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Can the US political system deal with climate change?

better world for nothingThe American “system” has been a bit tardy in its response to climate change. Experts tell us that the longer it takes to make needed changes, the more difficult it will be to make them.

As 350.org’s Bill McKibben puts it:

We’re talking about a fight between human beings and physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in human timetables. Physics couldn’t care less if precipitous action raises gas prices, or damages the coal industry in swing states. It could care less whether putting a price on carbon slowed the pace of development in China, or made agribusiness less profitable.

Physics doesn’t understand that rapid action on climate change threatens the most lucrative business on Earth, the fossil fuel industry. It’s implacable. It takes the carbon dioxide we produce and translates it into heat, which means into melting ice and rising oceans and gathering storms. And unlike other problems, the less you do, the worse it gets. Do nothing and you soon have a nightmare on your hands.

We could postpone healthcare reform a decade, and the cost would be terrible — all the suffering not responded to over those 10 years. But when we returned to it, the problem would be about the same size. With climate change, unless we act fairly soon in response to the timetable set by physics, there’s not much reason to act at all.

Unless you understand these distinctions you don’t understand climate change — and it’s not at all clear that President Obama understands them.

There are lots of reasons why the response of the system has been so slow. There is significant resistance in the system to the sort of changes that need to be made. That resistance has manifested itself in a number of ways, from President Obama using the spies at the NSA to kill global agreements on climate change to the bipartisan popularity of climate change denial in congress, the media and the public relations industry, despite virtually indisputable scientific evidence.

Resistance is created by a variety of groups based on their perceived interests. Enormously wealthy, powerful corporations and individuals who want to preserve their profits from fossil fuels and related industries, people who rely on jobs created or enabled by fossil fuel industries, people who fear economic chaos and the loss of their comforts due to actions to stop climate change, and politicians whose fortunes depend upon the money and other resources of the fossil fuel industry are some huge sources of systemic inertia.

Politicians have not addressed the problem, their best efforts fall short

The Obama administration has made a number of half-hearted half-assed, ineffective efforts (the destructive “all of the above” energy plan; opening up the arctic for drilling; shilling for “clean coal,” auto emissions and fuel mileage standards that look good but don’t deliver; non-binding, unenforceable climate agreements, etc.) to address climate change that are far from enough to deal with the problem.

Part of the problem is that the political process is so bought off by billionaires, among them people like the Koch brothers, who are hostile enough to climate change action to spend tens of millions of dollars to stop it, or pretty much any regulation of industry.

As a consequence of the influence of the energy industry, it has been successful for decades in dumping the social and external costs of its products on the public:

There are two ways to think about the cost of energy. There’s the dollar amount that shows up on our utility bills or at the pump. And then there’s the “social cost” — all the adverse consequences that various energy sources, from coal to nuclear power, end up foisting on the public.

Economists have been working to quantify these social costs for some time: from the premature deaths due to air pollution to the damage wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Yet rarely has anyone tried to tally them up in a comprehensive fashion. Which is what makes this new paper from Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project so valuable. The two economists sift through all of these economic papers and try to calculate what the price of various energy sources would actually look like if these external social costs were included.

The change is especially stark for coal. On market price alone, electricity from existing coal plants is easily America’s cheapest energy source, which explains why coal still provides 45 percent of the country’s electricity. But it’s mainly cheap because coal users don’t have to pay for the downsides: Soot from coal-fired power plants, for instance, still causes thousands of premature deaths each year and hundreds of thousands of illnesses, but those costs are borne by other people, in the former of shorter lives and higher health care bills.

If coal users had to pay these costs out of their own pockets, Greenstone and Looney estimate, the price of burning coal at an existing plant would jump from 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour to 8.8 cents per kilowatt hour. … And they don’t include the social costs from mining and drilling. This paper is the most comprehensive attempt to tally up all these costs to date, but it’s still not quite complete.

And some of their choices could be debated. The “social cost of carbon” that they use — estimated at $21 per ton in 2010 and rising over time — was the median estimate of a study done by an interagency U.S. government task force. But some economists, like Frank Ackerman of the Stockholm Environment Institute, have argued that this number downplays the damage that global warming could inflict. Many other studies have come up with a higher social cost of carbon — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came up with an average of $43 per ton. If that was used, then coal and natural gas would prove even pricier.

These hidden social and external costs of various energy types and who bears those costs is, in essence, what the real debate over climate change is about.

That these costs will become apparent to the public and actually fairly addressed fills politicians with dread of how their constituents will react when faced with the fact that “cheap energy” isn’t cheap. This probably accounts for the gutlessness of many of the Obama administration’s efforts on climate change mitigation, including his most recent agreement with China on carbon emissions. The fact that some are even giving Obama’s climate change announcement the time of day is due to the fact that Obama, Congress and the energy industry have done so much to create a climate of diminished expectations. The agreement isn’t much of an agreement:

The announcement of new carbon emission targets Wednesday in Beijing isn’t really an agreement — much less a formal treaty or even a protocol. It’s not legally binding, and the details are vague.

Instead, the United States and China simply agreed to agree.

“I wouldn’t even call it a deal. It’s a joint announcement,” said Elliot Diringer, the executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It’s ambitious, but it will require more.”

Here’s a part of Bill McKibben’s take on the US-China agreement:

It isn’t binding in any way. In effect President Obama is writing an IOU to be cashed by future presidents and Congresses (and Xi is doing the same for future Politburos). If they take the actions to meet the targets, then it’s meaningful, but for now it’s a paper promise. And since physics is uninterested in spin, all the hard work lies ahead. …

It is not remotely enough to keep us out of climate trouble. We’ve increased the temperature less than a degree and that’s been enough to melt enormous quantities of ice, not to mention set the weather on berserk. So this plan to let the increase more than double is folly — though it is good to see that the two sides have at least agreed not to undermine that two degrees target, the one tiny achievement of the Copenhagen conference fiasco. …

It’s not, in any way, a stretch goal. These numbers are easy — if you were really being cynical, you could say they’re trying to put a floor under the retreat from carbon, to manage a retreat from fossil fuels instead of really putting carbon on the run. The Germans, for instance, will be moving in on 60 percent of their energy from clean sources by the mid-2020s, when we’ll still be cutting carbon emissions by small increments.

Climate change has become a partisan issue

The fortunes of legislation, regulation and other government actions on climate change mitigation are subject to the rise and fall of politicians who don’t see the issue as significant enough to make it a campaign issue, much less do anything about it if it will cost them donations.

Environmentalism wasn’t always partisan. Teddy Roosevelt was an early conservationist – yeah, he liked to kill and stuff animals, but he genuinely appreciated nature and understood the need to preserve wild and beautiful natural places. His legacy in National Parks bears witness to this. Even Richard Nixon (Richard Nixon!) had some environmental accomplishments to talk about, including enacting the EPA.

Now, green groups are falling into the trap of making it a partisan issue:

Green billionaire Tom Steyer vowed to make the November congressional elections about climate change. Now he’s talking about abortion and the economy to get his candidates across the finish line.

Steyer, a hedge fund manager turned environmentalist, launched a state-of-the-art operation to push voters to elect governors and senators willing to confront global warming. His NextGen Climate Action political committee is on track to spend more than $55 million in this election – an unprecedented amount for an environmentalist group.

But NextGen and other green groups are not talking about climate change as much as one would expect.

Instead, they are paying for TV ads that attack Republican candidates on job creation and corruption, not carbon emissions. Door-to-door canvassers talk about clean water and reproductive rights, not the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry crude oil from Canada to U.S. refineries.

The reason is simple: climate change isn’t a top concern for most voters. Only 3 percent think it should be the country’s top priority, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.

NextGen and other green groups say they’re simply doing what it takes to elect the candidates they support.

That means working with Democratic allies to ensure a consistent message that resonates with a broad cross-section of voters, not trying to raise awareness about the perils of climate change. Door-to-door canvassers aim to motivate loyalists to vote, not persuade skeptics.

“The goal is to win the election, and using climate as part of that victory,” said Craig Hughes, a NextGen adviser in Colorado. “This is not about throwing up an ad about polar bears and butterflies going into extinction. This is making it relevant to the voters.”

Making climate change a partisan issue in a narrowly-split-by-party America means that you automatically create a force of about 50% of the voting public (give or take a few percent from election cycle to election cycle) against action on climate change. As the quote above indicates, climate change action is not seen by the Democratic party, which the environmental movement has entrusted with its hopes for action, as a winning or even marginally important issue. Certainly, pragmatic politicians will not mark climate change as an issue to expend political capital on when the movement itself sends signals that it is not a big deal and seeks to gain currency by association with culture war issues.

Further, rather than reaching out and coming to understand and deal with the issues and motivations of voters like the people in coal country who now vote for climate-change-denier politicians, partisan manipulators write off this constituency as stupid losers who aren’t really needed at the polls anyway:

But Democrats’ real problem, laid out clearly in this must-read piece from Sasha Issenberg, is not that they haven’t tried hard enough to hang on conservative coal voters. It’s that 127 million Americans vote every four years in presidential elections while only 78 million vote every two years, in midterms and other off-year elections. Guess which ones stay home? Yes, the “young and diverse, urban and mobile” voters who send Democrats to the White House.

Lacking any particular clue about how to cajole those fickle voters to the voting booth in off years, Democrats have generally had to tack right to capture the more conservative voters who do make it to the polls. That strategy is no longer working, but as Issenberg writes, it is now more practical to drag those unreliable Dems to the voting booth. The science of voter mobilization has advanced by leaps and bounds. It’s now clear what needs to be done: “Raise the dollars and secure the volunteer commitments. Then go and turn out those who are already on your side but won’t show up without a friendly nudge.” It’s money and people power that can can make Dems competitive in midterms. They don’t have to roll coal.

At some point, Dems have to make the inevitable pivot and embrace the coalition they have, the one that’s growing, rather than the shrinking coalition they have all but lost. They have to listen to the hopes of the young people, minorities, single women, and educated professionals who vote for them rather than the fears of the rural whites who no longer do. They have to stop paying ritual obeisance to coal and take up the fight against climate change in earnest. Their new coalition wants progressive action.

Is it really possible to move forward on an issue like climate change based on the political fortunes of one party which at its best in recent times can barely eke out a very narrow majority? Can one party really be depended upon to force through legislation that will impose huge social, economic and political changes on America while fighting an enormously powerful set of opponents, some of whom the party relies upon for critical funding of its operations?

Probably not.

It seems likely that before the problem of climate change can really be addressed by the system, the problem of the influence of money in politics needs to be taken care of. It seems reasonable to posit that one of the reasons environmentalism cut across party lines in the past is that the ability of energy interests to purchase influence dominance was lesser in the past. As Jimmy Carter put it:

Sally Ranney, co-founder and president of the American Renewable Energy Institute, who interviewed Carter … referred to a 1979 speech in which the president said Americans lacked a moral responsibility when it came to protecting the environment. She asked if he felt that is still true today.

Carter said when he first addressed climate change and renewable energy in 1979, it was an easier sell because there were not the political divisions that exist now between Republicans and Democrats, and big money wasn’t influencing politics.

“I think it is a lot worse now; the country was not divided into red and blue states then and money didn’t completely control the campaigns … ,” Carter said.

Comprehensive, timely climate change mitigation is at least highly improbable without the buy-in of the broader American public, certainly more than 50% + 1. After all, these efforts are going to require discretionary efforts that are currently not on many people’s agenda.

Needless to say, things don’t currently look too good for climate change action from “within the system.”

Efforts to educate the public are failing

Public education efforts are actually backfiring:

While many people believe that more scientific reports leads to greater knowledge of climate change, which will in turn mean more support for policies that keep fossil fuels in the ground, social science suggests that the release of these high-profile studies can actually deepen the gap between those that understand the science and those they deny that climate change is occurring.

In a paper published in the journal Nature, Yale University professor Dan Kahan found that increased science literacy created more polarization among members of the public, not less.

An individual’s feelings on climate change are affected more by personal interests and beliefs, Kahan found, than by increased access to scientific facts — a sociological problem that highlights the difficulty of spreading accurate climate science to the public and informing public policy debates.

“I think the IPCC might be achieving this really polarized status where it no longer has any credibility with the people who need to be convinced,” Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University, told VICE News.

Perhaps people’s resistance to messages about climate change can best be concisely explained by this familiar aphorism:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

— Upton Sinclair

The simple truth of the aphorism leads back to the question of who will bear the hidden costs of carbon fuel use or conversion from its use to other, more appropriate sources of energy.

The transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources will be expensive in ways that are not evident just in the costs of replacing the physical infrastructure (which is not an insignificant cost in and of itself). The fossil fuel extraction, processing, distribution and supporting industries represent a huge block of jobs and there are communities all over America that are deeply dependent on the income generated by those industries and workers. When you hear talk about things like the “war on coal” coming from people and communities in energy producing areas, there is a temptation to think that they are just gullible people who have been propagandized by Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing loonies sponsored by the wealthy, powerful people and corporations that run energy companies.

Give our fellow workers credit for knowing what side their bread is buttered on. They see the changes coming and fear that they will be the ones left holding the bag with the hidden social and external costs in it. They are all too familiar with joblessness, hopelessness, the grinding effects of poverty and environmental devastation left behind by corporations that have vanished. They are, with good reason, pretty certain that it’s not going to be the wealthy and powerful people who have been exploiting them and their land for generations and running off with the profits who are going to bear those costs.

For a long time, environmentalists have not been terribly interested in or receptive to the fears and needs of the people in energy producing areas, and people in those areas feel left on their own:

It’s been about 15 years ago now. I was at an environmental journalism conference, attending a lunch session about climate change that included representatives of some of the big national and international environmental groups, along with a few industry people and some scientists. The environmental groups were, of course, rightly making their case — as they continue to today – that urgent action was needed to deal with carbon dioxide emissions

This was a long time ago and I was younger and probably even dumber than I am now. But I tried several times to engage these folks about what they thought a national climate policy should include in the way of economic, educational, or other help for coalfield communities where any mandated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly mean a significant decrease in about the only kind of good-paying jobs around.

Well, you would have thought I was from Mars. I mean, some folks were reasonably arguing that they were environmental groups. It was their job to work to protect the environment, public health and all that stuff. Their role in the process wasn’t to develop economic transition policies. They weren’t against those things necessarily. It just wasn’t their passion, and they didn’t think it was their job. But some folks were more hostile to my queries. They lectured me about how evil coal-mining was, and how they just didn’t understand why anyone in West Virginia wouldn’t welcome a complete end to the practice. Those folks had never been here. They certainly hadn’t been to a coal mine. They never came out and said so, but I certainly walked away feeling like they didn’t really care much what happened in places like Logan County, W.Va., as long as they got some sort of climate policy enacted.

Tensions between working people in the coal field communities and both environmentalists and Democratic activists have been on the rise for years. One union activist and blogger, JayRaye, a veteran of many union actions including a trip, in 1989, to Camp Solidarity during the Pittston Strike, puts it this way:

Sometimes environmentalist make disparaging remarks, say, about coal, without stopping to think how that remark might sound to a coal miner and that miner’s family. And the whole community in coal country.

So environmentalists need to be careful how they frame their arguments, I mean they need to speak in a way that stands with the miners, their families, and the community, and is not insulting to them. Coal companies are the enemy, not the coal miners.

Always, environmentalists should be talking about jobs, good paying jobs, and union protection.

In our discussion, JayRaye’s comments suggest that Democrats’ failure to understand and accommodate the needs of workers is in some cases driving workers into the waiting arms of the Tea Party and other climate-denying politicians. In describing the 2012 election and the opinions of her former union, IUOE Local 49, in choosing a candidate to support she said:

In choosing the teabagger candidate, Chip Cravaack, over the DFL candidate, Rick Nolan, in the race for MN’s District 8 Congressional seat , my union claimed that the teabagger would protect their jobs and the Democrat wouldn’t because the Democrat was a radical on the environment. They also mentioned the UMW and that the members of that union felt the same way. So we need to break thru that kind of thinking somehow. Open up a dialog.

These guys have kids, and even though they have to feed and house their kids today, they must sometimes wonder what kind of world they are leaving to their kids and grandkids.

Assuming that it is not possible to make the political system respond with comprehensive, timely action to climate change, we need as many of our fellow citizens from coal country (and other areas where the energy industry dominates the economy) on our side as we can get. Furthermore, simple human decency demands that we respond to their needs. If we assuage their fears by acting to help them, it will go a long way to building a political constituency.

In studying how to build that political constituency, we can take a page from Democratic Party history, decades back when real Democrats roamed the earth. There is a reason that West Virginia used to be solidly Democratic. It’s because there was a time when Democratic politicians like FDR used to care about West Virginians and reached out with more than just talk:

When the Great Depression cut West Virginia coal production by forty per cent, Roosevelt pushed relief programs into the mountains and enshrined Democratic control of the state. The Party had so many patronage jobs at its command that U.S. Senator Matthew M. Neely complained that job seekers were “following me to my bathroom.”

When JFK campaigned in West Virginia and was appalled by the poverty created when demand for coal collapsed and mining mechanization caused miners in the heart of the “nation’s coal bin” to lose their jobs, Democrats delivered more than just talk:

McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, has been emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century. John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960 and was so appalled that he promised to send help if elected president. His first executive order created the modern food stamp program, whose first recipients were McDowell County residents. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, it was the squalor of Appalachia he had in mind. The federal programs that followed — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living.

The people who live in energy producing communities, especially in West Virginia have been through cycles of boom and bust before, but the “death of coal” that must come due to climate change is the scariest threat that has come down the pike for many of them in years.

Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, in an excellent speech, put it this way:

Too often, we have failed to consider who bears the cost of change and ensure that change is managed fairly and respectfully. And when we do that, no matter how important the reasons might seem, we sacrifice the chance to build the power to move forward. The only way for our democracy to act is for those who care about climate change to engage with the people whose livelihoods are tied up with carbon emissions.

We probably can’t win over the corporate greedheads, but can we win over the people?

In West Virginia, where extractive energy industries have dominated the state for years, the industries have the support of the electorate and the bought-off legal system despite exploiting, slaughtering, poisoning people and destroying the environment:

[M]ore than 100,000 coal miners have been slaughtered in mine accidents and disasters. Each year, more than 1,500 miners die of black lung disease. More than 500 mountains have been destroyed by strip mining, removing more than 1.5 million acres of forest (and the trees that help remove C02 from the air) and the accompanying valley fills have buried or polluted more than 2,000 miles of headwater streambeds. The incredible biodiversity of central Appalachia is threatened by such pollution as human residents struggle with contaminated drinking water and dangerous slurry dams like the one that exploded in Buffalo Creek in 1972. The 132,000,000-gallon deluge, which crested at 30 feet, killed 125 people, injured more than 1,000, and left four-fifths of the town’s population homeless. Pittston Coal Co., which owned the dam, called it “an act of God.”

You’d think, considering what has been done to the people of West Virginia, that it wouldn’t be so hard to convince them that the extractive industries are no damned good for them, but it’s not so. Check out this video:

The resistance by the average people of West Virginia to fighting for a cleaner environment comes down to livelihoods and survival instincts. This is the force that has to be fought:

For more than a century, minimizing access to healthcare, education and other social services has helped employers extract as much profit as possible from the region by keeping corporate tax rates low and by not requiring corporations who own operations in the state to even pay taxes there in the first place. A move away from coal must be accompanied by unionized employment with living wages and benefits for all the people economically displaced. Those jobs could be created by a national program to build a green national power grid linked into wind and solar power systems.

The hand that feeds our neighbors in West Virginia is also the hand that bites them. It is also the same hand that is in our pockets, polluting our air and water, and holding our national government hostage. We have a common enemy, yet the broader environmental movement has not yet figured out how to make common cause, nor has it recognized the need to.

There are two approaches to political influence (short of engaging in revolutionary hostilities) – having enough money to purchase politicians and elections vs. building a constituency of voters so large as to make it impossible to resist them at the polls. Environmentalists are going to have to create a plan that includes these resistant people and obtains their trust. Without this voting block and their consent, it is likely that the political struggle will run in favor of industry.

Another piece of the puzzle of creating a broad, national constituency with the resources to fight the energy industry is winning the partnership of organized labor. Bringing the labor movement on our side would also be a key to developing the sort of power that could overtake the extensively-bought election system.

What about the unions?

Unions like the UMWA have been less than receptive to action on climate change:

Eugene M. Trisko, an internationally-known environmental and legislative consultant, represented the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) today in testimony before the U.S. House Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. …

“The UMWA recognizes that climate change legislation poses the greatest threat to its membership and to the continued use of coal,” Trisko said.

The bottom line for the UMWA, as its president put it when discussing some new EPA emissions rules:

“Our initial analysis indicates that there will be a loss of 75,000 direct coal generation jobs in the United States by 2020. Those are jobs primarily in coal mines, power plants, and railroads. By 2035, those job losses will more than double to 152,000. That amounts to about a 50 percent cut in these well-paying, highly skilled jobs. When a U.S. government economic multiplier used to calculate the impact of job losses is applied to the entire economy, we estimate that the total impact will be about 485,000 permanent jobs lost.

“This is simply a recipe for disaster in America’s coalfields, especially the eastern coalfields. That is where the hammer of this rule will fall the hardest. And it’s not just that these jobs will be lost, it’s that the ability of companies to continue funding pension and retiree health care benefits will be at great risk. That puts hundreds of thousands more – mostly senior citizens living on already-low fixed incomes – squarely in the crosshairs of this rule. …

“Some point to new so-called ‘green jobs’ that may be created by this rule, and say that there will be a net increase in jobs over time. I don’t know how one can actually count jobs that do not yet exist, but I do know this: the jobs that will be lost are among the best paying blue-collar jobs in America, especially in the mostly rural areas of the country where the coalfields are.

“The jobs that we are told will be created will very likely not be in the coalfields, will not pay particularly well, will not have decent benefits, and will not allow workers to realize what we once called the American Dream. The American economy will not benefit from the creation of such jobs because they will come at the expense of the better jobs we have now.

“The UMWA has not and does not dispute the science regarding climate change. Our dispute is with how our government is going about addressing it, and on whom the administration is placing the greatest burden in dealing with this challenge.

So, what the UMWA president is really doing is laying a marker down – this is what his anti-environment activism is protecting – “485,000 well paying, highly skilled jobs,” “funding pension and retiree health care benefits,” and “hundreds of thousands of senior citizens living on already-low fixed incomes in jeopardy.”

Some approximation of that is what is going to have to be addressed to bring the UMWA and its members aboard – good, high-paying jobs and saving the pensions of retirees. Those are among the things that a successful drive to mitigate climate change will have to address to make progress.

Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO made some similar remarks at a UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk:

To those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Taking on the threat of climate change means putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy–one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.

It looks like the Unions are ready to work on addressing climate change, but the needs of their constituency have to be addressed, an entirely fair request.

The good news is that there is precedent for getting miners on the side of environmentalists. It has happened before:

45 years ago, a different future looked possible.

Coal miners protested strip mines, nuclear power and the air pollution caused by coal. In 1972, the Miners for Democracy said that if coal could not be mined safely and cleanly, it would not be mined at all. Still other coal miners demanded nationalization of the coal industry. West Virginians called the companies out for the misleading policy of land “reclamation” and the storage of dangerous chemicals and toxic coal slurry near their homes. The people of West Virginia loaded onto buses to join marches against the development on nuclear power. Appalachian women sat in at strip mines in order to shut them down before they were threatened by the companies and the police brutalized their supporters.

At the end of the day, West Virginians lost and the energy companies won. The people were isolated geographically, and with only a few notable exceptions, were unable to get support from other areas of the country.

The bad news is that the people of coal country were left to their own devices in the face of a massive, oppressive power. Certainly this is well-remembered and may cause considerable hesitance to fight back again.

Is now the time to think about “pie in the sky”?

Environmentalists are often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as presenting grim plans that require people to make huge sacrifices to avoid a horrible fate, and worse they want everybody to live on leaves, berries and tofu. Could the environmental movement come up with a plan that seems to provide a more promising future where if sacrifices are needed, they are tradeoffs for something better?

Further, is there any reason not to create a New New Deal? Could the environmental movement benefit from creating and promoting a bold, inventive plan that could plausibly improve the lives of the 99%?

Since untangling the mess that is the American political process and removing the major obstacles to citizen control of government are going to take a considerable amount of time that is not available on the timetable of the planet, a plan that is very appealing to the vast majority of Americans is necessary in order to get the sort of buy-in that creates an unstoppable demand.

It may seem unfair to put this demand on the collection of scientists, environmental activists, nerds, geeks and regular folks who are currently convinced that something must be done. However, um, something must be done.

Cobbling together a plan that meets the vast majority of Americans’ basic needs which allows them a life without existential want should not be that difficult – the resources exist, most of them are just misspent. In fact, we could do a lot better than that. We could throw in free higher education and vocational training, free health care by expanding Medicare for all, increase Social Security and veterans benefits, and a basic income guarantee of some sort for every American.

We should consider the massive productivity gains that we have made, the profits of which currently go entirely to enriching a small part of the population while penalizing 90% of us:

Obama is the first President in post-war history (and maybe all of history) whose economy gave more money to the top 10% than the entire value of all productivity gains in his Presidency.

Increased productivity and the promise of automation mean that fewer workers are needed to provide the needs of our society. From the past until the present, this process has meant dislocation for workers caused by job and income loss. Economists call this process “creative destruction.” Rather than using the economic efficiencies created by productivity growth for the purpose of enriching those who already have more than they can use, perhaps it is finally time to devote it to the process of building a social structure that allows everyone to have their existential needs met and to live in harmony with the earth with dignity and moderate comfort. It’s just a thought. It could even be popular across party lines, though of course the media wurlitzer of the wealthy will inevitably do its best to smother such a plan in vicious rhetoric and divisive language. No doubt it would be called “class warfare.”

So, in addition to developing a popular plan, the advocates of climate change mitigation will also have to find a way to challenge the media wurlitzer for ownership of the public mind – surely a daunting task, but it has been done before. (Granted, that was years before Bill Clinton signed into law media deregulation which spurred an enormous consolidation of the media into only a few hands, making those (wealthy, corporate) hands enormously powerful).

In discussing transitioning coal country and helping dispossessed miners, David Roberts at Grist writes:

The largely Republican local and state officials in these areas hate Obama and the federal government (despite living off its largesse for years). I doubt they would welcome a grand Big Government plan to completely reshape the region. I doubt Limbaugh-listening Appalachians would welcome it either.

This would seem to apply not only to Appalachia, but all over red state America. If a solution to climate change is to be had it is going to have to come from outside of government, with buy-in across ideological lines. Environmentalists must reach out to the people in the red states and to unions with plans that are comprehensive and compassionate which raise the interests and power of the 99%. Then we must all, together, make the .1% (whose children and grandchildren would certainly benefit from breathable air and drinkable water, etc.) see the wisdom in acquiescing to the solution and getting on with it.

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joe shikspack

joe shikspack

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