The world is going to move away from fossil fuels and on to clean energy or face disaster. That reality seems harsh to everyone, but most of all, to the workers that both rely on fossil fuel jobs and suffer from living in polluted towns across America.
However, if we’re smart about it, we can work to make the transition easier and address income inequality at once. We can and must address environmental and economic injustice together.
Just as with the health care industry, the main resistance to change comes from those reaping the profits. At the community level, workers rely on their often very good paychecks. State economies rely on tax revenues from coal including severance taxes, federal mining royalties that return to the states, sale of coal leases, and Ad valorem property taxes.
In Truthout, J. Mijin Cha notes that wages for coal miners are surprisingly high. Despite extreme health risks, workers continue to value these jobs. If they lose those mining jobs and obtain one in the solar industry, the wages might be about half.
“In 2016, the average wage of a coal-mining worker was more than $85,000, nearly twice that of the average for all industries combined. The role the coal industry plays in providing an economic base for the state cannot be overstated,” wrote Cha.
As towns lose their coal mining jobs, it’s easy for observers to suggest that workers seek jobs in clean energy. However, these towns are often not a magnet for new operations that look for trained workforces and easy accessibility.
So when Democrats propose broad plans like the Green New Deal, the kneejerk reaction is to fear losing income, and that is justifiable.
That fear is precisely what Republicans like Trump hope for. It’s all too easy to say the Democrats will abandon the people who rely on fossil fuel jobs, even as Republicans abandon the reality of climate change altogether. If they don’t acknowledge it, they don’t have to address it, much to the delight of the fossil fuel industry.
Instead of ignoring the problems, Democrats can follow a framework of principles such as those from researchers at USC Dornsife. These ideas will help affected workers and communities as the transition to clean energy begins.
In “A Roadmap to an Equitable Low-Carbon Future: Four Pillars for a Just Transition,” the researchers suggest these goals:
“These pillars provide a framework for protecting communities and workers in the transition to a low-carbon future.”
“While challenging, we can create a low-carbon future that not only creates opportunity but also addresses the historic burdens of the extractive economy.”
1. Strong governmental support
2. Dedicated funding streams
3. Diverse and strong coalitions
4. Economic diversification
Truthout notes an example in the town of Tonawanda, New York, which shut down its coal-fired power plant. The residents continue to be seriously ill due to toxic air pollution high in carcinogens from the coal and coke plants (see video below). There was also radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project buried in the town landfill that required direct action by Senator Chuck Schumer.
Like the example of the four pillars, a diverse coalition of private groups came together with the government and New York State Legislature to ensure help for those in the coal mining industry. Then the town created a new plan for attracting new industries and develop a vision for the town’s future.
“Among the strategies for building the town’s economy are positioning the town as a regional hub for sustainable manufacturing and trade, building workforce and career pipelines for younger workers, and redeveloping the town’s waterfront district to attract tourists and new residents.”
This multi-pronged approach is the responsible way to help people transition away from fossil fuels and move to a healthier life.
It’s all about caring for people and the environment we all share.
Even the current occupant of the White House appears to acknowledge climate change in a couple of self-serving ways. He wants to buy the freshly melted Greenland. He’s also tried to get a permit for a sea wall at Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland, in County Clare as it faces erosion due to rising sea levels and extreme weather.
These actions show Trump almost certainly believes climate change is real. However, what he’s not willing to do is tell coal miners or oil executives that change is coming. Their votes are what matters, even to the detriment of the environment or the long-term future of these workers. Let’s put it plainly: This is selfish and short-term thinking at best.
Today, Democrats are now the only main party of science-based reality.
We have to take responsibility and the adult leadership role of confronting climate change. Even Republicans sold out to the fossil fuel industry will one day have to accept that climate change will cost the US billions a year.
As we take back leadership of the US government, we can plan ways to help the people in communities that have grown up around fossil fuels. It’s a win-win representing decency, integrity, and core values, rather than shortsighted greed and ignorance.
See residents from Tonawanda, New York discuss their toxic air from coal plants in 2011 below: