The Lithium Problem: An Interview with Thea Riofrancos

The Lithium Problem: An Interview with Thea Riofrancos

Can we rapidly reduce carbon emissions while minimizing the damage caused by resource extraction?

Salt evaporation ponds on California’s Bristol dry lake, where Standard Lithium Ltd. is preparing to capture lithium from evaporating brine. (David McNew/Getty Images)

After years of outright climate denial and political intransigence, the development of renewable energy is finally underway. When it comes to transportation—the number one source of U.S. carbon emissions—the strategy for decarbonization has focused heavily on replacing gas-powered cars with rechargeable electric vehicles. The Inflation Reduction Act offers billions of dollars of subsidies for both producers and consumers of EVs, including a $7,500 tax credit for buying new EVs made in the United States. The infrastructure bill passed in late 2021 included $5 billion to help states build a network of EV recharging stations. New York and California have announced bans on the sale of vehicles with internal combustion engines beginning in 2035. Half of this year’s Superbowl car ads touted electric vehicles. By 2030, it is estimated that electric vehicles will make up half of U.S. car sales.

For our reliance on privatized transportation to remain the same, everything else will have to change. We’re already seeing concerns about shortages of “critical minerals” necessary for batteries and other renewable technologies. Based on current consumption patterns, for example, U.S. demand for the lithium used in batteries would require three times the existing global supply—which comes primarily from Australia, Latin America, and China—by 2050. In anticipation of booming demand, a flurry of new mining operations has begun around the world—and so have protests by those worried that mines will disturb ecosystems, contaminate water supplies, generate toxic waste, and disrupt local livelihoods.

What does the current trajectory of the “green energy transition” mean for global environmental justice? What other options are there? Is it possible to rapidly reduce carbon emissions while also minimizing extraction and maintaining—or even increasing—people’s ability to move freely and safely?

A new report from the think tank Climate and Community Project presents the data behind different visions of the green future. A scenario in which the United States reduces car dependency by improving public transit options, density, and walkability could see a 66 percent decrease in lithium demand compared to a business-as-usual model. Even just reducing the size of U.S. vehicles and batteries could potentially reduce lithium use by as much as 42 percent in 2050. In other words, the choices Americans make about domestic transportation, housing, and development matter worldwide. In this interview, the report’s lead author, political scientist Thea Riofrancos, explains the implications of its findings for climate and environmental politics in the United States and around the planet.

Alyssa Battistoni: Your 2020 book Resource Radicals describes the dilemmas that have arisen around extractive industries in Ecuador—specifically, between left movements that see oil and other natural resources as sources of national wealth, and an anti-extractivist movement that critiques the environmental and social harms associated with these resources. Most people probably understand the environmental problems with oil extraction. But with the growth of renewable technologies, we’ve also seen growing criticisms of “green extractivism.” What does this kind of extraction look like, and how do the political dynamics compare to those you’ve studied with respect to oil? Can capitalism really be green?

Thea Riofrancos: It has become clear that fighting climate change means leaving fossil fuel extraction behind, while expanding extractive sectors that serve as inputs for “green technologies.” There are lots of dilemmas and social conflicts around this transition. It’s incumbent on the climate left to bring into alignment the goals of fighting climate change and ensuring justice at every node of the supply chain of the technologies that are used in that fight.

Large-scale mining is an important economic sector globally; it provides the raw material inputs for so many technologies, everyday goods, and infrastructures. Copper, for example, is already a large industry with lots of different end uses. But it will become larger moving forward, because it is essential for wiring, and wiring is essential for electrification, including for EVs, their charging stations, and the transmission lines that connect those stations to grids. The water needs for copper extraction will also grow, in a world that is increasingly dry. Mining also has one of the worst human rights records among economic sectors. In Latin America, activists protesting mining operations are often killed, by both private security and state forces. Earlier this year, a number of Mexican activists went missing, likely because they were involved in anti-mining activity.

For the most important industrial metals, the final products are used by a very small percentage of the global population. Whether the end-use product of the mineral brings an environmental, social, or economic benefit, the communities that are immediately affected by mining typically do not see it. Mines provide some jobs, which are important, especially in economically depressed rural communities. But the jobs are seasonal, transient, not well-paying, and subject to the volatilities of the commodity market. There were massive layoffs during the pandemic when the gas, oil, and coal markets crashed.

Will mining sectors change when these metals are used in technologies and infrastructures that support a renewable energy system? I don’t expect to see a deep transformation. But the intersection of extraction and climate technologies is putting new pressure on the mining industry. It is making people more aware that multinational mining companies are not climate saviors. Many of these companies still own coal assets, for example.

While mining companies are accustomed to scrutiny from militant grassroots anti-mining activists, they are less used to pressure from the other part of the supply chain, either from their investors who have announced commitment to ESG [environmental, social, and governance] principles, or from green consumers. Mining companies, and to an extent auto companies, feel besieged by criticisms at all ends.

Battistoni: You and other researchers with the Climate and Community Project have published a report arguing that we can decarbonize transportation while increasing mobility with less lithium mining. This is often framed as a trilemma, where you can meet two out of three goals—decarbonizing, increasing transportation and mobility, or decreasing mining—but not all three. We often hear that because climate change is so urgent, decarbonizing as quickly as possible needs to be the priority, and if more mining is the cost, so be it. You argue, by contrast, that there’s a way to be both pragmatic and just in decarbonizing transportation, which is the number one source of carbon emissions in the United States today. What would that look like?

Riofrancos: The report does not say that there isn’t a trilemma, but rather that thinking about these three goals in concert with one another allows us to reduce the trade-offs between them.

Often the proposed solutions for improving extractive sectors focus on the immediate sites of extraction. But in another sense, extraction doesn’t begin at the mine. The decisions driving extraction happen further down the supply chain. I think of problems or harms of extraction as the product of decisions made on Wall Street and in Beijing, Washington, D.C., and Brussels, where governments, public policy, and, in theory, democratic majorities all have a role in determining the future of the energy transition. And policy interventions that could reduce mining have to do with whether you’re taking a bus or a car. That might not seem directly related to what’s happening in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where a quarter of the world’s lithium originates, but it is.

For a long time, progressive and even radical climate activists have framed the future as a binary choice: we either stay with the status quo or we fully electrify and move to renewable energy. There are good reasons for speaking in those terms, because that basic choice is an extremely high-stakes one. But little by little, major economies are on the path to moving away from fossil fuels as their main energy source. We shouldn’t downplay the need to confront the fossil fuel industry politically and economically, but once we’re on the energy transition path, it becomes clear that there are many possible energy transitions. Just as critical as the choice between fossil capitalism and green capitalism is the choice between unregulated green capitalism, or a more socially progressive green capitalism, or green social democracy, or ecosocialism. Different struggles, different conflicts, and different provisional resolutions will put societies on different roads to energy transition.

Our report just tackles one sector—transportation—and it doesn’t even consider the possibility that we won’t electrify it. (I would love to see similar reports on other economic sectors that need to be decarbonized and other sets of supply chains and material inputs, along with reports estimating at what pace we will fully decarbonize.) We assume an electrified, 100 percent zero-emissions future in 2050 and outline four different scenarios. One of them is basically the status quo, but electrified. The other three tackle more and more of the transportation sector; they confront car dependency more and more directly. In the most ambitious scenario, we end up with a society that has a lot less car use, a lot less car ownership, more density, and less sprawl. 

In the first scenario, we swap out every car with an internal combustion engine for an EV, and add in more vehicles to account for economic and population growth. We don’t change the highways, the suburban sprawl, or the fact that Americans have to own cars in order to fully participate in society. Then we start to build in changes: what if a higher percentage of Americans took buses, or walked, or cycled, instead of taking cars? What if fewer Americans owned cars? What if our metropolitan regions were slightly denser? We start to build these different worlds, and we see that there are significant differences in the amount of raw materials—in the case of this report, lithium—required to furnish each of those futures. There are so many branching points; we could still be car-dependent but have less gargantuan cars, for example, and that would make a big difference in terms of battery size and lithium demand. All of these policy and investment interventions really matter when it comes to how many resources are required to get to zero emissions.

Battistoni: The report states that “the volume of extraction is not a given,” because it’s possible to shift to less resource-intensive modes of transit that would require less extraction. But it also argues that the very language of scarce “critical minerals” can fuel a race to develop mining and other kinds of extraction. Models can seem really technical and dull, but you’re arguing that they affect how people act in the present, and therefore shape the future.

Riofrancos: A pet interest of mine is how politically consequential models and forecasts are. The left produces very few of its own. That’s not to say we need to live in an alternate reality or have models based on different numbers, but we need to know how they are constructed. How are you defining a variable? What is your data source? These assumptions are informed by institutional locations, and in some cases, the financial or political prerogatives of the agency or organization that’s doing the modeling—whether it’s the United Nations, the World Bank, private-sector commodity and analytics firms, or the International Energy Agency. They always ask, “How can we change the least?” Perhaps it’s a testament to how hegemonic car culture is, or how reticent policymakers and officials and bureaucrats at elite agencies are. Whether it’s blinders that make certain questions unaskable or desires to preserve as much of the status quo as possible, the end result is that the existing models of raw material requirements are not very helpful if your goal is to reduce the harm of mining. They basically all say, we need a lot of minerals, we need them fast, and we need them from everywhere we can get them. There’s no thinking about holistic planning, what’s actually required, or the best use of different landscapes.

When I say that the left needs its own models, it’s because models are a political tool, inflected by ideologies, and shaped and funded by economic interests that are served by their findings. We shouldn’t cook the books, but we should ask different questions, make different assumptions, identify distinct parameters, and show, empirically, that different futures are possible and have some quantitative weight behind them.

Battistoni: The United States is so sprawled out that improving mass transit and densifying the built environment seem like low-hanging fruit, but they also feel dauntingly difficult to change. So much of our infrastructure is car oriented, which creates a feeling of path dependency. The pandemic only made that worse: public transit use went down, and car ownership increased. But the report argues that transportation is constructed through public policy and politics, and we actually can make some interventions. What success stories can we look to? Where can we get started?

Riofrancos: In the United States, the problem is not just political and economic but social, cultural, and gendered. The flip side of very overdetermined, multifaceted problems, though, is that there are a lot of places that you can poke at to help deflate, undermine, or dismantle them. Car dependency is not one single thing; it’s a whole host of decisions made by investors, policymakers, consumers, and residents of neighborhoods, at all different scales. Some of those places that decisions are made are more amenable to democratic contestation and progressive priorities than others. So we need to think strategically.

There are some causes for hope, in part because, for the time being at least, we have a Democratic executive. While I have plenty of critiques of Biden, there are some good people in agencies that might matter. There could be some creative, technocratic thinking around how to use standards to make a more efficient and less resource-intensive battery.

On a different side of the story, there is interesting experimentation happening at the local and state level to encourage mass transit use and discourage car use. Denver subsidized e-bikes, and the experiment worked: people bought them and used cars less to shop for groceries or do other intra-city transit that would otherwise require a car and a parking lot. I live in Providence, where, like in other cities around the country, the government is making public transportation fare-free. What’s more, the housing crisis creates pressure to think about affordability, density, and long commutes, especially for working-class people. Making zoning less restrictive, increasing affordable density, and making housing greener would all be positive. The shorter the distances that people need to travel, the less lithium is required by the transportation system.

I’ve also seen some interesting writing about cities wanting to reduce the dominance of parking lots over their streetscapes. These ideas come from concerns about housing and transit access, not raw materials or the harms of extraction. But it does not matter what the motivations are; anything that moves us toward affordability, density, transit access, and transit equity is good for a whole host of reasons, like reducing air pollution, increasing equality, and decreasing segregation. It also is good globally in terms of social and environmental justice across supply chains.

Battistoni: Let’s move back to the supply side. The report talks about onshoring—the push to develop new lithium mines in the Global North, particularly in Nevada as well as in European states like Portugal. Work on extractivism often focuses on the way that the Global South is treated as a source of low-value natural resources that the Global North uses to produce value-added manufactured goods. Onshoring changes that dynamic a little bit, but the uneven distribution of benefits from extracted resources may persist even when resources are being extracted within the same country where goods are being made. What does onshoring mean for extractivism, supply chains, and climate geopolitics? 

Riofrancos: There are two changes I see occurring. One is the desire of the governments of affluent countries to onshore critical minerals mining in a race for green dominance and supply-chain security. There will be more and more mining projects in Europe, Canada, the United States, and other places closer to where the end-use consumption takes place. Two, we’re seeing a reintegration of supply chains. It’s a shift back to a Fordist model, in which car companies incorporated raw material extraction within their companies to have more territorially secure access. These moves redraw the geography of extraction and production and have some implications for activism around supply chains.

Onshoring has been an idea in policy circles—of security hawks and heterodox economic thinkers alike—for over a decade now. It started during the commodity boom, which lasted from around 2000 to 2014, and also coincided with the rise of new industrial powerhouses and Chinese industrial policy that secured entire raw material supply chains. This was a change from the thinking on supply-chain organization we saw during the period of neoliberal hegemony. Policy elites in the United States and the European Union began to consider industrial policies that would ensure access to raw materials and rethought the globally dispersed supply chain. But these ideas mostly stayed in think tanks and in pockets of the regulatory state, without much political appeal.

Then the pandemic happened, and the beginnings of the energy transition. Supply chains were put in the public spotlight for the first time. Suddenly, the idea that onshoring and industrial policy are a means to reinvigorate manufacturing, to help solve some political problems caused by deindustrialization, and to create a less volatile economy were all the rage. Onshoring and industrial policy became popular in the West. Elites across the political spectrum aligned on onshoring, whether for mining or manufacturing or both. It seemed to solve a host of political, geopolitical, economic, and social problems. Today, there are multiple pieces of legislation in the United States that directly incentivize the extraction of critical minerals within the jurisdictions of Global North governments.

Battistoni: What does this mean for fighting climate change, for producing green technologies, and for social and environmental justice?

Riofrancos: There’s a line of thinking among some U.S. climate activists that onshoring is a good thing, for a couple of reasons. One is that we want to incentivize the manufacturing of green technologies, because we need them to transition to renewable energy. Another is that shoring up extraction in the Global North is a way to address the inequality of extraction. Instead of importing metals from a conflict zone far away, we are mining it in our own backyard, and we are paying the environmental costs.

There is absolutely a role for public policy and public investment in ensuring that we produce the technologies that are needed to fight climate change. I’m also very aware that the geography of extraction is extremely unequal, so it’s worth thinking about how to redistribute the harms and benefits of extraction. What I think is incorrect, though, is the idea that opening a mine in Nevada furthers the cause of global justice.

It’s important to look at where the mines are being opened, their environmental impacts, and the “we” being affected. The Tesla owner in Silicon Valley is not affected by mining in Nevada. We’re talking about rural peripheries or hinterlands that have long served as sites of extraction and extreme forms of environmental harm. Think of the nuclear testing and uranium mining that has happened in Nevada. One of the mine locations that we look at in the report was the site of a massacre of Indigenous people perpetrated by U.S. soldiers. There are layers of history, harm, and sacrifice that are not very different from the forms of violence perpetrated against the Global South. Activists in Portugal, Spain, Nevada, Argentina, and Chile all see commonalities not just in terms of the harms of extraction, but also in terms of who—marginalized and often, but not always, Indigenous people—pays the environmental and social price. The boundaries of Global North and South get a little harder to maintain when you’re talking about two groups of Indigenous peoples across the Americas that have suffered the harms of mining over centuries. 

At the very least, we should be honest about what companies are being enriched and subsidized by these new forms of public-private partnership, which communities are paying the price, and what the power relationship is between those actors.

Battistoni: In Resource Radicals, you ask how people can organize around territorial dispossession and socio-environmental harm while also building a mass coalition that can benefit from resource-funded public programs. This report gets at similar issues by thinking about the production and consumption sides of energy use together rather than separately. What is your dream vision of a coalition of these different actors—those who bear the burden of extraction, those in need of increased mobility, and those who stand to gain from a green transition via jobs or revenue? 

Riofrancos: The burden of organizing against environmental and social harms falls disproportionately on the people who are directly affected. But these materials find their way into the sinews of the global economy, and even those who are not directly involved are affected, or implicated. We should think more broadly about the sites of struggle and contestation, and the tactics, tools, and policy interventions available to chip away at the edifice of extraction.

In the past, I have researched the conditions under which rural, land-dependent people can ally with urban poor and working-class people to fight extraction. Now, I’m asking about the conditions under which a political alliance can form between transit users, multiracial working-class communities in the United States, and those who are suffering the harms of extraction, whether they’re in Nevada, Portugal, Chile, or Argentina. Whether or not those groups come into literal and explicit alliance with one another, I think that their actions can work in concert. If social movements in the United States fighting for affordable housing, green density, and better transit access can flourish at the same time that activists on the front lines are making mining companies’ jobs more difficult for them, I think that it counts as a supply-chain coalition, whether or not they’re in explicit alliance with one another. All of those actions push us toward a less resource-intensive and much more equal and democratic form of energy transition. It’s less important to me that the social movements and actors involved are directly allying with one another, and more important that we’re training our gaze and tactics on the supply chain, on the material substrate of the capitalist economy, and on the infrastructures we’re building to move into a renewable energy system.

Alyssa Battistoni teaches political theory at Barnard College. She is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.

Thea Riofrancos is an associate professor of political science at Providence College and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow. She is the author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador and the coauthor of Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. She is currently writing Extraction: The Frontiers of Green Capitalism.