Acting on climate change and supporting coal workers – we have to do both
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President Trump’s astounding decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, packaged like a reality television season finale, was the culmination of a terrible series of events for those of us that care about the environment. From the beginning of his term, President Trump has set out on an openly anti-environmental agenda, proposing to shrink the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent and reshape what’s left into a climate-skeptic orientated organization. We have every right to be angry, but we must make sure to direct our criticism in the right direction.

Walking away from a truly global agreement to reduce emissions is a shocking abdication of America’s leadership role and a decision that threatens our future. In his remarks announcing that the U.S. was taking this action, President Trump struck a familiar cord, returning to a longstanding theme of protecting coal jobs and stating that “I happen to love the coal miners.”


We’re losing time and we have to do a better job of building consensus for action. We better focus on this fact and not make the very fatal mistake of demonizing coal workers.

For many progressives, President Trump is wholly inscrutable and his appeal is difficult to even acknowledge. We need to acknowledge that in some ways he’s a very effective communicator – and we see this very clearly on environmental policies.

To devastating effect, President Trump has made United States environmental policy a debate about coal workers and coal miners specifically. Environmental advocates and lawmakers cannot ignore this fact or adopt rhetoric and positions which play into President Trump’s hands.

Of course, the image of the coal-killing EPA is a massive distortion of what’s actually happened in the energy market, where the explosion of cheap natural gas supply has largely accounted for the recent decline in coal’s fortunes. Moreover, like nearly all industries, coal jobs have been hurt by mechanization, as fewer and fewer workers are needed to extract coal from the ground.

We should have deep admiration for the hard-work and dangerous risks a coal miner takes to provide for their family. We should have a profound appreciation for the work that coal miners did, for decades, and continue to do, to build the United States into an industrial power and an advanced economy. Their impact was huge, contributing to our military strength and powering a technological engine that transformed the world. President Trump has taken this collective memory and admiration and literally made it the backdrop of his agenda, taking every opportunity to be flanked by coal workers.

The irony is that the cause of coal miners should be a Democratic cause. It certainly has been in the past, when Democrats fought for safer work conditions, better benefits and a seat at the table for miners. Last week, Democrats got a big win as healthcare benefits for coal miners was included in the spending bill.  

While coal country’s embrace of President Trump has been painful to Democrats, we can’t turn our back on these communities and the hard working men and women who work in the industry. Instead we need to listen to their complaints and make the case for our argument. But it must be a respectful dialogue, not a lecture.  Entire regions don’t develop a point of view without some basis in fact. As Democrats, we have to reengage, we have to make the case that the economy will continue to rapidly change and that we have an agenda that will help everyone thrive in the future.

Part of that honest discussion has to be about the economy and the environment. The truth is there’s no magic formula President Trump can enact to reverse decades of macroeconomic trends that have hurt coal, and the truth is there’s no way around the fundamental fact that if we care about the environment, about the future of our economy, national security and public health, we’re going to have to, in the long run, burn less coal. Climate change left unchecked is going to hurt everyone. So we can ignore reality – Trump’s approach – or we can try to actually create better outcomes, not better photo ops.

The most effective way we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage the development of cleaner alternative fuels is to use market forces. Despite being told that it was politically unpopular, I’m proud to have authored legislation that establishes a carbon pricing mechanism. The free market economy is the most powerful tool we have to change behavior and this is the most straightforward and most effective tool we have to reduce the impact of climate change. 

My legislation uses the massive amounts of revenues raised by a carbon tax to do three things: 1) reduce other taxes on businesses so that they can stay competitive and create jobs 2) provide direct payments and tax credits to low-income people and the middle class to offset increased costs from carbon pricing and 3) establish a massive new multi-billion dollar benefit program to help coal workers and their families. Under my legislation, impacted coal workers would have access to worker retraining programs, financial assistance with relocation expenses, healthcare, early retirement and other benefits.

As a Democrat, I believe there’s a role for government to solve problems, help the most vulnerable and to create a level playing field. But when a government action disproportionally hurts certain communities, there’s also a responsibility to help those who have been harmed. We’ve seen this with trade policy over the last three decades, we haven’t done enough to help those that have been harmed by big economic shifts and new trade flows.

That philosophy undergirds my carbon tax bill, which was the first to give direct benefits to coal miners and their communities. Looking at the data, it is clear that the country as a whole – and the entire world – would benefit by a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But in the short term, we have to help coal workers and their communities’ transition and adjust. This involves investing in them and their communities so that they can play a different, but no less impactful role, in building our economy.

A rapidly warming planet and the economic devastation that it will bring will hurt working people the hardest. I was proud to attend the national climate march, but there weren’t many people there that looked like the blue collar working class people I grew up with. We have to change that. If we continue to debate environmental policy on Trump’s terms, we’ll continue to lose.

John K. Delaney represents Maryland’s Sixth District in the House of Representatives. Delaney is the only former CEO of a publicly-traded company in the House and was named one of the World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune in 2017.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.