Environmentalists need to reconnect with blue-collar America

Environmentalists need to reconnect with blue-collar America
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Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action, recently announced that he will provide $4.5 million to fund the UN Climate Change Secretariat. While the annual contribution of the U.S. to this Secretariat is set at $7.5 million, the US Congress appropriated $3 million only. Hence, Bloomberg’s donation will make up for the shortfall.

Bloomberg’s donation has a significant symbolic value. It tells the world that many in the United States remain committed to climate action, despite the Trump administration’s hostility toward this subject. Given that Bloomberg served as the mayor of New York City, it also signals the important role of states and cities in climate change policymaking, despite the hurdles created by the federal government.

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While this financial support and the strong international message are important, Bloomberg should consider sending another message; this time to the communities in the U.S. that would likely bear the cost of any substantial climate change policy.

 

In particular, we are thinking of communities with economies that in some way depend on fossil fuels. Take the example of coal country. We recognize that the decline of coal mining is due to mechanization and the increased supply of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing. Environmental regulations should not be blamed. But the perception in the coal country is that regulatory interventions have caused this decline. This has caused severe economic and social stress. As is well documented, the Appalachian coal region is facing severe economic and social problems, including a raging opioid epidemic.

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpMueller report findings could be a 'good day' for Trump, Dem senator says Trump officials heading to China for trade talks next week Showdown looms over Mueller report MORE visits Appalachia, he promises to bring jobs back. Not surprisingly, he receives a warm welcome (although it is not clear whether such jobs will ever come back). What is crucial is that he offers hope to communities that are suffering economic and social decline. These communities feel disenfranchised and view environmentalists as urban elites who do not understand their everyday struggles. For them, hostility to coal equals hostility to coal communities.

Environmentalists have not made a visible effort to advocate for an Appalachian economic revival. The Clean Power Plan did not include a road map to revive the economic fortunes of the communities located in coal country. Although Hillary Clinton did outline such a plan, her characterization of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” created a backlash that overwhelmed, among other issues, this plan.

Climate action creates benefits for everyone. But some communities perceive that they carry the burden of rescuing the polar bear from the melting of the Arctic. Blue collar workers and coalminers obviously think this sort of burden sharing is unfair. After all, it is probably difficult for them to give up their jobs and become the solar panel installers that the new economy promises.

If environmentalists want their support, they need to outline a roadmap for these workers to make a just transition to new industries. Environmentalism must be embedded in social safeguards and opportunities for all. We call it “embedded environmentalism.” Climate action that is not embedded in social and economic concerns will fuel a backlash. 

Trump’s Paris versus Pittsburgh rhetoric had an important political logic. Eventually all politics is local. Trump gets it. But it seems that U.S. environmentalists do not because they perhaps seek too much international validation and invest too little in building support in non-traditional constituencies. The presence of visible environmental leaders has enormous symbolic value. Environmentalists must begin engaging with all people, not only the ones that live in cities or work in white-collar jobs.

Climate change has an important political dimension because it generates distributional conflicts. Without addressing the perceived inequities in the distribution of costs and benefits from new regulations, climate action will continue to face strong domestic opposition. 

Environmentalists need to reconnect with blue-collar America. The blue-green alliance that focuses on jobs in the renewable energy sector is an excellent start. But the movement needs to do more. Along with advocating the phasing out of fossil fuels, it should champion plans to help communities dependent on fossil fuel jobs make a transition to a low-carbon economy.

Nives Dolšak is professor and associate director of School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle. 

Aseem Prakash is the Walker Family professor and the director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.