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Opinion GM’s big announcement demands a change in how we talk about fossil fuels

A photo provided by General Motors features the headlight of the Chevrolet Bolt EUV, an electric crossover SUV, which is expected to debut this summer. (General Motors via AP)

Just a day after the Biden administration announced its ambitious climate change agenda, this shocking news came out of Detroit:

General Motors said Thursday that it will end the sale of all gasoline and diesel powered passenger cars and light sports utility vehicles by 2035, marking an historic turning point for the big U.S.-based carmaker and a future full of new electric vehicles for American motorists.
GM chief executive Mary Barra, who antagonized many climate experts by embracing President Donald Trump’s relaxation of fuel efficiency targets, said the company was eliminating all tailpipe emissions from light duty vehicles by that date. "As one of the world’s largest automakers, we hope to set an example of responsible leadership in a world that is faced with climate change,” she said on LinkedIn.

That is truly extraordinary. While they’ll still be making gas-powered trucks, it’s almost impossible to imagine General Motors — long one of the largest car companies in the world, home of the Camaro and the Corvette — no longer selling gas-powered cars.

Yet The Post also reports that the oil, gas, and coal companies “and their allies are aiming to slow [President] Biden’s unprecedented push for climate action and keep profits from fossil fuels flowing.” And you know how they’re going to do it: With lawsuits, yes, but also with a marketing campaign that will tell people, for the umpteenth time, that liberals are trying to take their jobs.

But the GM news shows how real change is going to have to happen. It’s when market incentives push in the same direction as the current political environment, as excruciating as it may have been for both to get where they are.

It’s important to keep in mind that GM isn’t doing this just because it cares about the planet. I’m sure on an individual basis many of the company’s executives do, but they also see where their industry is going. They’re all too aware that Tesla sold a half-million cars in 2020 but has a market cap of about $800 billion, while GM sold five times as many cars and is worth one-tenth as much.

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But the fossil-fuel companies and their Republican allies are still trying to sell us a story about the future of energy, one that says we can’t move aggressively on climate because we have to preserve fossil fuel jobs.

So what if we started actually telling the truth about those jobs?

Think back to 2016, when Hillary Clinton got savaged for saying that coal companies were going to go out of business and we’d better come up with a plan to help workers and communities affected by that change. Donald Trump went to West Virginia, put on a hardhat, did that little duck-lip thing he did whenever pretending to be a blue-collar guy, and said, “For those miners, get ready because you’re going to be working your asses off!”

It was a lie — he knew it, and if they didn’t know it they should have. When he took office there were 51,000 Americans who worked in the coal industry — already a tiny amount — and the number has since fallen to 44,000. And it wasn’t because Trump didn’t try to shore up the coal industry, because he did.

Yet now we’re hearing the same things: We can’t address climate change because of the jobs! So when John F. Kerry, Biden’s climate czar, inevitably gets asked about fossil-fuel jobs and responds that green energy will create more jobs, including for many of those now working in fossil fuels, conservatives predictably cry: How dare you be so cruel to these salt-of-the-earth, hard-working Americans, you elitist!

Every time Democrats talk about this issue — every single time — they propose to make helping individuals and communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels a key part of their plans. It’s right there in the Green New Deal, which advocates “directing investments to spur economic development” in “deindustrialized communities, that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.”

Democrats keep trying to make the point. “We’re going to make sure that nobody is left behind,” said Gina McCarthy, another of Biden’s climate advisers, on Wednesday. “We need to put people to work in their own communities. . . . So we are creatively looking at those opportunities for investment so that we can get people understanding that we are not trying to take away jobs.”

I’m sure some on the right would say, “Eh, that’s just lip service.” But we can’t get beyond lip service if we don’t have a debate on exactly how to make the transition away from fossil fuels. For that, Republicans have to acknowledge that it’s going to happen no matter who wins the next election. If we agree that it is, then we can start figuring out the best way to manage the transition.

When even General Motors realizes the end of fossil fuels is inevitable, the time for pretending that we can just keep digging them up and burning them is over. And so is the time for lying to people who work in fossil fuels, telling them that if they elect Republicans their jobs will be safe forever and nothing will change.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: A climate catastrophe is upon us. Biden can still make a difference.

The Post’s View: Joe Biden must be the climate change president

Henry Olsen: Of course Biden meant what he said about fossil fuels. There is a price to fighting climate change.

Kevin Rudd and Bill Hare: Here’s how Biden could get the U.S. to lead on climate change again

The Post’s View: Democrats are getting ready to govern responsibly on climate change