Soon after the final US Presidential debate concluded last week, the verdict from the climate world was in, and it was Not Good. Both commentators and campaigners were extremely disappointed that no one in any of the debates had asked a single question about climate change. Such a response was (a) plain wrong, and (b) troublingly so. Here’s how, and why.
First, there was a climate question. At the end of the second debate, an audience member asked the following question, to which both candidates responded:
What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs? While at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil plant workers?
The first question alone can be considered irrelevant to climate change only if we ignore the fact that generating electricity causes GHG emissions (at least from some sources) – a strange concession indeed from anyone who cares about climate change. Yet lest his intent not be clear, our questioner goes on to explicitly acknowledge the environmental consequences of energy policy, in his follow-up question. And while there are some who still contend that carbon dioxide is entirely “environmentally friendly,” climate folks usually side with the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ruled the gas is an “air pollutant” (because of its contribution to climate change). Finally, our questioner pushes the candidates further, asking how each will balance responding to environmental concerns with minimizing job losses for “fossil plant workers”. (And to be clear: “fossil” does not here refer to the preserved remains of dinosaurs you find in a museum. He was talking about fossil fuels. The ones that contribute to climate change.)
Thus our questioner wants to know how US energy policy can provide reliable electricity, while being environmentally responsible, and also protecting the livelihoods of those currently employed in the fossil fuel industry, all at the same time. It’s a damn good question, not least because it forces us to consider whether any of those three goals might be mutually exclusive.
Failure to recognize that this was a serious and difficult question about America’s energy future was partly attributable, you’d have to concede, to the vessel the Good Lord chose. K-Bone has a look, no doubt, and it’s probably only a few days until he pops up in Snoop Dogg's Instagram. But it bears acknowledgement that by not taking a coal industry worker’s question seriously, the climate movement is failing to do two things it usually does with exemplary rigor: face up to inconvenient truths, and defend the interests of vulnerable people, wherever they may be. That means those in rural West Virginia, as much as it does those in coastal Bangladesh. One worries, therefore, that this wasn’t a non-climate question, so much as it was a climate question that those in the climate movement don’t much want to think about.
In an authoritarian state with a centrally planned economy, a government can impose sweeping changes in industrial policy overnight, and shrug at the human cost of doing so. Fortunately, that is not possible in America. But climate activists need to do much more to convince communities that have depended on the coal industry for generations that they don’t wish that it were. Upton Sinclair once quipped that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Today, you can talk about climate science until you’re blue in the face: until coal workers are convinced that their salaries need not depend on coal, they will be smart enough to misunderstand you.
Convincing coal communities that the fossil fuel industry does not have their long-term economic interests at heart may not be an entirely quixotic task, considering that one of the major (and majorly-underreported) struggles those communities are currently engaged in is against the fossil fuel industry. Specifically: giant coal mining corporations that are exploiting bankruptcy laws to walk away from their pension obligations to thousands of coal miners, as well as their environmental obligations to clean up old mines. (Ding ding ding! Does either of the major party nominees for President also have a storied history of using bankruptcy laws to screw working Americans?)
The numbers involved are staggering. As set out in this recent presentation given at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, the outstanding pension and reclamation liabilities that coal companies are looking to avoid are likely in the order of $30 billion. That’s an amount three times the size of the auto bailout. Of course, running their companies into the ground and then trying to socialize the losses hasn’t stopped these corporations from paying their executives big bonuses. (Hello, Senator Warren? Senator Sanders?)
Granted, Hillary Clinton’s coal country outreach has not gone particularly well thus far, thanks chiefly to her admission in a town hall in March that “we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. What she said next – about the importance of not abandoning those who “labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories” – is, not surprisingly, usually left out of the sound bite. And as others have pointed out, the Clean Power Plan is only one component of a host of factors that spell secular decline for the American coal industry.
But the inconvenient truth here is that Clinton’s use of “we” – as in “we [the federal government] are going to put coal miners… out of business” – is accurate. To avoid climate change, the coal industry must die, and the federal government must play a role in putting it in the grave. And we should all stop pretending otherwise, not only because it has the virtue of being honest and forthright, but also for the very good reason that unless the federal government is on the hook, the death of the coal industry is likely to play out the way most Republicans seem to prefer their Schumpeterian waves of creative destruction to play out: with a ruthless disregard for the interests of working class Americans.
Case in point: the Miners Protection Act, a bill which would protect the health benefits and pensions of some 120,000 miners, retirees and widows whose union pensions are at risk following coal company bankruptcies, and which passed the Senate Finance Committee on 21 September this year. The bill has been consistently opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is more focused on attacking the Obama Administration for its “War on Coal” than on actually protecting the interests of those who have spent their lives working in the mines. McConnell even went so far as to bring an unemployed coal miner to the State of the Union to “see the person who put him out of work”. One could be forgiven for thinking the Majority Leader believes that as long as he can pin the failure of the coal industry squarely (albeit erroneously) on EPA, then the more pain the industry’s failure causes coal communities, the better it will serve his own political interests. Classy stuff to be sure, but not out of line with a pretty typical Republican view: no government bailouts for failing industries. As the always-reliable Heritage Foundation argues, passing the Miners Protection Act could “set an incredibly dangerous precedent, opening the door to taxpayer bailouts of other unfunded pension liabilities across the country,” an outcome other people might describe as “ensuring America’s elderly can live with dignity” (although others prefer to contest the slippery slope argument).
As is typical of Hillary Clinton, if you care to look, it quickly becomes clear that she is well versed on these issues. Her campaign website has a lengthy webpage dedicated to “Hillary’s Plan for Revitalizing Coal Communities”, with ‘Ensure health and retirement security’ as the first heading. In October last year she publicly took aim at Peabody Energy for trying to avoid its pension responsibilities, and on September 8 this year she threw her full support behind the Miners Protection Act. She’s doing pretty well! But there is still plenty of room for improvement, and it is important that it be the climate movement that pushes her to go further on this issue.
For the sake of all of our futures, governments across the world must ensure that the interests of working class people currently employed in the fossil fuel industry are protected as the necessary (and necessarily massive) disruptions in the global energy system occur. Otherwise, those people will continue to vigorously oppose such changes, with deleterious political consequences for the type of aggressive climate policies that are so urgently required. Convincing American coal communities that they can thrive without coal may not be easy. But it is one of the most important climate conversations America needs to be having. Making fun of a guy who tried to start it is not a particularly auspicious beginning.