Host Daniel Raimi talks with Professor Sanya Carley of Indiana University's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Daniel and Sanya discuss her work on a "just" transition, which addresses questions like, how do climate policies affect energy affordability for low-income households, how do they affect the well-being of energy producing communities, and what approaches might help reduce the unwanted side effects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector?
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made throughout the podcast:
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
- “Why Setting a Climate Deadline is Dangerous” by Shinichiro Asayama
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Professor Sanya Carley, the second week in a row in which we interview experts from Indiana University's O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. I'll talk with Sanya about her work on a just transition, which addresses questions like, how do climate policies affect energy affordability for low-income households, how do they affect the well-being of energy producing communities, and what approaches might help reduce the unwanted side effects of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector? Stay with us. Okay. Sanya Carley, my friend from Indiana University, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio today.
Sanya Carley: Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
Daniel Raimi: So Sanya, we're going to talk about a couple papers that you've published recently with colleagues and an issue that you've been exploring for a while related to the energy transition or what we sometimes call the "just transition." But before we get into that, can you tell us first how you ended up working on energy and environmental issues?
Sanya Carley: Sure. I'd be happy to. So I grew up in Wisconsin, and it's a state that of course is well defined by some special things such as cheese and beer and sausage, which have actually inspired my research in other ways. But the state also has this great legacy of environmentalists including Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, among others. And the state, and the residents within the state, are quite inspired by their tradition. And thus, I was raised to appreciate the natural environment around me and to seek out some pretty epic adventures in the woods with my brother, including some pretty bloody sledding mishaps. I don't suggest sledding in the woods.
But in my early teen years, my environmental quests, we'll say, took me much farther from home. And my heart settled in the Quetico National Park of Canada, and I visited Quetico on several canoeing trips through those years. And it was in that land, which I think of as the land of lakes and loons with such beautiful landscape, the kind of the rocks jutting out of the water and covered in lichen and blueberries, wild blueberries, and it was there that I truly came to kind of embrace and understand the importance of leaving no trace and to have immense respect for my natural environment.
So I would say that's where I was really given this appreciation, thorough appreciation, for the environment and that this kind of ethos then guided my studies and extracurriculars through college and eventually led me to the realm of energy, which I first experienced or explored when I was at Swarthmore College and trying to petition the college to adopt renewable energy, specifically wind energy credits. And we actually succeeded with a really small commitment of 2.5 percent of our total electricity use. But for me, it kind of instilled this lifelong commitment to studying and advancing energy progress.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. That's fantastic. Where is that lake in Canada that you referred to? What part of the country?
Sanya Carley: Quetico National Park, it's above the boundary waters in Minnesota.
Daniel Raimi: Wonderful.
Sanya Carley: It's amazing, yeah.
Daniel Raimi: Well, I've never heard of it all. I'll have to check it out.
Sanya Carley: Truly amazing country.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. Well, so yeah. I wish we had more time to talk about Wisconsin sausage and cheese in particular, but we're going to focus instead on this idea of the Just Transition. So can you just get us started by giving us a working definition for the idea of the Just Transition? What is it when we talk about a just transition?
Sanya Carley: Yeah, of course. Actually, I think I'm going to give you two definitions, and one I consider a little bit more descriptive or positive, and the other I think is far more normative. The descriptive one is, just transition is combining the notions of an energy transition and energy justice, which of course requires more definitions. So by energy transition, I mean a move away from reliance on carbon intensive energy sources toward more advanced, efficient, and low, no carbon energy sources. And by energy justice, I mean some kind of consideration of the full sets of benefits and burdens associated with energy production and consumption, including a care for equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens and providing opportunities for all to be involved in decision making processes. So just transition is the combination of those two notions.
But a more normative definition is that first we have to recognize that this energy transition inevitably creates winners and losers, and there are both benefits and costs. And these are very much not spread evenly across the population. So the normative definition of a just transition is that it is imperative that we understand these inequities, study these inequities, and use whatever powers or resources we have available to us and that our policy makers do this as well to ensure that certain communities are not left behind and that everybody has some kind of adequate safety net to fair the energy transition.
Daniel Raimi: Right, that makes sense. So let's move from understanding what the Just Transition means to sort of an application of that idea. And we're going to talk about first a paper that you wrote with colleagues that came out in Nature Energy in 2018, so people can look it up. It's called “A Framework for Evaluating Geographic Disparities in Energy Transition Vulnerability”, which is a kind of mouthful, but we're going to break down what that means. So the paper really kind of helps provide a tool for us to evaluate which communities might be most vulnerable to big changes in energy policy for an energy transition let's say. You identify three key dimensions of vulnerability that you define as exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. Can you tell us what those three terms mean in this context, and why they're important?
Sanya Carley: Sure, of course. Let me just begin by noting that we borrow this notion of vulnerability from a different body of literature. This is called the "vulnerability scoping framework", and it's first introduced and tested in the climate science literature. So we took this framework and adapted it for our use. And as you noted, there's three different dimensions of vulnerability, exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity.
So exposure is, I tend to think of it as a shock, so if there's some kind of shock that happens as a result of the energy transition or a policy that we might put in place to help advance the energy transition, then some individuals might feel that shock. So an example of a potential one would be the rise in the price of electricity for example or a rise in the price of transportation.
Sensitivity then refers to how prone one is to actually being affected by that shock. So if using my example, if the price of electricity rises, many people might be able to absorb that cost. Based on their budgets, they can just pay a little bit more. But there's a lot of people that might not be able to absorb those costs, and they might need to face difficult trade-offs, for example such as to displace some other budget item like food or healthcare in order to pay their energy bills. So those individuals are more sensitive to the shock.
And then adaptive capacity is kind of the opposite idea. It's how well can people actually cope and adapt and how resilient are they. So I tend to think of this as individual coping strategies or household coping strategies. For example, you might shift your bills around, or you might change your thermostat, or you might move in with somebody else. It also includes things like community assistance and government resources or nonprofit resources such as financial assistance or weatherization kinds of programs.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense. And I guess one way that I was thinking about these things when I was reading the paper is the people that are kind of most vulnerable would be those who are high exposure, high sensitivity, and low adaptive capacity and then vice versa. Is that about right?
Sanya Carley: Yes, that's exactly right. In fact, we try to operationalize the idea of vulnerability through an equation in this paper and then use the resulting metrics to map where vulnerability is the worst. And our equation exactly measures what you just said. So you have the exposure times, the sensitivity, and then you can subtract out essentially how adaptive one is.
Daniel Raimi: And there are some really cool, very geospatially detailed maps in the paper. So I'll really encourage people to check that out. I think it's at the county level, right?
Sanya Carley: Yes.
Daniel Raimi: So which counties in the U.S. might be most exposed or not just exposed but most vulnerable. Yeah. So when we put these three elements together, exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity, and you run the equation that you're talking about, if we were to look at that map, can you give us a sense, either geographically or maybe demographically, where are the places or who are the people that might be most vulnerable to major changes in the energy system?
Sanya Carley: Well, so first I think it's really important to note that the energy transition has many different types of exposure. So I just used one example of energy prices rising, but there's many more such as job losses and legacy industries or changes, for example, in property values. So there's lots of different types of exposure.
And therefore, we should expect different places to experience different kinds of shocks in different ways and to be more sensitive or to have better or worse adaptive capacity programs. And the idea is that over time, in a specific place, a community might experience multiple shocks or not. And that we can kind of collate this, put it all together, and understand who might be the most vulnerable. So in our research, we're working to identify this on a county by county, as you know, to before and also a year by year basis.
But what we have in this Nature Energy paper is more of a proof of concept, and we've only mapped vulnerability for one policy in one year. So what we really want to do is expand that to make it much bigger. But one can still, even without the information right now about exactly who is the most vulnerable, I think it's possible to just kind of a priori assume who might be most harmed and also the least able to experience the benefits of the energy transition.
So I put forward three different categories. One is those that work in legacy industries such as coal miners or those that operate power plants, particularly coal power plants but also several other kinds like nuclear as well as the surrounding communities of those that live with a large number of coal miners for example.
Two, those that have historically been burdened by energy and environmental decisions such as those that might reside next to some kind of locally unwanted land uses. Formerly in the environmental justice context, we would talk about, for example, coal power plants, but in the energy transition context, we might talk about those that reside next to landfill facilities, for example, that are lower carbon.
And then third, I would say a big category is those that are already struggling to pay their energy bills or to keep their houses at safe temperatures. And there's ample evidence in the literature that low income households and households of color tend to suffer disproportionately from this.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. And I mean, one of the things that's so cool about the tool or this approach that you've laid out is that if I understand it correctly, as you continue to develop the tool, it could be adapted to help us understand the energy justice or environmental justice implications of any given policy. So like you said, you used a renewable portfolio standard as an example in this paper to sort of map the energy justice implications of the policy. But you could do the same thing for maybe a carbon tax or a clean energy standard or whatever the relevant policy might be. Is that something that you all are working on now to implement or expand?
Sanya Carley: Yeah. Your description is exactly right, and we are working on it, but I will note there's a pretty big limitation that we've encountered with the literature, and that is, very few people actually undergo thorough modeling exercises of these policies. Most people that tend to study policies such as the renewable portfolio standard, and I fall prey to this as well, is that you look at how effective the policy is, and you measure whether it's achieving its outcomes, but you rarely look at some of the unintended consequences or the welfare distribution of these different policies. So without that information from other scholars that have already done it, we need to go and do the modeling exercise ourself, which is great and a worthwhile exercise but just very time-consuming.
Daniel Raimi: And my sense is, I mean, it's unfortunate that that type of work hasn't been carried out much in the past, but my sense is that your work is sort of part of a broader effort by a number of scholars, really a community of scholars, who are looking more closely at these issues of energy justice and trying to kind of bake it in to the other types of analyses that we've done more traditionally.
Sanya Carley: Yes, you're exactly right. And there is a pretty phenomenal community of scholars, I would say, that focus on these exact core issues. And they come from all different disciplines, which is really great and important because these issues are so multidimensional and interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary as well.
Daniel Raimi: So let's zoom in now to one particular demographic that you mentioned a couple of times that are likely to be heavily affected by any major climate policy, which is coal communities, both communities that mine coal, communities that process coal, transport coal, communities that are supported by coal-fired power plants.
Daniel Raimi: You and your colleagues have another paper that's called Adaptation Culture and the Energy Transition in American Coal Country. And that paper is, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's largely based on a series of focus groups and expert interviews that you did to kind of understand how people in coal communities view the recent downturn of their industry and kind of how they're thinking about the future. So really a ground level view of how some of the people in these communities are experiencing the downturn that has occurred, not necessarily because of climate policy, but that's kind of another discussion, but how they're thinking about the future of coal as well as the impacts that they've experienced over the last decade or so. So can you talk a little bit about that paper, and what some of the major findings were that you found particularly interesting?
Sanya Carley: Yeah, of course I'd be happy to. Let me note that we conducted these focus groups and interviews. So the focus groups were with community members. The interviews were with individuals that are working actively on the front lines of this issue, and by that I mean these are people that are in the field helping the communities that are harmed from the energy transition. So we had focus groups and interviews in Kentucky and West Virginia regions of Appalachia, but we also had focus groups and interviews in St. Louis and in Detroit. And we chose these locations based on the assumptions that we made about those that would be most effected by the energy transition as I noted earlier.
So some of our findings, I'm just going to focus on those findings in Appalachia, and this is very specific to the regions that we are in as well. We found that there was significant loss of coal mining jobs and that the communities not only suffer from the coal mining unemployment but also from unemployment and economic decline in several other sectors such as retail and construction. So the idea is when you don't have a kind of a robust industry that's keeping everybody employed or many people employed, that there are spillover effects because there's not enough money, for example, for individuals to shop or to go out to eat or to have construction done on their house.
We found that these job losses threatened the economic vitality of the region as well as what I found really interesting, but it's not surprising, it's the identity of the residents that live there and their perceived identity and their perceived culture as to who they were both individually as well as who they were as a family because of generations upon generations of family members working within the coal mining industry but also the community at large.
Daniel Raimi: And those sort of deep roots that you describe in the paper, they're really nicely described, and they rang really true to me having spent a lot of time in energy producing communities. And I wonder if during those conversations you got a sense of whether that history and that legacy was something that would make it harder to transition to other industries that might be coming down the road in the future or if it was something that people were kind of ready to let go of and see as something in the past.
Sanya Carley: Yeah, you're hitting on I think one of our most surprising findings. So many people with whom we spoke were very concerned about losing their identity and their culture. But for as many people that we found that stated that, there were also people that said, "You know what? This is actually a new opportunity for us, and this is something that's actually very helpful for us individually as well as our community as a way to reidentify or redefine our identity and to think about what is our new kind of vision, our new culture, and our new economic opportunities."
So a lot of people actually attributed this to the younger generations within the Appalachian region saying that it was kind of the youth that were spearheading this and helping them identify collectively what their new vision was. And part of this was just thinking about new jobs like solar for example. A lot of people talked about how instead of working in coal mining, maybe they could work in the solar industry.
Daniel Raimi: So that leads me right to the next question that I wanted to ask, which was sort of whether during the course of this research and maybe in subsequent research, you've seen any economic development strategies in these coal communities that seem particularly promising or scalable? Well, you and I actually met a long time ago because you were working on a book with our mutual friend and colleague, Sara Lawrence, on energy-based economic development. So this is something you've been thinking about for a long time. When you were in West Virginia and Kentucky doing this work, were there sort of economic development strategies that seemed promising to you? Did that idea of lots of people going into the solar industry, does that seem like a viable solution, or are there other maybe non-energy solutions that are out there?
Sanya Carley: I think your question really hits on one of the primary challenges with the Just Transition, that is that vulnerability varies so fundamentally across location and geographic space as well as sociodemographic group, but also solutions therefore vary significantly across space as well. So one solution that might work in one place might not work at all in another.
Having said that, we picked up a few insights from our interviews. That is, as I just noted, solar was mentioned time and again as a viable industrial replacement, which I thought was actually quite interesting that they're moving from one energy source to another as opposed to coal to something completely different. Other potential jobs that were mentioned quite often were utility lines person or linesman or a truck driver. Those were very common. Those three, solar, truck driving, and utility linesman were common job replacements. But oftentimes, these require that individuals move pretty far away from their home in order to take the job or to travel during the weeks and be away from their family in order to take those jobs.
Other important insights that we gained were that the solutions have to be bottom up, and they have to be collaborative, and they have to engage the community that's affected. So we heard this very clearly in Appalachia, that residents there said, "If there's going to be a solution, it cannot just be the federal government coming in and imposing a program on us. It needs to be kind of a bottom up solution where we all work together and have this kind of collective vision about what our future is."
Daniel Raimi: And that makes me think of this conversation that I've been been hearing a lot of around very ambitious climate policies that people are talking about today, largely in the Green New Deal context, where sometimes the advocates for these really ambitious climate policies, at least to my ear, and I'm interested to hear your take on this, to my ear, when I hear about folks talking about transitioning away from coal mining jobs or oil and gas jobs, there often seems to me a breezy, almost complacence among some advocates thinking that it would be somehow easy for folks to move from one type of energy job to another type of energy job or from their existing energy job to another sector entirely. And that some kind of federal program would be able to do that in a kind of simple or straightforward way. What's your thought about that idea of having a big policy around energy transition, and how difficult or easy actually implementing it might be?
Sanya Carley: I think I'll start just by saying, of course we can debate details about the Green New Deal such as, I don't know, technological capability and feasibility and whether we should include other objectives such as healthcare for all. But I really commend the fact that the Green New Deal has featured energy justice, and it upholds energy justice as one of the primary objectives of any kind of national energy or climate policy going forward. I think that's really fantastic, and I hope that other policy makers are taking note of that fact. So I do uphold this idea. I think that energy justice should be a part of this national program.
However, just based on what we've found in the field, it can't just be a one size fits all because the solutions need to be tailored to the individual circumstances and to the kind of multidimensions of vulnerability in different places. So there could be a program that's led by the national government, but it needs to be collaborative and needs to engage those that are effective in kind of visioning what the programs might entail.
Daniel Raimi: Is there anything, Sanya, that you want to talk about that I haven't asked about?
Sanya Carley: I do. I think that when we oftentimes think about energy justice and a just transition, the first demographic that comes to mind is coal country and coal communities. But what is less commonly thought of I think is low income residents and people of color that are already disproportionately harmed based on our current energy system.
Daniel Raimi: So we've been talking about energy producing communities largely for the last few minutes. And as you note in the paper, there's often a lot of focus on sort of coal country when we have these conversations about energy transitions. But I know you also looked very carefully at energy consumers, not just energy producers. So can you talk about some of the findings from your work on how people might be vulnerable to an energy transition in the context of energy consumption rather than energy production?
Sanya Carley: In particular, I'll feature some of the findings that came out of our fieldwork in St. Louis and Detroit, and these are two different cities that have pretty high rates of poverty and segregation. And what we found, and this is primarily based on our focus groups with, as you said, consumers, energy consumers, and we found that there's significant rates of energy poverty. And that is when a family spends a very large share of their income on energy and that this energy poverty is only exacerbated by rising energy prices and that these families then face some pretty increasingly difficult trade-offs such as what's referred to as "heat or eat" financial decisions. That is, does one pay to heat their home or pay for food? But they also face an increased likelihood of electric utility disconnection, which we know can threaten one's personal health, for example, if they don't have enough heat for their home or if they can't run an air conditioning in extreme heat such as what we're experiencing in some places in the country right now.
These same individuals communicate this concern that the new kind of efficient or low carbon or fancy new energy technologies, as well as opportunities such as jobs, are not actually obtainable for anybody within their socioeconomic status with this perception that such technologies are really only available for those with the financial means to afford them, which of course is also picked up in the literature with many studies that have come out recently that highlight how technologies such as electric vehicles or solar panels or in a great piece by Tony Reames, LED light bulbs for example, are only available within certain locations and to certain sociodemographic groups.
Daniel Raimi: And so if there's an ambitious climate policy that raises electricity prices, for example, for people, that could exacerbate some of these energy justice issues.
Sanya Carley: That's exactly right. And it's quite possible that many households will not actually be able to fare, will not be able to pay the extra prices.
Daniel Raimi: So yeah, challenges on both ends for sure when we think about ambitious policies to address climate change. So Sanya, thank you so much for talking to us about this work, and I hope people will check out the papers that we've referenced. We'll have links to them in the show notes that people can check out.
So let's close out our conversation with the same question that I ask all of our guests, which is, what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack? And I'll start with a recent commentary paper that I came across. The lead author is named, I'm probably going to mispronounce the name, but the name is Shinichiro Asayama and four colleagues. It's a paper called “Why Setting a Climate Deadline is Dangerous”. And it was in one of the Nature journals. I forget which one right now.
But the paper, I thought was really interesting because we hear a lot of talk even in the presidential debates of “we have 11 years to solve the climate crisis” or “12 years to solve the climate crisis.” And a lot of my students have used that same type of language when they talk about climate change. And this is largely coming out of the recent IPCC report on 1.5 degrees, and which many have interpreted to mean that in order to reach these targets, we have to hit specific goals at specific deadlines.
And it's a really interesting debate about framing climate change solutions and how we think about them and what's the most productive way to think about them. I'm kind of conflicted because I see some value both in setting targets, and I see challenges associated with setting targets because they're not always scientifically defensible. And I just wanted to highlight that paper as a really interesting and provocative piece that people can check out. So Sanya, how about you? What's on the top of your reading stack?
Sanya Carley: Yeah, I love this question, and I very much appreciate your recommendation too. So I'm going to go a little lighter and extend a suggestion that was given to me by my friend and colleague, Shahzeen Attari, and that is The Overstory by Richard Powers. It's a novel, and it is beautifully written, and it celebrates the, what I would say is the magnificence of trees and the ways in which trees communicate with both each other and with people and shape our lives. It is so worth the read I think.
Daniel Raimi: Fantastic. So I'm going note that Shahzeen was a recent guest on our podcast, and we of course had this question to her. And my recommendation during top of the stack to Shahzeen was actually The Overstory by Richard Powers because I'm in the middle of it. And so you are now the third, and then Shahzeen of course heartily endorsed that recommendation. So now we have three people recommending The Overstory by Richard Powers. So if it's not on your reading stack, you should get out there and check it out for sure.
Sanya Carley: I love that. I love the chain too. I think we need to keep this chain going.
Daniel Raimi: That's right, and the book is very much kind of a chain reaction kind of thing too, all sorts of people connected in different ways, so it's nice that the book is connecting people all by itself. Great. Well, Sanya Carley, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio talking to us about your work on just transition and so much else. We're really looking forward to reading more of your work as it keeps coming down the pipe.
Sanya Carley: Of course. It's my pleasure, and thank you so much.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think, so please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review. It helps us spread the word. Also feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington D.C. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Petersen with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.