Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-684899dbb8-x64cq Total loading time: 0.498 Render date: 2022-05-23T21:54:55.907Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

1 - The Global Contest over Coal and Development

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 November 2020

James Goodman
University of Technology Sydney
Linda Connor
University of Sydney
Devleena Ghosh
University of Technology Sydney
Kanchi Kohli
Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Jonathan Paul Marshall
University of Technology Sydney
Manju Menon
Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
Katja Mueller
Martin Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Tom Morton
University of Technology Sydney
Rebecca Pearse
University of Sydney
Stuart Rosewarne
University of Sydney


Chapter 1 introduces the book’s main theme, namely the growing global contest over the future of coal. Three main aspects are identified – the changing world-historical status of coal as the fuel of development, the shifting significance of the coal commodity in economic growth, and its impact as a central driver of climate change and ecological exhaustion. Government-led development ideology remains closely bound up with the extraction of coal as a source of energy security, yet is increasingly exposed and contested. Increased populist rejection of climate policy in the name of fossil fuel reliance reflects the growing intensity of this contest. Pro-coal political forces gain most traction where they are most threatened, in high-income coal-producing countries such as in the US, Canada and Australia, as well as in the EU. In newly industrialising contexts with lower emissions targets, such as in India, coal is challenged by new low-cost renewable energy, and by immediate health imperatives.

Beyond the Coal Rush
A Turning Point for Global Energy and Climate Policy?
, pp. 13 - 30
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020

By 2018, a global confrontation had opened up between anti-coal and pro-coal forces. The conflict saw those arguing for the phase-out of coal-fired power posed18 against coal advocates who in some contexts had found new rhetorical fervour and new allies in coal-dependent communities. The confrontation quickly became an ideological contest of advocates of a coal phase-out, often aligned with technocratic globalism, against coal populism, often (but not always) linked with nationalist and conservative forces. In several key national contexts, the support for coal gained political traction, with climate policy reimagined as an illegitimate imposition by global elites, threatening both national development and the survival of bedrock communities. The contest was played out with the most intensity in high-income, still heavily coal-dependent countries, especially the United States, Canada and Australia, but also European countries, including Germany.

For climate policy advocates, the end of coal was in sight. The IPCC special report on achieving the 1.5°C target, published in 2018, stated that the Paris target required the effective end of coal-fired power generation by 2050 (excepting possible plants with ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ [CCS] technology). Global reliance on coal-fired power for electricity would have to fall from 32 per cent in 2020 to less than 1 per cent in 2050 (IPCC 2018: 134). The IPCC stated this would entail a halt in the construction of coal-fired power stations not equipped with CCS by 2030 (IPCC 2018: 154).

In the same year, the UN Environment Program’s annual Emissions Gap Report issued the sobering message that national emissions reduction commitments needed to increase fivefold to meet the 1.5°C target, and threefold to meet the 2°C target. Significantly, the report unequivocally identified coal-fired power as the key problem for climate policy and ‘the most important cause of carbon lock-in today’: coal-fired power stations under construction would have an operating life of at least thirty years and would likely push the world beyond the 2°C maximum increase (UNEP Reference Tyson2018: 22).

The logic of this ‘lock-in’ has pushed the 2050 Paris target of net zero emissions backwards, not just to 2030, but to the present day. Announcing an urgent UN Climate Action Summit for September 2019, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued the following tweet:

Here are 4 shifts @UN chief @AntonioGuterres wants us to focus on: 1. Tax pollution, not people 2. No subsidies for fossil fuels 3. No new coal plants by 2020 4. Focus on a green economy.

The third ‘Shift’ was detailed as follows:

Coal-based power is key according to UN-environment’s 2018 Emissions Gap Report … if all coal power plants currently under construction go into operation and run until the end of their technical lifetime, emissions will increase by another 150 giga tonnes, jeopardizing our ability to limit global warming by 2°C as agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

On the other side of the coin, and in lock-step with the growing disruption in the coal industry, coal populism has also gained momentum. The coal industry itself has been a key player, along with other fossil fuel corporates, in sponsoring attempts at agenda-setting by think-tanks, faux community organisations and various front groups, as well as through direct sponsorship of coal-friendly politicians (Dunlap and McCright Reference Dunlap, McCright and Dryzek2011; Plehwe Reference Pascoe2014).

In the United States, the 2016 contest for the presidency brought the issue of transition from coal into sharp focus. In the United States (and elsewhere, including Australia), partisan polarisation on energy policy and reliance on fossil fuels is closely linked to a scepticism if not rejection of climate science (Fraune and Knodt Reference Feigenbaum, Frenzel and McCurdy2018). In the United States, the Republican Party has consistently rejected global climate policy-making, exiting from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 under President George H. W. Bush and then from the Paris Agreement in 2017 under President Trump.

With Trump, coal became an explicit focus, and in large part this appears to have been driven by the desire to recruit key disillusioned working-class constituencies. At the core of right-wing populism, and a key source of its strength, is an ostensible rejection of political elites in favour of an established cultural echelon, deemed to be the legitimate expression of the ‘nation’. The capacity to mobilise a working-class segment is especially important (Abraham Reference Abraham2019). In this context climate policy and the threat to phase out the coal industry offered a ready-made opportunity for right-wing political forces, and this is evident across a number of countries, including Germany and Australia, but also, and perhaps most especially in the United States (Lockwood Reference Lockwood2018).

Coal has been in decline in the United States since the mid-2000s. Coal-fired power supplied half of the country’s electricity in 2004 but fell to less than a third by 2018. This was principally due to a shift to natural gas–fired power and renewable technologies, along with local campaigns against pollution from coal-fired plants, rather than climate policy per se (Gruenspecht 2019). President Barak Obama’s 2015 Clean Power Plan would have required power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a third on 2005 levels, but this was halted by the Supreme Court in 2016 (Aldy Reference Aldy2017). During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Donald Trump promised to ‘end the war on coal’ and restore coal jobs; for instance, in a speech to Appalachian miners he praised ‘great clean coal’ and declared he would ‘get those miners back to work’, his campaign posters announcing ‘Trump Digs Coal’ (Brown and Sovacool Reference Brown and Sovacool2017). The clear intention was to sway voters in otherwise Democratic Party–held districts in coal-mining states such as Wyoming, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio (see Faber et al. 2017).

Once in power, President Trump replaced the Federal Clean Power regulations with his own ‘Affordable Clean Energy Rule’, which sought a 1.5 per cent emissions reduction target, to be achieved by 2030 (Milman Reference Milman2018). He also sought to remove other regulatory impediments to the expansion of coal mining, though many were delayed in the courts, and related proposals to subsidise coal-fired power were rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. With the continued structural shift to natural gas and renewables, there was little impact on the still shrinking coal industry (Selby Reference Selby2019). Two years into the presidency, investors in the United States had abandoned coal and were flocking to renewables; even investment in natural gas was in decline. As Bloomberg (2019) put it, ‘Trump likes fossil fuels but investors don’t.’

The important lesson of coal populism is that the climate crisis and associated social transformations offer rich pickings for politicians able to capitalise on disillusion with political elites in coal-reliant contexts. The same lessons were being learnt in Australia, for instance, where the far-right One Nation party gained ground in coal regions in the 2018 election (and in response the Labor Party came more strongly behind export coal). Likewise in Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany had made headway in similar contexts where coal-mining communities could be mobilised against established climate and energy policy in the name of their own livelihood and legitimacy (Abraham Reference Abraham2019).

A sharp political collision had emerged between an elite consensus that climate policy required the dismantling of the global coal industry and increasingly strident far-right political forces linked to marginalised coal-dependent communities. The collision is not arbitrary or contingent but expresses deep-seated contradictions between climate stability and fossil fuel dependency. As we outline, the presumed nexus between coal-fired power and development is under challenge, and in the process, established political blocs and interests are being disrupted, with far-reaching results.

This chapter explores how the idea of national development became intertwined with the growth in coal-fired power, and how this may be unravelling under advancing climate change, posing new questions of transition and decarbonisation. Across the book we address the question of coal through the lens of developmentalism, as an ideology that applies equally to high- and low-income countries, and which translates the meanings associated with the coal commodity into national energy and climate policy. This chapter charts some of the broader themes for this study, particularly in relation to the dynamics of coal and development.

The first section of the chapter sketches the coal–development nexus, and its emergence and growth through the dynamics of national rivalry. Coal-based developmentalism generates a ‘coal–industrial complex’, as discussed in Chapter 5, expressed in the persistence of state policies that advance coal interests in the face of climate change. The second section focusses on the contradictions of the coal commodity as the entrenched developmentalist project comes under challenge from climate policy. Increasingly, we argue, the social value and meaning of coal are being transformed. The third part of the chapter discusses dynamics for a transition from coal, focussing on the narratives and scripts that may emerge as the coal industry is increasingly contested. As noted, a global official consensus has emerged that coal-fired power needs to be superseded by renewable energy. The debate then turns on the question of when and how that transition will occur. As a whole, the book shows how this plays out on the ground in coal narratives, and the associated scripts of everyday developmentalism that emerge in the context of a still-expanding coal industry.

The Coal–Development Nexus

‘Development’ has been a central concept in politics from the late nineteenth century onwards. It is intimately intertwined with the kinds of understandings, organisations and practices that have produced our current world climate crisis. Since the late eighteenth century, the modern world has been built around technological systems that utilise fossil fuels, and in particular, coal. Coal liberated economic processes from the constraints of human, animal, wind and water-based power (Malm Reference Malm2016). This ‘liberation’ did not occur easily and involved political struggle. For example, the use of the steam-powered Cotton Jenny in factories only displaced hand looms and a class of independent weavers with the intervention of the state against the Luddite resistance (Sale Reference Sale1996). The use of steam energy not only gave competitive advantage but was also encouraged by state authorities, and it was hard to profit and expand in a craft without using it. Steam became necessary, and industrialism was born.

The use of coal for steam power freed energy from the restraints of place, so that factories did not have to be near, or share, a natural power source. Factories could be concentrated in cities, while coal-powered railways and steam shipping enabled speedy, reliable and far-flung supply chains. Coal-fired steam and then electrical energy, together with coking coal for steel production, helped enable the continuing development of the modern industrial state, fuelling industrial technology, world trade, colonialism, modern weaponry and warfare. Coal was also instrumental in the rise of the labour movement, which, as Mitchell (Reference Mitchell2011) notes, was to a significant extent founded in the coalfields and went on to advance democratic transformations and social welfare policies. Coal and coal-powered technology, as such, are structured into the production of the social system that we know as contemporary capitalism.

Ideologies of Development

The race to industrialise, initiated in Western Europe and replicated globally, was reflected in the emerging global ideologies of development. With its roots in mercantile capitalism, where European powers competed to dominate trade routes, industrial developmentalism centred on state strategies designed to marshal resources and mobilise the country in the drive for industrial power. In the context of British imperialism, the imperative to industrialise was directly related to national security concerns and the desire to project both economic and military power. Germany under Bismarck and Japan under the Meiji challenged the liberal empire and are good examples of competitive developmentalism at work. The Japan case is especially remarkable, in delivering military victory against China (1894–1895) and Russia (1904–1905) less than fifty years after the industrialisation drive was initiated. Japan demonstrated that developmentalism could produce independence from Western colonialism, giving a clear signal to the new wave of anti-colonial independence movements.

In the following century, national development emerged as a global norm. The science of ‘development studies’ emerged to define and contest orthodoxies, from ‘modernisation’ theory to dependency theory, and developmentalism became structured into competitive relations within a globalised states system. As a self-conscious ideology of statecraft, developmentalism became integral to the emergence and extension of the capitalist world system. Wallerstein divides this history into three overlapping phases. The first is colonial imperialist competition during the nineteenth century, in which conquered areas were integrated into the colonial economy, in competition with other colonial societies. The second is a wave of modernisation in the post–World War II era, in which development through colonial independence was embedded in competition between capitalism and communism. As we discuss in Chapter 5, during this period coal was rehabilitated as a primary source of energy security, especially after the oil crisis of the 1970s. Third, from the 1980s there was a dramatic shift to neoliberal developmentalism, which intensified with the collapse of Soviet communism and the advent of corporate globalism (Wallerstein Reference Wallerstein2005). In this period there was a rapid increase in coal use, especially centred on the newly industrialising countries of East Asia, first with Japan and the ‘Tiger Economies’, then with China, and latterly India. At the same time, neoliberal development ideology was increasingly exposed as serving dominant corporate interests, leading to an intensified global assertion of ‘alternative development’ models, for example as expressed in the emergent ‘global justice’ movement.

To this schema can be added a fourth stage, of growing awareness of climate change and ecological crisis. Awareness of the growing costs of fossil fuel–based development, in terms of climate change, overlaps with the growing assertion of ‘alternative development’ in the 1980s and later, ‘post-development’ approaches which identified development as an ideological concept expressing the dominance of high-income countries. With climate change, development is no longer simply a matter for ‘developing countries’, but is also defined as a problem for the high-income ‘developed’ world. The clear need for a new development trajectory, beyond fossil fuels, for rich as well as poor countries, now challenges the existing model.

There is a collision between the causes and consequences of developmentalism. National development projects that still prioritise fossil fuels are in direct collision with an emergent ‘reflexive development’ that requires attention to globalised side effects (Peiterse Reference Peiterse1998). Increasingly, as climate change negates development gains worldwide, the side effect is in danger of becoming the main effect. The collision is not just semantic – it involves a clash of interests between an entrenched coal industry and an emergent renewable sector supported by a popular desire to address climate change. As such, the clash is structural, implicating state legitimacy and forcing ever-more vociferous assertion of the existing fossil fuel–based model (as exemplified in attempts at quashing anti-coal protests, and also in the rhetorical support for the coal industry from conservative political leaders, especially US President Donald Trump).

Indeed, it is remarkable the extent to which coal-based developmentalism is so forcefully embraced, across a diversity of social systems (Tyfield Reference Timsit2014). Energy systems link directly to accumulation and cohere what Wallerstein characterises as the capitalist world system. Coal’s value relates to its biophysical properties as a source of energy and the associated technologies designed to harness it; it also relates to narratives and scripts of development. Industrialism is wedded to coal, and the ubiquity of development-through-coal reflects this. In the Soviet Union, for instance, coal was central both for advancing the state communist political project and for guaranteeing security in competition with the West. Lenin stated that without coal, ‘the large-scale industry of all countries would collapse, fall to pieces and revert to primitive barbarity’ (Reference Lenin1920b). Lenin posited a strong link between political power and electric power, famously declaring ‘communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country, since industry cannot be developed without electrification’ (and this meant through coal) (Reference Lenin1920a). Celebration of the coal miner as revolutionary hero was, as noted in Chapter 4, rarely out of the picture.

The competitive pressure between national economies, and wider inter-state insecurity and rivalry, puts the state into the prime position. Throughout it, the state assumes the leading role in seeking to establish and secure energy supplies and define a mandate for fossil fuel–powered technology. Reflecting this, the national state almost universally asserts its rights over coal deposits, positioning coal as a resource to be extracted, backed by the threat or use of force. While the institutional organisation of this process has varied, the state is always vital. In this sense, coal dependence is always as much a political as an economic phenomenon.

Competitive Developmentalism

Developmentalism operates as a competitive set of relations. In the context of the Cold War and the revolt of the colonies of the Soviet- and US-centred blocs promoted contending models for ‘development’, what Hirschman called ‘monoeconomies’ (Hirschman Reference Hirschman1981; Norgaard Reference Norgaard1994). The implementation of a material ‘infrastructure’ of electricity, coal and steel (and occasionally hydro power) was characteristic, as reflected in the normalising term ‘modernisation’. Development became a key stake in Cold War rivalry, and after. William Rostow’s (Reference Rostow1960) famous modernisation text, ‘The Stages of Economic Growth’, subtitled ‘A Non-Communist Manifesto’, laid great emphasis on removing internal barriers to development. Critics such as Samir Amin (Reference Amir1977) opposed the ‘extroversion’ of society to meet external needs, and instead focussed on meeting local needs for ‘autocentric’ development.

In the 1970s, a range of more authoritarian anti-communist and Western-orientated states, mainly in East and South-East Asia, began defining a ‘catalytic’ role for what became recognised as the ‘developmental state’ (Berger Reference Berger2004). This developmentalist model, led by the bloc of ‘Newly Industrialising Counties’ into the 1980s, was inspired in part by the active role of the state in post-war Japan. The approach broke the mould of dependency relations and, most significantly, prefaced the large-scale industrial transformation of China, and then India, into the 2000s.

India, Australia and Germany were part of the post-war development dynamic. India emerged from independence in 1949 with a post-colonial developmentalist project centred on the newly democratised state. The development planning cycle centred on the development of heavy industry driven by coal, assumed as the precondition for prosperity. Australia’s history as a commodity-producing colony translated into post-war dependence on agriculture and then mineral exports. Australia became strongly aligned with the United States as a mixed, state-organised economy with a growing role for transnationally owned corporate conglomerates, especially in the mining industry. The defeat of fascism saw Germany divided between East and West, with development in both driven by coal production. Coal and steel production in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was integrated into the emerging European Community as an insurance against future conflict; in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), coal production was integrated into the Soviet-led COMECON.

Post–Cold War, developmentalism became closely tied to neoliberalism, expressed in the US-IMF-WB ‘Washington Consensus’ (Williamson Reference Williamson2003). In this regime, notwithstanding market rhetoric, the state took on a more active role in promoting business interests through privatisation, tax cuts and subsidies for powerful players (Duménil & Lévy Reference Duménil and Lévy2004, Reference Duménil and Lévy2013; Hildyard Reference Hildyard2016). Neoliberalism made developmentalism almost entirely about capitalism, and its main effect was to create a wave of commodification, across public services, natural resources, social or leisure time and everyday life, enabling what Harvey (Reference Harvey2005) called a process of appropriation, or ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Crucially, for our purposes, the drive for cheap energy was greatly accelerated. Global economic power became increasingly concentrated, with transnational corporations becoming even more dominant, including those in the mining, transport, marketing and combustion of coal. With the subsequent coal boom, as outlined in Chapter 6, this process was intensified.

Across this recent history the dominant ideas of development have been heavily contested. Whether during the Cold War or after, the destructive consequences of mainstream development have consistently been challenged. The enforcement of neoliberal precepts, first with national-level structural adjustment in the 1980s, imposed by the IMF, and then, after the Cold War, with new ‘constitutional’ provisions at an international level, such as through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), became a lightning rod for discontent (Ostry et al. Reference Ong2016). A powerful wave of counter-movements emerged, centred on ‘human’ and ‘sustainable’ development and a myriad of ‘alternative development’ models. The imposition of what Friedman (Reference Friedman2000) glowingly called the ‘golden straitjacket’, not just for debt-ridden ‘developing countries’ but also for high-income economies, created new political forces across the North–South divide. Globalised neoliberalism, or ‘market globalism’, was increasingly targeted by advocates for ‘justice globalism’, North and South (Steger et al. Reference Steger, Goodman and Wilson2013).

With the global model exposed and politicised through the 1990s and 2000s, multilateral institutions such as the WTO were in large part stalled, forcing a shift into bilateral and unilateral initiatives. The pattern was paralleled in global climate policy regimes, as the ‘global justice’ movements of the 1990s and early 2000s quickly developed a focus on ‘climate justice’ (Goodman Reference Goodman2009; see Jafry Reference Jafry2014). The role of climate policy in neoliberalising and displacing emissions reduction, via carbon trading and carbon credits, was a particular focus. The subsequent shift from global agreement-making to Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), under the 2015 Paris Agreement, saw these debates moving into the domestic arena and playing out much more directly in national energy policy, including policy on coal.

The decades-long politicisation of ‘development’, and with it ‘climate action’, is critical to the shift in the status of coal. Coal, as noted, is embedded in concepts of development, both for early industrialisers and current industrialisers. ‘Global justice’ and ‘climate justice’ politicised and globalised debates about ‘development’ as a problem both for high-income and low-income countries, creating common agendas and themes across otherwise radically different contexts. The articulation of post-coal alternatives in this respect is intimately linked with critiques of mainstream development, and with ideas of ‘alternative development’. Here, an intense debate opens up between models of ecological modernisation and the green economy, linked with a transition to renewable energy, and models of ‘post-growth’ and ‘living well’, as forms of ‘post-developmentalism’ (Salleh and Goodman Reference Salleh and Goodman2013).

Coal and the Contradictions of Developmentalism

Capitalist development has centred on coal as a key means of appropriating energy (Malm Reference Malm2016). Individual capitalists require continuously expanding profit to amelioratate economic and social crises. One key means to achieve this is through spatial expansion, such as through empire, to capture markets and expropriate resources, an argument that originates with Hobson (Reference Hobson1902) and Lenin (Reference Lee and Draper1916). Another is to accelerate throughput, as with financial circulation, or to deepen the commodification of daily life and ecology. Hence, what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’, where relatively powerless people are stripped of land, independence and sometimes their lives, is an ongoing and necessary part of capitalist activity. Luxemburg (Reference Luxemberg1951: 467) emphasises the resulting paradox, where capitalism ‘tends to engulf the entire globe … tolerating no rival’, yet at the same time ‘is unable to exist by itself [and] needs other economic systems as a medium and soil’.

The vital point is that capitalism needs non-capitalistic areas of life and economy to survive, yet always extends the frontiers of commodification, thus undermining the conditions of its own existence. The thesis known as the ‘capitalisation of nature’ (O’Connor Reference O’Connor1992, Reference O’Connor and O’Connor1994a) elucidates this point by arguing that capitalists inevitably attempt to subsume the ‘natural’ world into their way of operating by making it equivalent to capital, owned as capitalist property, and subjected to capitalist precepts. This logic of commensurability, as discussed across Chapters 24, is replicated in efforts to ‘offset’ lost ecological values or indigenous ‘heritage’ due to coal mining, or to compensate displaced peoples with new homes and forms of livelihood. The intrinsic value of ecology, as having irreplaceable value, resists commensuration, as does the intrinsic value of culture and society.

In a similar mode, David Harvey argues that capitalism attempts to resolve its inner crises by geographical expansion and restructuring. Material structures later become obsolete, or unworkable, leaving behind waste, devastation and unemployment. Production of destruction is, again, a vital part of the system of production. Harvey (Reference Harvey2004) calls this process ‘the spatial fix’. Like Luxemburg, he recognises that primitive accumulation continues through ‘accumulation by dispossession’ in which social commons and other aspects of material or social life outside capitalism are taken over and turned into private property. Accumulation by dispossession usually occurs with the aid of the state, which protects business, controls people and intensifies capitalistic property relations, while presenting this as developmental prosperity.

As climate stability deteriorates, the self-destructive process of appropriating fossil fuels is being challenged by its own conequences. If climate change demonstrates anything, it is that ecology and society are inseparable (see Moore Reference Moore2016): it is no longer possible to assume that ecology can be destroyed for prosperity. In this context, the legitimacy of fossil fuel–based developmentalism faces a serious and growing challenge.

Climate and Developmentalism

Clearly, developmentalism continues to offer political leverage, both for post-colonial elites and for their counterparts in the high-income post-industrial world, and it remains the key mechanism through which North–South power relations are played out. This is evidenced in the developmentalist focus of the G20, the WTO and, most notably, the UNFCCC. In re-engineering the global climate crisis, the UNFCCC entrenched Third Worldism in an unholy alliance with neoliberalism. The Kyoto Protocol simultaneously exempted newly industrialised countries from emissions reduction requirements, while allowing industrialised countries to commodify and displace carbon credits on a grand scale (Bryant Reference Bryant2016; Steger et al. Reference Steger, Goodman and Wilson2013). As such, the UNFCCC attempted to force climate crisis into the pre-existing ideological frame, as an instance of ‘path dependence’.

Climate change and climate policy reflect global power inequalities and rivalries, and in many respects magnify them. It is a commonplace that the overwhelming majority of people who will be affected by climate change in the next fifty years live in the Global South, and that these societies bear negligible historic responsibility for the crisis, have minimal capacity to adapt to its impacts and have little influence over policy debates about how to address it (Parks and Roberts Reference Parks and Roberts2008). Industrial expansion in countries such as India and China creates a new international division of labour and a new displacement of emissions-intensive industrial activity. As these countries become the new workshops of the world, they become directly responsible for the bulk of current increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the resulting global flows of embodied carbon, in the form of manufactured goods, from South to North challenge the spatial fix of national carbon accounting (Weibe and Yamano Reference Watts2016).

National climate policy, based on national carbon accounting, becomes a means for governments to force climate crisis into the developmentalist consensus, making it a stake in battles for advantage in global negotiations. The early industrialisers, with historic responsibility for climate change, are ranged against late industrialisers responsible for the bulk of current emissions. As the two blocs wage their distributional wars, vying for global competitiveness, global emissions continue to rise (Ritchie and Roser Reference Potter2019). Here, posturing over the allocation of emissions responsibility can distract from the broader existential challenge posed by climate instability. In this context the justice claims pursued by small island states facing collapse collide with elite coal-based developmentalism, wherever it manifests (Harlan et al. 2015). As discussed in Chapter 7, there is some evidence that this important recognition of the immediate domestic effects of climate change is starting to impinge on national energy policy.

Contradictions of the Coal Commodity

Coal is made into a resource through a regime of technical, economic and political systems. It is not inherently a ‘fuel to be used’. Some societies have used it only occasionally for fuel, some have ignored it and others have turned it into jewellery (Freese Reference Freed2005). The state plays the central role in advancing claims over coal as a fuel, in approving exploration and extraction, through a process of capitalisation. Capitalisation ‘encloses’ what is held in common, allowing it to be treated as a ‘resource’ or ‘asset’ and transformed into property (see O’Connor Reference O’Connor1998). Property excludes others from potential ‘ownership’ and encloses people and ecologies, including land, water, power systems and transport. Given the interest of the state in maintaining cheap energy production, coal may become an asset of a state-owned company, fuelling public power stations, for instance, and in this case its value may lie in its reliability and its strategic worth, rather than in monetary worth per se (Thurber and Morse Reference Thurber and Morse2015). The same may be true for a vertically integrated conglomerate, where coal supply from its mines to its furnaces may be relatively insulated from coal’s market price.

Regardless of how insulated, the social value of coal, as with all commodities, is unstable and changeable. Whether produced for sale or for state-owned or private conglomerates, commodities express the social conditions of their production. Under capitalism, all commodities are in some sense contradictory, in terms of profiting owners as against producers, and in terms of appropriating ecologies (Burkett and Foster 2006). A key aspect of coal’s problem for capitalism is that ecology cannot be entirely subsumed into the process of accumulation. Ecology’s biophysical autonomy means, as Engels argued, that each ‘victory [over nature] takes its revenge on us’ (Engels Reference Engels1975: 460). Reflecting this, contemporary development creates maldistribution, and forms of socio-ecological ‘dumping’, as well as producing wealth and prosperity (for some). The value of commodities reflects power relations (Nitzan and Bichler Reference Nitzan and Bichler2009) and wider socio-ecological narratives. As social relations, commodities express the conditions of their production, and this can change over time. Coal, arguably, is becoming especially contradictory as a marker of national development, but also as a marker of resource dependence and ecological degradation.

The unequal distribution of impacts and benefits is central. Developmentalism can be said to be ‘sacrificial’ of both people and ecology, making them ‘obstacles’ to be removed or improved (Barton Reference Bal, Ramachandran, Palanivelu, Thirumurugan, Geetha and Bhaskaran2007; Hirschman Reference Hillebrand1965). In this respect it forcibly sets terms for how ‘the poor’ or less powerful have to live (Escobar Reference Escobar2012; Kothari et al. Reference Kothari, Salleh, Escobar, Demaria and Acosta2019). Coal-based development imposes a wide range of adverse local effects. Linked to these effects, the legitimacy of state authority can be undermined as mine approvals are corrupted or discredited. With the capture of state governance structures and the co-optation of key civil society institutions, those benefitting from coal are empowered and those bearing its costs are marginalised. These aspects of the ‘coal curse’ are compounded by the climate change impacts of coal extraction and burning, which, again, have uneven and unequal effects (Goodman Reference Goodall2008). These sacrifices made for coal can create deep antagonisms in the social fabric, producing protests, counter-movements and alternative models that define, articulate and pursue post-coal futures.

Post-coal Transitions?

The contradictions of the coal commodity will not automatically transform its meaning and decarbonise development. There is no ‘scientific’ ecologism: anti-extractivism is socially driven. The key question then is whether there is sufficient social and political pressure to force transition. As demonstrated in the cases discussed in this book, any serious attempt at transitioning away from coal reliance is likely to produce a major clash of social forces. Social forces and state priorities shape the development of energy technology, including alternatives to fossil fuels (Feenberg Reference Feenberg2002, Reference Feenberg2010). Coal mining and coal-fired power have their own momentum, as a legacy system, with considerable ‘sunk capital’, locked in for decades to come. There is much to lose in the fossil fuel economy, across policy-making agencies, coal-dependent communities and corporate fossil fuel investors. In this context the need to transition to a post-coal future may be publicly acknowledged, but in practice deferred to some stage in the relatively distant future, safely beyond the coal industry’s investment horizon. In this context timing becomes key.

The process of a commodity becoming a ‘non-good’, or (on the other hand) of being re-commodified, is an inherent part of capitalism. Goods go out of fashion, or their value becomes obsolete as new products become available (Packard Reference Packard1960). Innovations occur which completely supersede old products, and there is no reason to assume that coal’s status as a good is unshakeable; it could become marked as ‘old-fashioned’, dirty, polluting or redundant, or the technological system it sustains could be modified or superseded through a transition to renewable or other systems. Certainly, under climate change, coal’s existence as property and a resource has become inherently political. In contrast with the recent past, coal is no longer unquestioned, and its existence as a commodity increasingly depends on cultural repertoires of persuasion and normative scripts, as well as on forms of political mobilisation and social action marshalled by coal advocates.

These contending meanings of commodities are constituted by a range of narratives. Past political action has reframed once-valued goods as socially harmful, although with the ever-present possibility they may return into use. Examples of some successful transformations in some parts of the world include slaves, ivory, uranium, chloro-fluorocarbons and asbestos (Bettany and Kerrane Reference Bettany and Kerrane2011; Bond 2011; Goodman and Rosewarne Reference Goodman, Rosewarne, Princen, Manno and Martin2015; Jingjing et al. Reference Jai2008; Muecke Reference Muecke2013). Social groups tend to be aligned with one or another meaning, reflecting their stake in the commodity or position in the commodity chain. But no commodity can have a ‘settled’ meaning where all narratives converge. As noted, there are always contending meanings and potential instabilities in the commodity form. The key question is whether these conflicting narratives disrupt the viability of commodification. Certainly, coal has recently become a ‘contested commodity’, but it is still not clear whether that is sufficient to force its demise as a dominant energy source.

Contested Coal Narratives

In this book we use a ‘narratives of coal’ approach to map how the value and meaning of coal may be changing. We investigate coal as a contested commodity, asking what is required to enable transition to a post-coal future. Coal is endowed with a range of social, political and cultural meanings that have developed over time, from the birth of industrial modernity to the late twentieth century, and, as noted, are deeply intertwined with narratives of developmentalism. These narratives are increasingly contested as they collide with organised opposition to coal extraction and the material reality of climate change.

A dominant normalising narrative of coal centres on its socio-technical role in the industrial process, as a ready source of intense heat and a central aspect of industrialism. This narrative has its roots in the nineteenth century, when writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated coal as a commodity with extraordinary, almost supernatural powers:

Every basket is power and civilization. For coal is a portable climate. It carries the heat of the tropics to Labrador and the polar circle; and it is the means of transporting itself whithersoever it is wanted. Watt and Stephenson whispered in the ear of mankind their secret, that a half-ounce of coal will draw two tons a mile, and coal carries coal, by rail and by boat, to make Canada as warm as Calcutta; and with its comfort brings its industrial power.

(1875, quoted in Freese Reference Freese2005)

Already, at the height of the industrial revolution, coal was not simply a fuel or a commodity; its praises were sung by a chorus of enthusiastic writers, scientists, businessmen and theologians, for whom it represented ‘humanity’s triumph over nature – the foundation of civilization itself’ (Freese Reference Freese2005: 10).

Claims for coal and prosperity are still routinely invoked. Governments in industrialising low-income countries, and the exporters that ship coal to them, including Australia, have as noted recently developed a ‘moral case for coal’ as a means of extending energy access and reducing poverty (Lahiri-Dutt Reference Kopstein2017). Often, though, these claims are questioned, as coal-fired power is ‘captured’ for powerful industrial conglomerates and does not reach impoverished communities, who, even if they were connected, could not afford to pay for the power; the advent of low-cost household renewables now offers the required alternative to coal-prosperity claims (Talukdar Reference Talukdar2017).

Socio-cultural narratives for coal extraction are invoked, and likewise can be disrupted. Coal mining has played an important role in histories of working-class and community solidarity. Coal companies recruit mining unions to support coal jobs, and invest in ‘Community Social Responsibility’ (CSR) to bolster this legitimacy. This can be upturned when mining companies abuse their workers, or when coal-affected communities mobilise against the local health and environmental effects of the coal industry. A third important narrative relates to the state, where coal is defined as a strategic asset, and positioned in competition with other states and their contending energy sources. Such concerns may play a key role in the development of the coal–industrial complex, underpinning extraction. Set against this, we may see the emergence of an ‘energy–environment’ complex, where the state seeks a transition to a ‘new developmentalism’, centred on more sustainable energy supplies, by capitalising and monetising wind and solar power (Dent Reference Dent2014).

Finally, coal is deeply embedded in ecological narratives. Until recently, the ecological impact of coal was primarily defined in terms of mining and particulate pollution (smog). These impacts were initially urban and then, with the relocation of power stations away from the cities, became more concentrated in coal regions, with the consent of affected communities close to coal mines and coal-fired power plants managed through various forms of local coal-based development, employment, amelioration, compensation and relocation (Della Bosca and Gillespie Reference Cubby and Wilkinson2018). With the emergence of climate change as the potentially dominant ecological narrative of the early twenty-first century, these local impacts are overshadowed by the impact of the commodity itself, as a global hazard. This poses new incommensurable challenges, which must be denied, displaced or delayed if the industry is to survive.

We see the clash between these sets of narratives, and others, as producing new initiatives and meanings. As noted, coal is positioned at the intersection of two overarching and countervailing claims – one contending that history is moving towards a global ‘energy transition’ and is no longer on the side of fossil fuels, the other stressing the intractability of the ‘coal conundrum’ and framing coal as necessary to maintain energy security and expand access to electricity for the poor, at least while the transition to renewables is progressed.

The nature of this encounter is critical. Some counter-narratives can be accommodated relatively easily within the pro-coal script. There may be some reform in the extractivist model to encompass concerns, rendering impacts commensurable with expanded coal mining. This may entail a package of job creation, community relocation, cultural compensation, offets, rehabilitation, recultivation and various other environmental safeguards – on water use, for instance. These measures may be opposed by more incommensurable demands, for indigenous culture, local community survival, existing livelihood structures and local ecological conservation. Climate impacts can likewise be hard to accommodate: coal mining companies simply deny responsibility for the emissions produced by the coal that they dig up, though this argument is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain (see Chapter 3). Coal-fired power plants meanwhile claim they use efficient ‘ultra-supercritical’ technology (so-called ‘clean coal’), and that at some time in the future they will be able to store emissions underground via CCS (though at present with little success). The industry has long claimed a capacity to overcome its own emissions, and this has been re-invoked in recent years in response to growing public disquiet, for instance by the World Coal Association (Reference Winestock2019).

As illustrated in Chapters 24, the various narratives, and whether they are reconcilable or irreconcilable, are vitally important in shaping the course of struggles beyond coal. Persistent counter-narratives can escape the confines of the locality and become articulated into wider social fields, driven by climate concerns. As the climate crisis intensifies, the battle for the legitimacy of coal is cascading across multiple sites – in civil society between pro-coal and anti-coal NGOs, in the business sector between coal corporates and the renewable sector, and in the public sector between agencies managing energy and those responsible for climate policy. As discussed in Chapters 6 and 7, these fields of conflict are highly dynamic, with cross-cutting impacts, as, for instance, developments in the business of renewable energy shift the debate in governmental and NGO contexts.

A wider ideological conflict overlays these articulations as climate policy becomes a stake in rivalry between political parties, whether in a bidding war for ‘green energy’ or the reverse – a race to the bottom to support the threatened coal industry. Maintaining the coal system depends on maintaining a stable narrative for the coal commodity, and this rests on the continued capacity to marginalise threats. This task is becoming more difficult, as reflected in growing coercion on the ground against anti-coal groups and, as noted, the growing resort to overblown pro-coal national rhetoric.

In the chapters that follow we seek to map these contending meanings and thereby map the social construction of coal as a commodity, and how it is changing, identifying players and their narratives and positioning them in the field of contending accounts. In doing so we make a methodological distinction between the overarching narratives of coal and the concept of more immediate scripts, which may be broadly defined as how narratives are embodied, enacted or played out in everyday life, in the concrete context of local struggles. In this we draw on Vanclay and Endicott’s definition of a script as a ‘culturally shared expression, story or common line of argument, or an expected unfolding of events, that … provides a rationale or justification for a particular issue or course of action’ (Reference Vanclay and Endicott2011: 257). Reflecting this, they identify four types of script: a socially perceived routine; a frequently cited catch-phrase, metaphor or allegory; a mini-story, narrative or parable; and a commonly used line of argument (Vanclay and Endicott Reference Vanclay and Endicott2011: 257).

In each of our three case studies, we find opponents and proponents of the expansion of coal mining invoking a range of scripts to position themselves and advance their interests. In this we follow the work of Connor (a coauthor for this book) and McManus, drawing on their research into the expansion of coal mining in the Upper Hunter region in rural New South Wales. Usefully, they also developed the notion of scripts as ‘ways of speaking in everyday life that are shared among specific cultural groups, expressing taken for-granted knowledge and values, and thereby demonstrating and affirming personal identity and group solidarity’ (McManus and Connor 2013: 166). These scripts are not necessarily discrete, but may overlap and interweave; in some cases, different ‘readings’ of the same script can be mobilised by both opponents and proponents of new coal mining. At the same time, scripts enacted in everyday life, in local struggles, draw on, and intersect with, the larger cultural and political narratives of coal and development.

This approach, centred on contending narratives and how they play out in everyday scripts, enables us to move between different levels of analysis, and to make connections between local, national and transnational political contexts, and between coal’s contested meanings in local communities and its place in global commodity chains. The relationship between these different levels of analysis is dynamic: global narratives of coal may shape the understandings and motivations of local actors, and local contests may also affect the larger ‘narratives of coal’ in the context of climate change. We characterise the key social antagonisms that arise from coal’s contradictory logic, and look to ways for advancing, transforming or overcoming one narrative in relation to another.

The analysis examines the politics of embedded climate action, and in doing so reverses the idea of climate action based on solidarity with the ‘suffering of the distant strangers’ (Arnold Reference Arnold2012: 15). It is not the suffering of the distant climate change victim that motivates the communities in Lusatia, Chhattisgarh and the Liverpool Plains in their struggle against coal, but the protection of their own lands and livelihoods, their homes, forests, fields, heritage and biodiverse environments. As we show for climate movements in Germany, India and Australia, at least, these communities are becoming the locus of climate action – in concrete terms by keeping coal in the ground, and at a symbolic level. Importantly, this local focus is immediately global, as a way for citizens concerned about climate change to make real their solidarity for ‘distant strangers’. Narratives specific to the particular local context come into play – forest rights in Chhattisgarh, food security on the Liverpool Plains, home or ‘Heimat’ in Lusatia – but these become articulated and sometimes interwoven with the overarching narrative of climate change.

The focus on narratives of coal and climate change is central to our analysis. Such narratives have the power to influence policy, public opinion and business decisions – and the actions (or inactions) of citizens and civil society. But they alone are not decisive. A narrative alone cannot stop a bulldozer. Throughout the book, our consideration of the narratives of coal is anchored in an analysis of coal’s function as a commodity, a pillar of the extractivist state and the foundation of differing forms of developmentalist ideology. Our approach offers an appraisal of how current tendencies can point to future directions for ending coal reliance and building a constituency for global climate action.

You have Access

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats