Just after the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg had been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the president and others started hurling insults at her. That abuse is symptomatic of something much deeper — the fast-changing economic times and the subsequent disruption in people’s lives.
If one subscribes to the prevailing science that humans contribute to climate change, then one must also support the New Energy Economy, or the transition to cleaner fuels and modern technologies to reduce heat-trapping emissions. And if one’s livelihood has been linked to the earth’s increased temperatures, then they will certainly become defensive. Support of one’s family, after all, is paramount.
But times do change. The agrarian economy gave way to the industrial era, which has been getting surpassed by the green evolution and the digital technologies to facilitate it. In other words, the old factory jobs and the mining positions have been usurped by those that center on science, technology, engineering and math. It’s progress — something that requires workers to increase their job skills and for government to invest in a 21st Century infrastructure. Fanning the flames of resentment, though, feeds a false narrative.
And no place has been more susceptible to that rhetoric than in Appalachia, which has been home to the working man — the guys who literally had backbreaking jobs and the ones who helped fuel the growth of America. Their downfall is a manifestation of those economic alterations: powering the future with clean and affordable fuels — a dynamic that is creating a wave of new opportunities, especially when compared to that of the coal sector.
“For Trump, the fixation on coal is less about energy than about white masculinity. And Trump is not alone in that motivation: Throughout the 20th century, white Americans have imagined the mountaineers and backwoodsmen of Appalachia as the ideal of the American man,” writes Thomas Blake Earle, a presidential scholar, in a Washington Post column. “If a West Virginia coal miner could fall on hard times, what chance did the rest of the nation’s men have?”
The slow death of coal is thus the perfect hook for an opportunist, Earle notes: The ‘MAGA’ crowd supports coal miners, seeing them as the embodiment “white masculinity” and a symbol of what America had been in the 1950s.
“Trump feeds on the anger of white men who feel their whiteness is no longer as valuable,” Earle writes. “They feel marginalized by globalization, yes, but also by eight years of a black president.”
Who’s Actually Angry?
In that context, it is much easier to see how a 16-year-old female could trigger strong emotions from those who feel they are getting left behind. The president labels Greta’s achievements as “ridiculous” and goes on to say that she is “angry.” It is the president who is angry, however — a bitter old man who can’t grasp that Ozzie and Harriet has been reduced to re-runs.
Denigrating Greta is just the latest iteration of such psychology. The Obamas, who represented the country with grace and eloquence, endured questions about the former president’s heritage — a reason why Michelle Obama told Greta not to let “anyone dim your light.”
By the same token, Trump’s vow to revitalize coal has come up empty: Since his election to the presidency, coal plants continue to retire en masse and multiple bankruptcies have occurred. Coal’s share of the electricity portfolio has fallen to just 25% and it is expected to drop even further. And E2’s Clean Jobs America report said that nearly 3.3 million Americans are working in the broad field of clean energy.
The most clear indication of this is the recent bankruptcy of Murray Energy, whose leader had the ear the president United States. But others preceded that collapse since Trump took office, including Westmoreland Coal, Cloud Peak Energy, Cambrian Holdings, Blackjewel and Blackhawk Mining. By contrast, companies that focus on wind and solar have shown promise, including Brookfield Renewable Partners, First Solar and TerraForm Power.
Making things worse for coal country, the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development arm of the federal government, says that 93 of the 420 counties in Central Appalachia are economically challenged. The region includes Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations they had for their own lives,” says J.D. Vance, in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” “Yet the message of the (political) right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
What then is the best way to help struggling regions? Rolling back regulations has not benefited working Americans, although it has allowed corporate America to avoid costs. Trump’s first major legislative achievement was to permit coal companies the right to dump their waste nearer to streams — a move that the industry said would restore jobs and keep companies float. And then there was the attempt to rid the country of CO2-reduction policies.
In a 2018 JAMA Forum article, two Harvard University scholars — David Cutler and Francesca Dominici — said that employment is falling in some fossil fuel sectors not because of environmental rules but because of technological advances that have required fewer hands-on-deck.
Meantime, Moody’s Analytics says that unmitigated pollution will have a costly economic effect: $54 trillion in the year 2100 under a warming scenario of 1.5 degrees Celsius and $69 trillion under a warming scenario of 2 degrees Celsius. Rising temperatures will hurt agricultural production as well as human health and productivity while extreme weather will damage critical infrastructure.
“Time” honored Greta Thunberg for “sounding the alarm on humanity’s predatory relationship with the only home we have (and) for showing us all what it might look like when a new generation leads.” The good news is that she represents millions of “millennials.” The future is thus promising — that the youth will prepare for tomorrow’s jobs and the New Energy Economy, helping to ensure that governments around the globe tackle climate change.
Change is certain. But so is economic dislocation. And those most impacted by shifting times are issuing a plea — not to prevent progress but to get help adapting to it. It’s understandable. Populist politicians who prey on those anxieties are to be exposed while those statesmen and stateswomen who advance bold new ideas are to be praised. Enlightened leaders know that the most fertile jobs are not those linked to smokestack industries but rather, those tied to green energies and digital technologies — the 21st Century form of virility.
At her young age, Greta Thunburg understands this. The question now is whether those in coal country and Appalachia can accept it as well.