To get to a more powerful, more visceral way of talking about Climate Change, I’m going to use the next few posts to lay some groundwork. We’ll start with a recent exchange on Up with Chris Hayes.
Chris Hayes had a roundtable on coal and climate change with Mike Caputo, District 31 International VP of the United Mine Workers and Tyson Slocum, Director of Public Citizen’s energy program. Caputo made a half hearted defense that coal mining could be saved by “clean coal,” but his real focus was on whether coal miners’ families and their communities could possibly survive without coal. Hayes asked Slocum to respond:
Coal is in some ways the enemy. At the same time in some ways it’s easy for me in Brooklyn to talk about this. It’s not my livelihood on the line. So when we talk about this future we’re going to have, for example, what do you say to someone like Mike? What is the message here for folks whose lively had does depend on it and who are thinking about it as they go to the voting booth?
First it’s important to know that it’s the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Then he argued that when you talk to communities who live near coal fire plants, they don’t like these plants because of their effect on air quality. Finally, he said, clean coal technology is very expensive and nowhere close to working.
So if you look at where the United States needs to position itself for the future of energy production, it has to be in renewables
The only time when Slocum addressed Hayes question was when he said,
And I sympathize with the plight of coal miners and coal communities.
“I sympathize with the plight of coal miners”???
In one phrase Slocum summed up one major reason why enviros are failing: a big chunk of the enviros movement doesn’t see working-class families and their communities as real people – as their brothers and sisters.
Imagine if a major environmental activist said, “I sympathize with the plight of whales but…” Or “I sympathize with the plight of polar bears but…” They’d be taken out and composted.
Sure, there’s plenty of talk about green jobs – and a few groups like the Apollo Alliance or environmental justice groups who mean it. But there is a large swath of the enviro movement that is far more passionate about saving trees or recycling plastic bags than they are over the fight many working families have every day just to keep their heads above water.
Put it another way. Suppose Slocum knew that if we stopped using coal, he, his wife, and most of their friends and relatives would be out of work – and that all but a lucky few would end up working at McDonald’s for the rest of their lives. That their kids would face the same “plight.” And that almost every place he loved where he lived – every café, every great little restaurant, every Apple Store, every REI, every boutique shop, every hiking trail – would disappear too.
Take how strongly liberals in New York City react to developers who propose allowing taller buildings in their neighborhood. Now imagine how they would react if getting rid of coal meant razing their neighborhood to the ground.
Folks like Slocum would still be in favor of getting rid of coal (you’d hope). But “Plight” is not the word he’d choose to describe its impact. Saving everything he and his community held dear wouldn’t be a throwaway concern, it would be front and center. And before they let a single coal plant be closed down, there’d better be a damn good plan in place to protect his community from ruin.
The issue here isn’t that Slocum is a bad guy. Clearly he’s not. If you listen to the rest of the interview, you’ll see that he is passionately committed to saving our planet. And I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d tell you that stopping climate change isn’t about just saving the environment – that millions of lives are at stake. He can see the millions of lives, he just can’t see the Mineworkers and their families.
You could argue that this problem is nothing new. Since at least the late 19th century Progressive era, the US has had movements dominated by the middle class that have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of working-class families. That may be part of it. But I think what we’re seeing now goes beyond that. It goes back to the rise of the 1% and the impact of its ideological victory.
More enviros are starting to make connections between their work and Occupy Wall Street’s attack on the 1%. To get where they want to go, they need to go after the 1% who run coal and oil and all the rest of it. But they’ll also need to understand the ideological trap the 1% has set for us that I believe leads us to the enviro equivalent of Romney’s “binders full of women” problem – and that points the way to moving beyond it.
Up next week: how we got here.