Coal Miners and the Green Agenda

Source: Robert Pollin, New Labor Forum, Vol. 23 no. 1, Winter 2014
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Last June, President Obama announced his “Climate Action Plan.” This is his administration’s major second-term initiative to re-energize its agenda around fighting climate change and supporting major new investments in clean energy.

The primary focus of the Action Plan is the administration’s program to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from the country’s electricity utility plants. These emissions result primarily from burning coal, but also natural gas, to produce electricity. Carbon emissions from electricity generation represent about one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions produced by all sources within the U.S. economy today. It is evident that these emissions need to be cut dramatically if we are going to stop playing Russian roulette with the environment. …

…In this instance, the administration’s critics have the weight of evidence on their side. As such, the Action Plan faces two fundamental problems. First, as there is no proven technology for delivering clean coal—or, for that matter, clean oil or natural gas—the only viable path for dramatically reducing carbon emissions is to sharply reduce fossil fuel consumption. …. The second problem is that even if the Action Plan were fully implemented, it would not be nearly adequate to control climate change….

….At least superficially, it appears that solving one of these two problems will necessarily mean making the other one worse. How do you protect jobs for coal miners, for example, while still cutting way back on coal-fired electricity generation? In fact, it is possible to avoid this dismal logjam. We begin by recognizing that large-scale investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy will themselves be a major new engine of job creation. But cutting back on coal, oil, and natural gas production will still certainly create hardships for workers whose livelihoods depend on the fossil fuel sectors. This reality must be faced directly. As such, the second, equally important, policy priority must be the provision of major transitional support for workers and communities facing retrenchment. Policies along these lines have been implemented successfully in the past. It will be critical to build from these experiences. ….