When he entered office in 2020, President Joe Biden laid out an ambitious goal: he announced that the United States would decarbonize its economy by 2050 and achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035.
These benchmarks are driving the U.S. response to the climate crisis. Still, they have to be advanced thoughtfully and with concern for the communities whose livelihoods will be impacted by the shift to renewable energy.
A just transition is one that honors the socioeconomic needs of people and their prosperity. The race to decarbonize our economy and address the current climate crisis cannot leave communities reliant on coal, gas, and oil jobs behind.
We All Deserve Healthy, Clean, and Economically Prosperous Living Conditions
To learn how FCNL can better support communities that depend on the fossil fuel industry in this transition, we traveled to West Virginia, where 96% of all energy consumed or exported is derived from fossil fuels. We met with representatives from grassroots organizations and Quaker groups to hear their stories.
Friends from Charleston Monthly Meeting and the Greenbrier Valley Worship Group shared about the future of renewable energy in their region and expressed concern for the economic development of coal mining communities. Other grassroots organizations mirrored these concerns and offered different ideas on how best to address the green transition.
A common theme in our conversations was fear for people’s livelihoods during and after the transition to renewable energy. There was also a clear desire to make the clean energy tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act (Public Law: 117-169) more easily accessible.
One thing was evident in the heart of each conversation we had: the love that these organizations and individuals have for their neighbors, state, and way of life. The federal government needs to adopt a comprehensive, just transition plan to ensure a prosperous future for these communities.
Listening to Impacted Communities is the First Step in Achieving a Greener Future
At the beginning of our trip, we met with Mike Whitten, a former coalfield worker who volunteers with Citizens’ Climate Lobby. His activism is motivated by his understanding that coal, as a pollutant, is not a sustainable fuel and mining is not a healthy job. When asked whether West Virginians would be willing to work green energy jobs instead of well-paying coal mining jobs, he responded: “If the jobs are decent, people aren’t going to complain.” He added that what people most want is to pay their mortgage and take care of their children and aging parents.
A central point in our trip was our visit with Big Creek People in Action, located in War, WV. This organization is an anchor in their community. They offer critical food assistance, housing rehabilitation, and after-school programs in the state’s poorest county.
“This is home,” said Marsha Timpson, Big Creek People in Action co-director, “It’s like family helping family.”
We spoke with four of their employees, all from coal mining families. One showed us a video of her relative in the mine and spoke about how happy he was with his job. When asked how they feel about the transition to renewable energy, they said they are scared for their already declining economy and financial stability.
As We Work to Address the Climate Crisis, We Must Ensure No One is Left Behind.
West Virginians are working hard to preserve the land, mountains, and natural resources of their environment. They are also dealing with growing anxiety about how they will make a living and support their families—not just after coal mining is long gone, but here and now.
Our faith calls us to embrace the concerns of our neighbors, work to meet the needs of underserved communities, and prioritize the experience of impacted people domestically and abroad as we advocate for public policy changes that will help us restore the earth.
This is a time of great change in the Appalachian region. We heard that anxiety often voiced in our conversations with Friends. As we seek to make our economy more reliant on renewable energy, lawmakers must take tangible steps to reassure coal mining communities that their livelihoods will be protected. It’s time to make clear—through words and actions—that their needs will not be forgotten. “No one wants to change,” Mike Whitten told us. “Waiting on a promise is not a good outlook.”