Short Film Captures the Story of a Just Energy Transition in Tonawanda, NY
Once I was applying to do my postdoc on the Earth Institute, I felt in dire need of a concrete reason for hope across the climate crisis. Future-oriented guarantees and long-term solutions, as noble as they’re, just weren’t enough. With the fossil fuel industry comprising almost three quarters of the worldwide carbon emissions, I knew that’s where we needed to focus our attention. But I also knew that many roles, livelihoods, and communities rely upon this sector. So I began wondering, what actually happens when fossil fuel firms close in towns that rely upon them?
‘Just transition’ is an idea that addresses this query, defined as “‘a principle, a process, and a practice’ to construct economic and political power to shift from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” But what does this means of ‘just transition’ actually seem like? Literature on this topic was mostly theoretical on the time, so I directed my attention to finding real-life examples, to listen to directly from those that live this reality. I wanted to seek out a community that had undergone, or was currently undergoing, the transition away from fossil fuels — a concrete example I could point to as a way to say, ‘Not only is a successful just transition possible, it’s already happening!’ And I desired to tell this story in video format to make it as widely accessible and interesting as possible, because any such knowledge shouldn’t be sure to academic literature alone.
Upon scouring the web and relevant databases, I discovered the Town of Tonawanda in Erie County, NY, where residents have been leading a just transition of their very own for the reason that shutdown of two major coal plants on the town. Situated along the Niagara River, the Town of Tonawanda has a population of roughly 73,000, with 86.6% of its residents identifying as white, 4.5% Hispanic, and 4.5% Black. The median household income in the realm in 2020 was $64,045, barely below the national average. The energy sector was a significant source of employment. The closures of Huntley Generating Station (‘Huntley’) and Tonawanda Coke, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, meant a lack of $6 million within the town’s annual tax revenue, which in turn led to cuts in public programs, closure of colleges and lack of teaching jobs — all along with the lack of jobs for those formerly employed on the plants. Despite these challenges, the aftermath of Huntley’s closure was relatively smooth, because of the collective efforts of the local environmental justice groups, labor unions and teachers’ unions, who secured funding from the state to support the Town and located jobs for the previous plant employees.
I got in contact with the town staff and community members, including Clean Air Coalition of Western Latest York (CACWNY), who fortunately welcomed and graciously agreed to collaboration on this mini documentary project — a video to inform the story of their just transition from their very own perspective. We had an agreement with the community in place, a three-month sublet secured, a videographer hired … after which March 2020 hit. With travel restrictions from the state and Columbia University in place, I could not go live there to learn from the community members and film the documentary with them. But we got creative, and decided to pursue this remotely, using Zoom interviews, existing footage, and latest video submissions from local residents themselves.
What emerged was a community-led participatory documentary process. The town residents were actively involved in the method beyond partaking in interviews, including submitting their very own footage, providing feedback throughout the editing stages, and determining the narrative of the film. This aligned with one in every of the goals I set out with: to make sure that the story was told from their perspective.
Because the documentary shows, the closures of Huntley Generation Station and Tonawanda Coke unfolded quite in a different way, resulting in two separate stories. Where they do overlap, nevertheless, is in demonstrating that a just transition is about so way more than simply energy and jobs.
I learned from the locals that there have been two key aspects to the Town of Tonawanda’s successful transition away from a fossil-fuel based economy: 1) an alliance amongst often-siloed groups; and a pair of) a concentrate on health and dignity.
Partnership and collective motion amongst strange bedfellows — similar to labor unions, teachers’ unions, and environmental justice organizations — are ultimately what earned the town the eye of politicians and decision-makers. The alliance demonstrated that the aftermath of the industry closure was a problem that impacted your complete town, not only the workers of the plants. In comparison with a selected interest group lobbying in isolation, the alliance meant that the politicians had more reason to hearken to this broad range of groups (together with increased risk to lose more votes). As Rebecca Newberry, former director of CACWNY put it within the film, “we’d like relationship-building, not toolkits” — because the inter-organizational collaboration was what made their collective voice and motion effective.
The problem of health turned out to be the important thing catalyst for creating solidarity and synergy amongst these formerly-siloed groups. Because the film documents, the Town of Tonawanda had seen disproportionately high rates of cancer amongst its residents for many years, with many pointing their finger on the local coal plants — particularly Tonawanda Coke, which violated the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation Recovery Act multiple times, and ultimately closed its doors resulting from bankruptcy and the shortcoming to pay its fines in consequence. It’s these health concerns that tore down partitions between different interest groups, and mobilized those that otherwise weren’t concerned about climate change or people losing jobs. As one interviewee from CACWNY recalled from her canvassing, while the problem of job losses and climate change didn’t peak people’s interests (and in some cases, would shut down conversations), “after they discover it’s affecting their health, they need more information.” One other CACWNY member stated that health was often the explanation that some people previously not engaged in civil affairs selected to attend community meetings.
Because the film documents, the community has demonstrated that equity can’t be an afterthought, and that it have to be underline the method and be considered locally, domestically, and globally.
Although the just transition within the Town of Tonawanda is removed from over, illustrated here’s a crisis became opportunity led by the community. At one point, the Town was under the burden of job losses, economic ripple effect, unmitigated pollution, and deteriorating health of its residents. However the residents saw a singular opportunity in these intertwined challenges. There’s growing recognition of this chance, similar to in reports just like the annual Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change. What the Town of Tonawanda has demonstrated is that health will not be only a win-win final result of pro-climate motion, but can even function a means to expand the discussion around energy transition and climate change. This manner, the inevitable and vital phase-out of fossil fuels becomes greater than just a method to decarbonize, but additionally to construct anew — in a way that upholds everyone’s right to a clean and healthy environment, prosperity, and dignity.
Liv Yoon was a postdoctoral research scholar on the Earth Institute at Columbia University when she created this film. Now she is a policy analyst within the Climate Change and Innovation Bureau at Health Canada, and transitioning to an assistant professor within the School of Kinesiology on the University of British Columbia in January 2023.
Yoon would love to present a special thanks to the Clean Air Coalition of Western Latest York, the Kenton Teachers’ Association, The Town of Tonawanda, the Western Latest York Area Labor Federation, and Dr. Diana Hernández.