For many citizens concerned about climate change, the coal industry looms as a major obstacle to creating a cleaner energy sector in the United States. Because Connecticut is not very reliant on coal for its energy, it is especially easy for Connecticut residents to cast coal — and all those associated with it — as the enemy. At least that had been the case for me. However, this is not a productive conclusion.
While you are unlikely to find many in the coal industry taking to the streets in climate marches, their opinions about climate change are highly variable and far more nuanced than generally assumed by liberals campaigning for clean energy.
In a state with essentially no coal resources, we are disconnected from the realities of coal communities. Connecticut is home to only one operating coal-fired electricity generator, the Bridgeport Harbor Station. The state has not burned American coal since 2011. With coal as such an insignificant portion of the energy sector, reducing coal plants seems an obvious path to reducing emissions.
For those living in coal communities, however, the choice between coal and renewable energy is less straightforward. Without an understanding of the reluctance of those living in coal dependent states to transition to cleaner energy sources, it is unfair to cast a blanket judgment of coal miners/employees as the enemy of climate progress.
In order to confront my own villainization of the coal industry, I spoke on the phone with a number people connected to the industry. An executive from Kentucky defended coal by pointing to the fact that Kentucky is one of the most poverty-stricken states and that “affordable, reliable energy is the best solution we have for fighting poverty.”
While renewable energy is becoming increasingly affordable, and even competitive, this executive’s concern is something that needs to be taken seriously as we push for cleaner energy sources in states like Kentucky.
Unemployment is another serious threat for coal communities facing competition from renewable energy. An organizer at the United Mine Workers of America highlighted the extent to which job security is a main concern for coal miners. The closing of coal mines can put whole communities out of work. Calling for a transition to renewable energy without job retraining programs in place to support smooth transitions ignores the needs of vulnerable communities.
Opposition to renewable energy is all too often chalked up to the capitalistic desires of coal executives. Many liberals need to recognize that concern for the poor and the employment prospects of coal miners are also driving factors in opposition to phasing out coal plants. In a country that is divided over countless issues, it is essential that we find constructive ways to communicate with and come to understand the reasoning of those we disagree with.
My conversations with coal employees provided firsthand evidence that even when division exists, there are ways to talk to those on the other side that can help to humanize them and to come to a better understanding of their attitudes. Given that, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, coal contributed 24.5 percent of the US total greenhouse gas emission in 2012, I hold that the coal energy sector needs to be curbed. However, this can only be done with a clearer understanding of the challenges that accompany closing coal plants. This kind of work is happening, but we need more of it.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, and Carl Pope, a former chairman of the Sierra Club, provide a great example of two people with very different professional backgrounds banding together to find solutions for climate change they can both get behind. They directly address the unemployment of coal miners in their new book, “Climate of Hope,” saying they have prioritized saving lives over jobs, but that finding jobs for coal miners should absolutely accompany this work.
Let’s stop villainizing the coal industry. Instead, let’s open up lines of communication between those working for the industry and those working to combat climate change. This communication has the potential to create more effective policies that not only decrease the amount of coal burned in the United States, but also support people working in coal communities transition to new jobs.
Maggie Peard grew up in Wallingford, and is a 2013 graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall. She’s a senior at Williams College, majoring in environmental policy.