Mary Finley-Brook · Erica L. Holloman
The U.S. is experiencing unprecedented movement away from coal and, to a lesser degree, oil. Burdened low-income communities and people of color could experience health benefits from reductions in air and water pollution, yet these same groups could suffer harm if transitions lack broad public input or if policies prioritize elite or corporate interests. This paper highlights how U.S. energy transitions build from, and contribute to, environmental injustices. Energy justice requires not only ending disproportionate harm, it also entails involvement in the design of solutions and fair distribution of benefits, such as green jobs and clean air. To what extent does the confluence of state, civic, and market processes assure “just” transitions to clean, low-carbon energy production involving equitable distribution of costs, benefits, and decision-making power? To explore this question we assess trends with (1) fossil fuel divestment; (2) carbon taxes and social cost of carbon measurements; (3) cap-and-trade; (4) renewable energy; and (5) energy efficiency. Current research demonstrates opportunities and pitfalls in each area with mixed or partial energy justice consequences, leading to our call for greater attention to the specifics of distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice in research, policy, and action. Illustrative energy transition case studies suggest the feasibility and benefit of empowering approaches, but also indicate there can be conflict between “green” and “just”, as evident though stark inequities in clean energy initiatives. To identify positive pathways forward, we compile priorities for an energy justice research agenda based on interactive and participatory practices aligning advocacy, activism, and academics.

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