Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Decarbonization is a Household Issue in Extractive Communities

Abby Kinchy, Jessica Lehman

At COP26, nations will be pressured to commit more funds for climate change adaptation and resilience – to the tune of billions of dollars each year. Yet how adaptation and resilience are enacted at the community level is complicated, and relies heavily on local organisations, such as city planners and disaster response managers.

In communities that host fossil fuel extraction, adaptation and resilience is linked with decarbonization and energy transition – in ways that can be complex and surprising. When we consider climate change and workers in the fossil fuel industries, the focus is often on expected negative impacts of energy transition on established jobs. However, energy workers, their households, and their communities are also vulnerable to climate disasters.

In California, for example, where nearly 10,000 oil and gas permits have been granted since 2019, record droughts and smoke from forest fires threaten the homes and health of residents across the state. Likewise, in Wyoming and West Virginia, where coal mining is on the decline, extreme weather and floods have tested the resiliency of key infrastructure. Whether fossil fuel extraction is expanding or contracting–both are occurring in North America–the affected communities will be contending with volatile changes to their way of life.

The story repeats across the continent. In the heart of Pennsylvania’s “fracking” territory, climate change is bringing destructive flash floods. When, around 2006, the natural gas industry came to northeastern Pennsylvania to exploit the Marcellus Shale, many people welcomed the new economic activity, even if they had concerns about effects on land and water. But the benefits of the gas boom were not shared equally. Locals often spoke of “winners and losers” in the rush to develop shale gas.

These inequalities were starkly evident after people lost their homes to destructive flash floods in 2018. We interviewed local planners, emergency responders, and social service providers, who told us that If you made money in the gas boom, you could use that cushion to build back. But for others, the gas boom meant deepening poverty and housing insecurity. The influx of highly paid gas workers and land speculators had driven housing costs up, pushing some into precarity.

Despite the hardships, the floods did not seem to dampen local leaders’ support for natural gas development. Indeed, in our case study community, the county government relied on the natural gas industry to finance and enact emergency flood response. Without the revenue and labor force that the industry brought to the county, county officials opined, their recovery would have been much slower and more arduous. Emergency responders and social service providers concurred: the gas companies lent a helping hand when it was badly needed.

Any successful plan for meeting global climate goals has to provide support to reduce the impacts on these extractive communities. A crucial dimension of such support is funding, guidance, and infrastructure for climate resilience. COP delegates and observers need to be canny to fossil fuel industry efforts to position themselves as ‘good climate actors’ who are helping with adaptation and disaster recovery, when doing so serves their interests of further entrenching these industries in host communities.

Everywhere, local planners and emergency responders are trying to make their communities more climate resilient. But this example from Pennsylvania suggests that organizations tasked with planning for climate change can, ironically, further entrench local support for the fossil fuel industry. Rather than making connections between a recent flood disaster and the causes of climate change, these planners reframed the industry as “helpful” in a time of crisis. They wanted resilience—without disturbing the ongoing development of natural gas resources.

Understanding these dynamics is necessary for crafting climate policies that change the constraints that local planners and decision-makers face. A just transition must involve not only support for displaced fossil fuel industry workers, but also resources to enable climate resilience in every community–including those that have been at the heart of fossil fuel production. Not recognizing that these communities, too, are at risk of climate disaster, can, ironically, leave them dependent on fossil fuel extraction to finance climate adaptation.

It is also crucial to recognize that even within extractive communities, there are those who have not benefited from the growth of the industry (the economic “losers” in our case) and who are in great need of alternative economic opportunities. They stand to gain a great deal from an energy transition that creates new jobs building climate resilience.

At the top of the agenda for the COP in Glasgow are emissions reductions and climate adaptation, including measures to save homes and lives in the face of extreme weather and fires. Fossil fuel hosting communities have a role to play in both emissions reduction and climate change adaptation – but attention to differences both between and within these communities is required. Embedded within the COP commitments must be resources for building capacity on the local and regional level, so that planners and disaster management officers don’t need to rely on fossil fuel money or assistance when ‘natural’ disasters strike.

About The Authors

Abby Kinchy

Abby Kinchy is a Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She studies environmental politics and writes about conflicts in...

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Jessica Lehman

Jessica Lehman is Assistant Professor of Geography (Human-Environment) at Durham University. Her research focuses primarily on international environmental politics. She is especial...

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