment in workforce development and retraining programs. Raising awareness of and improving access to increased federal funding for infrastructure and economic development initiatives can help facilitate this transition and create new opportunities for these communities.
In conclusion, the challenges coal communities face in transitioning towards a sustainable future require careful consideration of the community's identity, culture, and economic needs. National policy instruments that may appear optimal from the standpoint of federal and global perspectives may not be considered as such by communities if local conditions are not taken into account. Policymakers must work to create policies that consider the concerns and perspectives of all stakeholders, including coal miners and their families. By prioritizing workforce transition, promoting alternative job creation, and raising awareness of the potential benefits of the transition, policymakers can help ensure a just and equitable future for all. This task is difficult but not impossible, and with community involvement and cooperation, a sustainable future for coal communities can be achieved. 

Study group at Exhibition Coal Mine
"The Future of Coal Regions" study group participants pose for a group photo at the Exhibition Coal Mine in Beckley, West Virginia.

Weila GongWeila Gong is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program and the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. Her research explores comparative climate and environmental policy and politics, with a focus on China’s low-carbon energy transition, low-carbon cities, and greening the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the Belfer Center, her research investigates paths towards deep decarbonization in China, with a special focus on China’s just coal transition and on the energy transition in Inner Mongolia. Gong’s dissertation and book project, “Low-Carbon Policy Experimentation in Chinese Cities: Leadership, Resources, and Implementation Strategies,” examines why some Chinese cities are doing better than others in initiating and implementing low-carbon policy experiments. Her work has appeared in the journal China Quarterly. Previously, Gong was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Science, Technology and International Affairs Program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a visiting Predoctoral Fellow at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center. Gong holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Technical University of Munich’s School of Governance. She also holds a Master’s degree in International Relations and a Bachelor’s degree in History from Sun Yat-sen University, China.

Poorva KaushikPoorva Kaushik is a Belfer Young Leader and a second-year Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is a Chemical and Nuclear Engineer and an alumnus of the KINS-KAIST International Nuclear and Radiation Safety Master's Degree Program from South Korea. Before joining HKS, she had a nuclear career spanning over ten years in India, Europe, and the Middle East. She began her career as a Scientist with the Indian Government regulatory body, where she was the youngest lead reviewer independently responsible for the regulation of four Nuclear Power Plants. To support the civil nuclear program in the middle east, she moved to UAE, where she developed and implemented licensing strategies and managed the stakeholder interface with the UAE nuclear regulators, internal experts, and South Korean suppliers. Her research interests include formulating policies that empower clean energy sources, nuclear strategy, and sustainable development. 

Read Next Post
View All Blog Posts