History shows governments that don’t anticipate and make provisions for the decline of coal burden communities for generations

Retired coal miner Kenneth Dangerfield, from Morgantown, West Virginia, speaks to Barack Obama’s labour secretary Thomas E. Perez in 2014 (Photo: US Department of Labor)

Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement was sometimes presented as the president putting coal workers first.

But the history of coal mining transitions, both in Europe and the US, tells us that failing to anticipate before change comes often finishes badly for workers.

In a new report, authors from the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations and Climate Strategies examined past coal mining declines in five European countries (Spain, the Netherlands, UK, Poland and the Czech Republic) and also in the US.

One of the overarching conclusions is that early anticipation is essential to making a ‘just transition’. Given the scale of the challenge, it is necessary to use all of the available time. Workers must prepare for and move to new jobs, regional economic policy has to be redrawn and companies need to develop new business models.

This can be a long process. However, with anticipation, experience suggests it is possible. For instance, from 1965 to 1990 the Limburg region of the Netherlands – a former coal mining heartland that employed more than 75,000 miners – was able to transition from coal mining to a relatively successful regional economic hub with new industrial activities, with most workers finding reemployment or retiring normally.

However, from a climate policy perspective, we do not have a lot of time. There are very plausible and even quite likely scenarios in which the global demand for coal, including domestic demand in many large coal consuming countries, begins to decline from the coming decade onwards. The just transition is thus matter of urgency for governments and affected stakeholders.

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Anticipation and planning is also crucial because, desired or not, once a transition is underway, events can move very quickly, often with severe and long-lasting impacts for workers and regions. Almost everywhere, with the notable exception of Limburg, the failure to prepare and invest in economic alternatives for former mining regions has meant that regional unemployment in mining regions is often significantly higher than the national average.

In southern Poland in the 1990s,…