UMWA President Cecil Roberts appeared in Washington in conjunction with the report’s release, arguing for the protection of those coal mining jobs that remain. Of the 7,000 or so miners put out of work last year, though, his request wasn’t that they get back to work as miners. Instead, he sought federal support to find “any jobs that we can create that would be good-paying jobs for our brothers and sisters who have lost them in the UMWA.”
It is by now obvious that the decline in coal jobs since early 2012 is irreversible. The long-term trend was apparent in 2012, to be fair, given how the country’s energy generation was evolving. The advent of hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking) opened up massive natural gas reserves that led to broad availability of a fuel that was cheaper than coal and burned more cleanly, meeting both the business objectives of electricity generators and public pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, given increased concern about climate change. (That natural gas extraction itself resulted in the release of enormous amounts of the greenhouse gas methane only emerged somewhat later.)
By 2020, the percentage of electricity generated from burning coal — a primary use of the fuel — had fallen to match the amount generated by nuclear. Meanwhile, the density of wind and solar in the energy mix is increasing.
The drop in coal use to generated electricity overlaps with the drop in mining jobs.
This isn’t just a function of natural gas getting cheaper. It’s also a function of coal being more expensive, in part because of regulations aimed at limiting the release of greenhouse gases and in part because coal necessarily gets more expensive to extract over time, as easy-to-mine and already-located veins are exhausted. Wind and solar have trended cheaper with technological improvements and with government support aimed at reducing emissions. By now, there’s no significant cost advantage to coal over renewable energy.
Again, this trend was predictable years ago. It’s why, in 2016, Hillary Clinton argued that the country needed to “bring economic opportunity — using clean, renewable energy as the key — into coal country.” That she said this in coal country — and that she coupled it with a statement that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” — was a predictable political loser. But she wasn’t wrong. A big chunk of the industry did go out of business, even with Donald Trump as president and despite the industry’s resistance.
The acknowledgment that “change is coming” from the UMWA highlights the damage that can be done by spending eight years pretending it wasn’t. In that way, it’s a microcosm of the climate change fight itself.
It’s also not the only place this is happening. On the same day that Roberts was acknowledging the reality of coal’s eroded position, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was lamenting that China had taken control of the industry that’s helping displace coal: renewables.
“Right now, we’re falling behind,” he said in a speech Monday. “China is the largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles. It holds nearly a third of the world’s renewable energy patents. If we don’t catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world’s climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values, and we’ll lose out on countless jobs for the American people.”
This, too, is rhetoric that existed a decade ago. Even before wind and solar were substantial parts of the energy mix, that they would be was predictable. This exact concern — that American abandonment of the renewable push would cede it to other countries, including China — was something that existed in President Barack Obama’s first term. Because climate change was a sharply partisan issue, though, the Obama administration’s efforts to bolster the industry were met with acute opposition.
The Energy Department, for example, had a loan guarantee program that invested in renewable energy projects, providing companies with early funding and (the government hoped) eventually providing a return on that investment. Its portfolio included things such as biofuels, geothermal energy and even a massive investment in car battery design and manufacturing.
One of the investments was in a company called Solyndra, a solar start-up that ended up declaring bankruptcy. It became a stand-in for Republican complaints about the Obama administration’s focus on renewable energy, a purported example of money being thrown at bad investments. (Trump, never one to shy from embracing a right-wing talking point, talked about Solyndra repeatedly.) That the loan guarantee program actually ended up turning a profit for the government attracted little attention.
Solyndra was a good example of how partisan politics made it hard for the United States to prepare for the economic moment, just as politics made it unlikely that Trump would invest in the idea that coal mining jobs would erode. The overlap between climate change and economic considerations was secondary to the points that could be scored in political campaigns and on cable news.
In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) unveiled the Green New Deal, a proposal that centered the economy in discussions about climate change. It recognized ways in which climate change and the need to tamp down on emissions would reshape the economy and offered guidelines for protecting vulnerable populations as that reshaping took place. Despite how the idea was maligned when it first debuted (thanks, in part, to a sloppily worded summary), the two this week reintroduced the proposal.
Despite what we’ve learned over the past several years, it’s unlikely that the political right will suddenly embrace the proposal. Consider this line deployed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a hard-right freshman member of the Republican caucus, in an unrelated tweet targeting a reporter.
Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal will force us to depend on China bc they make all the batteries for EVs,” Greene wrote, referring to electric vehicles.
In other words, the Green New Deal is now bad because China leads on battery production — something that was part of the government’s focused efforts more than five years ago. Instead of agreeing with Blinken’s assessment that this means the United States should improve its position, Greene now uses China’s advantage as an argument against the United States focusing on the issue.
One can envision the future “we should have seen it coming” news releases already.