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Some Electoral Math For ‘All You Climate People’

By Climate Guest Contributor on November 21, 2012 at 10:19 am

"Some Electoral Math For ‘All You Climate People’"

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CNN's Candy Crowley

by Matt Wasson, via Appalachian Voices

During a campaign season in which climate change featured most prominently as a laugh line at the Republican National Convention, the low point was when CNN’s Candy Crowley addressed “all you climate people” in her explanation of why climate didn’t come up during the presidential debates. Who knew that human disruption of the global climate had become such a narrow, provincial concern?

But there’s important information in the fact that a senior reporter for a major network could dismiss climate change as essentially a special interest issue. It’s evidence, if more were needed, that “all us climate people” got our butts kicked in the battle for the narrative in the 2012 election.

And like the Republican Party, which is now undergoing the usual soul searching that follows a big electoral defeat, those of us who believe that inaction on climate is the greatest threat facing our civilization (never mind the economy) have some serious soul searching to do about our own defeat, which occurred long before any votes were counted.

Crowley’s explanation was consistent with the conventional wisdom on why the president didn’t make climate an issue. Because it was an “Economy election” and everyone in the DC press must accept that government action on climate change could do serious harm to the economy (because “it’s become part of the culture,” even if it’s not true), any discussion of climate policy by the president would have been off-message and worked against his chances for re-election.

The unconventional wisdom, popular among “climate people,” is that the Obama campaign failed to recognize the high level of popular support for action on climate change and missed a golden opportunity to seize a winning wedge issue when they chose the more politically expedient route of ignoring it.

There’s probably some truth to both of these explanations, but here’s a third one that is particularly useful in the context of a presidential election: the campaigns avoided talking about climate policy because they believed that raising the issue would be harmful in a few swingy areas of key swing states that would likely decide the election.

Look, it’s tempting to point to all the national polls showing popular support for climate policy and say, “climate is a winning campaign issue.” But a political strategist would find nothing useful in those polls because campaigns are not won by appealing to the sentiments of the average American. Similarly, when a presidential candidate is speaking to a national audience, it’s easy to believe they are speaking to us — all of us. But they’re not. By and large, the candidates’ speeches are written to appeal to a handful of undecided voters in a few swing states, with just enough partisan red meat thrown in to motivate the party base to volunteer for the campaign and turn out to vote.

Americans understand that those swingy areas are the “tail that wags the dog” of our national elections but don’t necessarily think about the logical conclusion of that fact; the concerns and attitudes of swing voters in swing states are the “tail that wags the dog” of campaign messages, media coverage, and thus public understanding of what issues are important in the campaign.

The problem is fossil fuel interests have figured out how to wag that dog. They know they can’t win public opinion nationally, but by focusing resources in key areas of swing states such as Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, they can frame the local discussion of climate policy and environmental regulations to their advantage (i.e., as a “Job-killing war on coal“) and essentially neutralize those issues at the national level — at least during the election season.

If the Obama campaign’s pre-election polling looked anything like the maps of election results in coal-mining regions of southwestern Virginia and southern Ohio, it’s easy to imagine strategists telling the president, “Don’t exacerbate this ‘war on coal’ thing or it could hurt us in swing states” (see map):

his is the kind of map that pundits would be waving around if the election had gone the other way. The dark red areas show the bleeding edge of the electoral and demographic movement toward the Republican Party that would have won the election for the GOP if those shifts had not been overwhelmed by pro-Democratic movement in other parts of the country. They also show where the Republican economic message of easing regulation was resonating with voters — as well as where Obama failed to win the union vote.

If Romney had won, it would be the rural, white demographic in coal-mining regions that would be the focus of the “How he won” stories, not the historic impact of the Latino, women’s and youth vote. Pundits would be talking about how anti-regulation messages like “stop Obama’s war on coal” resonated with the electorate and how Republicans won a mandate to roll back environmental and public health regulations.

Exhibit A of that winning Republican strategy would have been Boone County, W.Va., which produces more coal than any other county east of the Mississippi River, and saw the largest pro-Republican swing (R+42%) of all 3,140 counties in the U.S. between 2008 and 2012. Of course, West Virginia is hardly a swing state, but the same pattern holds for southwestern Virginia, where the vote margin in the six coal mining counties swung in favor of Republicans by 24% — by far the best showing in a state that Romney barely lost (see map).

Of course, some will look at maps of where Republicans made gains and say “so what? The Republican strategy failed.”

That is a fair point, from a purely political perspective. But there’s a lot of important information in these maps for those of who us aren’t concerned with electing Democrats, but rather with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, accelerating the deployment of clean energy solutions, ending mountaintop removal coal mining, or all-that-and-then-some. They show the political price the administration paid for EPA’s actions to address greenhouse gas emissions, mercury pollution from power plants and the impacts of mountaintop removal mining on streams.

In other words, the maps demonstrate environmental and public health advocates’ collective failure to provide “political cover” in a politically critical region of the country for the EPA actions we demanded. They show why legislators tend to get defeated for supporting the issues we care about and they help explain the embarrassing public displays of obeisance to the coal industry by politicians who survive, like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who shot a bullet through the climate bill in a 2010 campaign ad, and Congressman Nick Rahall, who jumped out of an airplane in support of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Nevertheless, as much as the coal industry would like us to believe that these anti-Obama voting trends are a backlash against the economic impact of EPA rules on hard-working people, there is simply no economic data to back that up. Mining jobs haven’t declined in most areas, even though demand for coal has dropped precipitously due to competition from natural gas.

The real reason for the pro-Republican swing is that coal industry-sponsored groups, with the assistance of billionaire-funded right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity, were on the ground in coal-mining regions for the past three years holding rallies, putting up billboards, generating massive turnout to public hearings and basically doing the kind of effective community organizing that is straight out of the progressive playbook.

As for what we can do better next time around, Bill McKibben got the soul-searching process for “climate people” going in the right direction even before the election was over, blaming our lack of progress on the fact that “we keep waiting for our political leaders to lead.” In other words, we need to stop worrying so much about what presidential candidates are or are not saying and get out and start building a movement of people talking about it to their neighbors, to their newspapers and to their elected officials. That is exactly what McKibben is doing with his 20-city “Do The Math” tour that kicked off the day after the election.

But the lesson from the climate silence in the last election is that we can’t just build a movement in urban areas. We also need a ground game in the remote corners of swing states where national elections are won and lost, where campaign narratives are targeted and where climate activists rarely tread. We need a strategy to provide key members of Congress and presidential candidates the kind of political cover that they need to support our issues without getting slaughtered in the next election.

It’s not as impossible as it might look from a LEED-certified, urban office building because people in coal-mining regions care about the same things that people everywhere else care about. The difference is people in places like Appalachia have a stronger cultural and economic attachment to coal — one that the “agents of climate inaction” know how to exploit and that most environmental and climate advocates have no idea how to honor.

What coal companies and allies have done so well in mining communities is to frame every climate, public health and environmental policy implemented by the Obama administration as part of a “war on coal” that threatens the economy of the region. However, if policies to protect clean water or stop the dumping of mine waste into streams are disaggregated from the “war on coal” frame, they’re actually nearly as popular in Appalachia as they are elsewhere in the country.

I haven’t seen any regional polls specifically about climate change, but I suspect we’d find a similar pattern revealing that Appalachians believe climate change is a problem and support action to address it. But people in mining communities are not going to support a war on coal and the problem for “all you climate people” in breaking through the coal industry’s framing is that many of you actually do support a war on coal, or at least your rhetoric suggests you do.

That’s been particularly evident since the failure of the climate bill, when much of the focus of green groups and climate funders shifted to a strategy of “targeting” old coal-fired power plants for retirement. While there are certainly good arguments for why old coal plants should be retired, the public focus of big green groups on shutting down coal plants and their penchant for claiming credit for retirements that are the result of unrelated economic factors only strengthens the coal industry’s “war on coal” narrative and exacerbates the administration’s problem with swing state voters.

Another reason that the organizing of right-wing groups like AFP has gone largely uncontested in coal country is a simple matter of resources. There are groups like Kentuckians For The Commonwealth that are doing extraordinarily effective organizing in regions where coal is mined, but when a group like AFP comes in with an $11 million ad campaign and bottomless pockets for on-the-ground organizing, we’re in the position of bringing a knife to a nuclear showdown.

Environmental and community advocates will never match the resources of the powerful industries they challenge, but the problem is particularly acute in places like Appalachia where the big climate funders have largely turned a blind eye to the region. They have so far chosen not to support efforts to stop mountaintop removal and other egregious mining techniques, even though those are the issues that have proven to be effective in swaying public opinion and opening minds. In Appalachia, for instance, mountaintop removal and drinking water pollution are potent “gateway issues” that have inspired many residents to question the honesty and benevolence of the coal industry and their political allies in general.

But by far the most effective way to challenge the power of the “agents of climate inaction” in coal country is to enact policies to diversify the economy and build local support for clean energy industries. While a lot of resources have rightly been expended toward building the energy efficiency and renewable energy industries across the country, climate funders and big environmental groups have provided little if any support for economic initiatives to diversify the economy specifically in coal-dependent regions.

To make matters worse, local politicians in the pocket of the coal industry have shown little initiative in seeking to attract clean energy investments to the region, which puts coal mining regions at an even greater disadvantage.

The best thing that “all you climate people” can do to help break polluting industries’ grip on the tail that’s been wagging the dog of our national energy debate is to support policies to bring clean energy investments to coal-mining communities. Coal use is on the decline, but the political and economic power of the industry in the region where coal is mined has not waned — and won’t, until other industries replace it.

That’s not just good strategy, but it’s also the right thing to do. The communities that have supplied the brunt of America’s energy needs since the industrial revolution and powered our rise to the greatest economy on Earth should not be tossed aside as we move toward a future powered by clean and renewable energy — they should be part of it. And the more we make them a part of that future, the faster we’ll get there.

Matt Wasson is an ecologist and the director of programs for Appalachian Voices where he oversees the award-winning online campaign to stop mountaintop removal coal mining on iLoveMountains.org. This piece was originally published at Appalachian Voices and was reprinted with permission.

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50 Responses to Some Electoral Math For ‘All You Climate People’

  1. Zimzone says:

    Crowley isn’t a journalist and certainly not a debate moderator.
    She’s an overpaid talking head on a conservative network.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Her continued employment and gross over-remuneration depend on ideological conformity. To deviate a nanometre from Rightwing received wisdom would be fatal.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    It’s just a rumor that climate silence during the election by the Democrats was driven by realpolitik. The numerous Red state coal mining districts highlighted were not in swing states, but rather West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. There aren’t many mines in Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, especially relative to their large populations.

    Blowing off climate change was a decision made by money, and was connected to politics only in the sense that both of our political parties are dazzled when a dirtbag fossil fuel lobbyist waves some hundred dollar bills in their faces.

    Candy Crowley is on the same program. DC insider reporters are considered “serious” if all they talk about is the economy and the warmaking (aka “Defense”) industries. It’s the same tough guy airhead act we see from Schieffer, Wallace, and the rest of them.

    We “climate people” are in the same category as those who want to stop massacring our remaining forests and waterways, or people who want to increase the impossible to live on minimum wage. In other words: get out of the way, chumps, the big dogs are in charge now.

    Wasson is right that we need to bring clean energy to worn out coal mining districts, though. There is wind in those hilltops, and distributed power works well in dispersed areas.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      It’s vital to remember that fossil fuels underpin much, much, more than just the direct hydrocarbon interests. The fossil fuel industry is the bedrock of late capitalism, and the tens of trillions in assets that are on the books of these mega-corporations are the basis of the entire rotten system. Attacks on fossil fuels are attacks directly on capitalism itself.

      • Len Conly says:

        The irony is that North Carolina has passed the Ridge Law, which prevents siting utility scale wind farms in the mountains of North Carolina while at the same time the mountaintops of West Virgina are being removed to get at the coal – which would not be necessary if the energy from wind power was used instead. “The North Carolina Wind Energy Debate”
        http://www.wildsouth.org/index.php/climate-change/the-nc-wind-energy-debate

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          It’s the same here. Various phony stooges for fossil fuels have discovered the dangers of ‘hypersound’ (or ‘infrasound’ or ‘ultrasound’) that emanates from wind turbines. This hypersound causes every variety of illness, even kilometres away, yet, mysteriously, those paid to have the towers on their land seem mysteriously immune. The very real hypersound (and many other frequencies)that emanate from road traffic, jet aircraft, industrial and construction sites etc, is, equally mysteriously, not a matter of any interest to these doughty fighters for ‘the little guy’. Its creeps-all the way down.

    • Stephanie Liaci says:

      Oh yeah, they’re so damn tough and smart… *puke*

      What I wouldn’t give to share a platform for one measly half hour with any of them! As a few real questions, back em up with fact, and we’ll see whose the real writer/journalist/patriot and whose the corporate shill.

  3. Ben Lieberman says:

    Dear Matt,
    Thanks for the very informative piece. Everything you write makes sense, but at some point there is a conflict in that Climate Hawks do wnat to drastically reduce use of coal. Given tht reality, what kind of redevelopment program and support for communities (along with health care and pensions) do those who live in heart of coal mining districts need if we ar to keep fossil fuels in the ground instead of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere? Would a carbon tax be a way to fund redevelopment, training, health care, and pensions? I just have not seen this topic addressed.

    • Len Conly says:

      It’s important to promote a “revenue neutral” carbon tax. In the current political climate, the only tax that has a chance of succeeding is one that would be offset by reducing taxes on income, sales, etc or by redistributing the tax to individuals. “A carbon tax can be structured to soften the impacts of added costs by distributing tax revenues to households (‘dividends’) or reducing other taxes (‘tax-shifting’).”
      http://www.carbontax.org/

    • Matt Wasson says:

      Thanks for the comment and question, Ben. I don’t have all the those answers, but it was exactly the type of suggestion you made that I was hoping to hear in starting this discussion. And I’ve heard it before: funding economic development specifically in coal-mining regions through revenue from a carbon-pricing program is a great idea that I hope will spread.

      I also think you’re absolutely right that we need to stop burning coal to produce electricity quickly. And that’s starting to happen, mostly because of cheap natural gas, but not entirely – cheaper renewables, less energy waste and “internalized” costs of mining, burning and disposing of coal are all playing a role as well.

      But a significant – and increasing – share of eastern coal is used to make steel. While there are some CO2 emissions from the coking of metallurgical (“met”) coal, it’s no more than other industrial processes. And most met coal is mined underground, not through mountaintop removal – and a lot of those mines are union mines. That means that a disproportionate number of coal mining jobs are at met coal mines. And since most of that is exported, there’s also a big impact on jobs at eastern ports.

      So the question we need to ask is: is coal itself the problem? For me this is about protecting streams, mountains and communities where coal is mined and averting catastrophic levels of climate change. Most people, even in Appalachia share those goals. So I don’t think it plays in our favor to make our message about “coal.” And I think the maps in this post lend support to that perception.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thank you, Matt. Every climatehawk should read this a couple times, since there is a lot to absorb. (And watch “The Last Mountain” to see how the politics and the emotions work.)

    Is it important to support the miners and their families and communities? Make them heros. Remind everyone that they are hardworking, dedicated energy workers. Then put them to work building wind turbines and insulating houses.

    My personal motto: “Love coal. Don’t burn it.”

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      It’s that simple-retrain them. The use of coal-miners by corporate thugs who think nothing of destroying their lives through black lung is, in my opinion, deeply and wickedly hypocritical, but what else do you expect? That the miners have no choice but to go along with their exploiters is tragic.

    • Matt Wasson says:

      I LOVE that, Mark! “Love Coal – Don’t Burn It.” I’m afraid I might have to steal that for the title of my next blog post.

      I confess to having a fascination with those dirty old sedimentary rocks with a high energy content. I’m actually kind of a collector of high quality coal, and abhor the glorified dirt they’re mining out West.

      I’d love to think we can find a way to honor the enormous role that coal – and mining communities – have played in building our country, and not abandon those communities as we move to cleaner and ultimately less expensive ways of making electricity.

      • Mark Shapiro says:

        Please do use it.

        And if you do actually collect coal, I suggest keeping a chunk or two with you and showing people how beautiful it is — and how horrible it is to turn such vast quantities of it into pollution.

        (Keep it wrapped up, of course.)

  5. NJP1 says:

    I know it’s not strictly true, but for mr and Mrs joe Average out there, the economy is what moves everybody’s life here and now
    Climate change is something that might or might not happen next week, next year
    Or it’s something that happens to other people. Meanwhile the kids need food on the table.
    As for killing mining jobs. I come from several generations of miners. I know that the most important thing to a miner is keeping his job, not saving the planet.
    Unfortunate for the planet I agree, but there it is.

    • Mark Shapiro says:

      Coal miners deserve our respect.

      Miners, and their families and communities, also deserve clean energy and the jobs that come with it.

    • Stephanie Liaci says:

      Unfortunate for the miner too. Without a planet, he has no job. And no life. Hopefully you can get your people to realize that teeny little point.

      • Thank you, Stephanie. I was about to make the same point. Where is a miner going to buy food with the money he earns if the Midwest devolves to permanent dust bowl status?

  6. Artful Dodger says:

    Matt, what’s your good strategy for new jobs for these people when coal mining is shut down? Until there’s other work, they’ll support coal. Strategy don’t fill the stomach.

    • Matt Wasson says:

      I agree that nobody in coal country is going to be satisfied with a big helping of strategy at Thanksgiving dinner, Artful Dodger. But I’m also careful in answering that question, because nobody who lives outside of coal mining communities could ever have the answer – or at least not The *Answer*.

      As one who spends a lot of time in coal counties, however, I am convinced that there is plenty of creativity and entrepreneurial spirit among the Appalachian people – as much as there is anywhere in the country. What’s needed are the conditions where creativity and initiative can thrive. That’s always hard in places where the dominant traditional industry is in decline, but even worse in places like Appalachia, where the dominant traditional industry is one that few others want to follow. What entrepreneur wants to start a business where the the water is polluted, landscapes are devastated and life expectancy is 5 years behind the national average?

      But other areas have made the transition – like the Pacific Northwest after old growth logging declined in the early 90s. How did they do it? I remember growing up in Washington State, when displaced loggers were offered tuition grants to any 2 or 4 year college in the state, for instance. There are different answers in different places. But I believe there is a big role for government in these circumstances, as unpopular as that concept seems to be these days. There was a great study published by the Appalachian Regional Commission a few years ago that said:

      “The counties that have emerged from distress in [Central Appalachia] have consistently had fewer jobs in mining and a greater number of jobs in manufacturing when compared to the counties that have remained persistently distressed.”

      The study also said:

      “…regional economic development is most likely to take place when national policies create the conditions to support it. As such, addressing persistent distress would seem to require a renewed national commitment, similar to the one that inspired the establishment of the ARC and the regional development policies of the 1960s.”

      I think working to create those conditions is the role for “all us climate people” outside of coal mining areas. We don’t have to have all the answers, but we need to create the conditions where answers exist and right now there aren’t a lot of good options.

      But I’m happy to point to some in the region who are doing good work and creating good jobs. I’d start here:

      http://maced.org/
      http://jobs-project.org/

    • Stephanie Liaci says:

      Well darlin it’s pretty windy up there, and there are a lot of hotsprings in West Va. How bout wind and geothermal?

      You know u think these folks would WISE UP after being abused by the coal companies for generations…. It’s Stockholm syndrome all the way.

  7. john c. wilson says:

    Why are environmentalists so constantly equivocal and mealy-mouthed? Either you believe in global warming or you don’t. If you believe in global warming you want every single coal mine and coal-fired power plant shut down. No one is receiving your message because the permanent committe of the whole hasn’t yet decided what the message is yet.

    Let me say that again. You don’t have a simple clear message. You constantly capitulate to the furthest right fringe of the “environmental” discussion. Joe just wrote a book about communication. Makes no bloody difference how good you are at communicating if you don’t have a message.

    Coal country and the UMW were way to the left of the Democratic Party within living memory. In addittion to the constant attacks on the left from mainstream liberals, at some point liberals just entirely stopped talking to that part of the world. When you retreat and then disappear you lose. Duh.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Exactly! This is a matter of imminent life and death for our species, yet the bien pensants of the ‘liberal’ tendency simply lack the guts for a fight to the death with the most evil people in human history. I adjudge that evil by the death-toll that their actions will cause, which will, now plainly, amount to billions, barring a miracle. Can’t the sane humans get that through their heads? That this is a fight with those who actions will directly cause the ‘human carrying capacity’ of the planet to fall to only one billion. Prevarication in the face of radical evil, unparalleled in human history, is dumbfounding.

    • Matt Wasson says:

      For my part, John, I don’t want every single coal mine shut down. I want to quickly phase out our use of coal for electricity, but metallurgical coal is a commodity we need and I believe it can be mined in a way that is safe and environmentally responsible (though there’s a ways to go on that front).

      I also believe we should acknowledge that coal still produces 36% of our electricity and we won’t stop burning it overnight. In the decade or two it takes to phase out our reliance on coal for electricity, I think it’s both morally and strategically the right thing to do to be respectful of the miners and communities that produce that coal and ensure they aren’t cast aside as we move to better ways of making electricity.

      That’s not mealy-mouthed, it’s from-the-heart honest.

      • john c. wilson says:

        They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.

        Lebendy-seven conditionals in the message means we remain in permanent committee.

        I honestly can’t tell which side most environmentalists are on.

        • Stephanie Liaci says:

          Tell me ONE issue an extremist has ever solved.

          Obviously no one wants to dump coal miners on their backsides. Obviously we can’t snap our little fingers and make the companies go away.

          Obviously we need folks to get on board. A phaseout beginning now and corresponding with an large investment in renewables is what is needed. There really isn’t another way to do it, unless you all want to live off the grid for a few years.

  8. Peter Anderson says:

    Matt,

    Yours is one of key seminal analyses climate activist must grok if we are to have any chance of turning around a world on its last big binge.

    Peter

  9. Adam R. says:

    Incredibly, Ms. Crowley does not realize that “all you climate people” includes her and every other person on Earth. Who doesn’t live in the climate?

    Watching the presidential debates, I was struck by the mental image of people in a burning house arguing about what color to paint the kitchen.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      When Rightwing MSM brainwashers get together, the scintillating intellectual interplay of Groupthink and ‘dittoheadery’ must be truly awe-inspiring. And to think that journalism was once considered an honourable profession.

    • Keith says:

      Mulga might remember a Prime Minister whose position seemed to me to be that the environment must not be allowed to affect the economy. I call such people Cargo Cult Capitalists, who seem not to understand that the economy is a construct of society and that society exists within the environment: they make noises as if they understand the economy, but can’t grasp its physical fundamentals.

      That same PM lost the election in which his wink to protecting the environment I summarise as “Australia will lead the world, as long as everyone else goes first”. The combination of an appeal to jingoism with a virtual promise to do nothing captures the essence of much of politics.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Keith, I can recall a surfeit of PMs who had no clue as to ecological priorities. Even the lamentable Rudd saw ‘the greatest moral challenge of our age’ ie climate derangement, as just an excuse for a few crass PR stunts. Then when he had to back up his fine words, he dogged it. The current incumbent has done a little good, and much bad, with her insistence on mining more and more coal, but the prospect of Abbott as PM presages a return to the Dark Ages.

  10. Great article on the political battle in specific coal counties.

    I agree that fossil fuel interests force climate silence in a presidential campaign because they can bring so much money to a few key counties in the nation.

    However, I also think this article’s focus on just coal areas is far too narrow and misses the larger fossil fuel political game plan.

    The fossil fuel attack is directed at any “swingy area” and will use any message that works.

    Sure they use “war on coal” wherever that message works. But hey, they will use whatever message they need in whatever area they identify is vulnerable. That is how politics works and they are playing to win.

    The big carbon boys make it clear to pols that they can bring a multi-million dollar hammer down on any district they want and it could be either for the candidate or against it.

    So the “war on coal” was just one message out of dozens targetted at specific swingy audiences. Most didn’t have anything to do with fossil fuels directly.

    As far as blaming climate activists for not pouring solutions into coal country to counter the “war on coal” message, all I can say is good luck. Economic changes in a large region rely on the political leaders and the people themselves. Last I looked the climate activists barely have enough money to put porta potties at rallies.

    • Matt Wasson says:

      You make a lot of really important points, Barry. I agree that there’s a lot more to fossil fuel interests than coal and I don’t imagine that “war on coal” was all that effective of a message outside of coal mining regions.

      But the first time I saw the R+ trends in the 2008-2012 voting map they struck me as stunningly correlated with coal mining areas – I’m sure other trends could be teased out with a more sophisticated analysis, but the correlation with coal mining is just huge. I do suspect, however, that the pattern in coal country has more to do with the “boots on the ground” by groups like Americans for Prosperity than the resonance of the “war on coal” message itself.

      I think a big question is how much of a “spillover” effect to other rural white areas there is from the economic messages that resonate and originate in coal counties. I suspect it’s substantial, but can’t prove it. Here’s my logic: just as people from “impacted communities” are the most effective “messengers” for communicating about environmental problems like mountaintop removal, people who are being laid off are the most effective messengers for the fossil fuel industry. And there are always lots of layoffs in coal counties, even in the best of times. Plus, many of the big ticket EPA actions have had more to do with coal than other fossil fuels in the last 4 years.The question of how much of that pro-GOP swing other parts of the country has to do with messages centered in coal regions admittedly can’t be answered in the maps I provided.

      But what’s really interesting is how much focus there has been on coal mining communities in recent years from groups like Americans for Prosperity that are funded by the Koch Brothers, which is more of an oil interest. The big “anti-climate” PR and campaign money has always come from the big oil companies – coal has traditionally been a small player, but nowadays they’re focusing on coal a lot more than oil. My theory is that fossil fuel interest in general and the rest of what I like to call “agents of climate inaction” are focusing on coal mining communities because they are so strategically situated on the electoral map.

      As for allocation of resources from “climate people” – I have to say, it’s always a great sign when our climate events even need port-o-potties. But seriously, remember that $100 million that was spent lobbying on the climate bill? How much of that was spent in Southwest Virginia providing cover for ex-Congressman Rick Boucher, who lost his seat largely as a result of his vote on that bill?

      But my larger point is that if we’re already investing in building a movement to make a transition, including communities that are ground zero for that transition is both the morally and strategically right thing to do.

      • Mark Shapiro says:

        In the 2000 election, WV went for Bush (R) while Byrd (D) was getting reelected with 85%. The Republicans used the green-Gore scare tactic effectively and they hammer it harder every time.

        That’s why Obama ran his “friend of coal” ads early.

        By the way, Gore would have won in 2000 if he had carried WV. . .

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          He did win, as he carried Florida, but the Republicans on the Supreme Court handed it to Bush.

      • Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful reply Matt.

        I get what you are saying and agree that more needs to be done to help the coal communities. This is similar to mistakes made in the the spotted owl battles in timber towns out west.

        I’m still pretty sure that the “climate silence” by Obama and Romney came from their fear of what big fossil dollars would do in more critical swingy areas like Ohio, Florida, Colorado and so on. That was where this election hinged and where the big dollars landed that were trying to buy maximum influence. That is politics 101.

        My point is that the fight to free politicians to confront climate issues is a large map war of which the coal field is just one of the battles.

        I think the focus on coal regulations in recent years is because cutting back on coal is an easy net win for the nation. The externalized costs on coal are massive in terms of health damages alone. It is a climate target that benefits the nation as a whole.

        If you look at US EIA economic modelling it takes a ridiculously low carbon price ($25 rising to $73 by 2035) to effectively eliminate coal burning in the USA by 2035. You would need at least ten times that amount to put any sizeable dent in oil use. That low price for coal shows how little it cost to switch coal burning to less dangerous alternatives. If you count in the health benefits to Americans it is a huge win for the nation to target coal. We have plenty of alternatives that actually save us money. That is why coal is targeted. It isn’t some kind of plot against coal…it is an economic assessment of what is best for America in general. Coal has been a dead man walking for years.

        The coal communities have been lied to by their political leaders about the options for their future. And the people there have decided to believe the stories they have been told. Some of the politicians are started to feel a bit bad about their role in it all it seems. But still that is the reality and nobody in power has the humanity to level with the faltering coal communities and try to provide a path out of it.

        My guess is that there are plenty of wind, solar and geothermal companies that would love to set up power generation in coal regions but they don’t have the support and sweetheart deals from the elected representatives that coal does.

        The coal communities need a different future and soon. We all do. If there is extra money being wasted in the climate struggle I hope some does get spent to create a better set of options somehow for coal communities.

        I’m glad you are out there making sure that part of the climate fight is getting the attention it deserves.

  11. David Goldstein says:

    Matt: I have been wishing for a long time that the (relatively) progressive leaders in our country get more aggressive and assertive in their messaging (and certainly with their policies). If they ever get to the point of having the cojones to simply list the many compelling reasons why the U.S. and ultimately the world, must quickly and, yes, drastically transfer to a low carbon economy then it seems to me that an incredibly obvious part of the Big Pitch would be a ‘First In Line’ component. First In Line would send all sorts of monetary and training incentives and prioritizations EXACTLY towards the companies and workers in the fossil fuel industries. They already possess a huge batch of trained, skilled ‘energy infrastructure’ workers. They are “First In Line.’ I would think, done well, this approach would go a long way towards sucking the wind out of the sails of the obstructionist elements within those industries and the public at large. Geeze…it ain’t rocket science! There could even be an appeal to patriotism- “The world needs to do this…and we can lead the world once again!’…something like that.

    • I like the sentiment.

      I also think the obstructionist elements in the industry aren’t the workers…it is the owners and upper management. Those are the ones with the mega-dollars to influence elections and buy climate denial thinktanks and media.

      There are about 250 thousand people employed in USA in coal mining and oil and gas extraction. That include accountants and such. That is 0.2% of USA employment.

      When focused in a small area like Matt points out for some coal communities they can be a powerful local political voice. In the larger USA the workers in these industries aren’t major components of the vote.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      You’re correct, David, but the so-called ‘progressives’ will not take the path of being honest with the public and outlining the approaching catastrophe because they are front men for the real rulers of the USA, the ‘secret Team’ whose priority is money and power. On this St Cecilia’s Day, as with every such since 1963, we can contemplate the lengths to which they will go if one of the political servants gets ideas above his station.

  12. Dan B says:

    Matt;

    I volunteer with a group, Got Green?, that was inspired by Van Jones. He was dismayed to discover that blacks voted against a clean energy initative, Prop 87 I believe, by 80%. Blacks suffer from pollution related health problems in California because of the fossil fuel industry. They voted down Prop 87 because of two simple messages in ads run a month before the vote. Message 1. “What’s a ‘green’ job. Answer: It’s not your job.” Message 2. “What’s green energy cost. Answer: Too much.” Minorities are under-represented in mainstream environmental organizations to everyone’s detriment. This is essentially what has happened in the communities you discuss.

    One strategic move that Got Green? made was a survey of more than 200 minority and low income women. They were given a short list of options to rate. The top response was: access to healthy affordable food. In second place was: green jobs. Third: healthy homes. This type of survey had never been done before.

    Healthy food became the basis for our strategic moves. As a result we managed to embarrass Chase Bank into dropping an 85 cent per transaction fee on EBT cards (food assistance) and to fund a double-bucks program for all EBT purchases at Farmer’s Markets. The farmers love the extra business but they are overjoyed at getting their good food to people who need it most. On top of those successes we got a discount (union) grocery chain to locate in a food desert.

    Asking people what they want has provided the basis for a minority and low-income driven environmental movement in our community. Everyone talks about climate change and green energy but that’s secondary to achieving some immediate benefits to the community. Empowering people in local communities provides a much needed foundation for more large scale work.

    It could be successful in turning the tide in coal country especially if the survey questions are developed by locals.

  13. Stephanie Liaci says:

    I think this article is absolutely excellent and on point.

    As far as strategy, anything we can use at this point is okay and I’d like to see some cash from some of those “hollywood climate people” to help us out.

    What a great idea: take the war to THEM. Throw what resources we can into the same sort of propaganda and political tactics they use, only for good not evil.

  14. Darwin's Chihuahua says:

    Eh, I’m not too worried. Give it 20 years and every Democrat and every Republican will be a “climate person”. Winnipeg,where I live, will be well on the way to sub-tropical status. Good times! Except for the few hundreds of thousands of people starving, killed by weather extremes and drought, etc. But Winnipeg will be just fine. Or not. Maybe Yellowknife, on its way to becoming the new breadbasket of North America??

    • John McCormick says:

      Darwin, if you have ag extension experts in yur neighborhood, ask them about the prospect of Canada replace the US grain basket. Should be a simple answer.

    • Mark Shapiro says:

      Unless Winnipeg gets overrun by 200 million starving Americans.

      . . . Americans with guns . . .

  15. Gillian King says:

    Good analysis – climate policy will need to be driven by grassroot action. And one focus for that action should be in coal (and gas) counties.

    But the overall reason that both parties could ignore ‘all you climate people’ was that the Republicans knew they wouldn’t get the climate vote anyway, and Democrats knew they would get the climate vote without any effort – ‘all you climate people’ would vote for them as the least worst choice.

    • Lots of conservatives around the world rake in big slices of the climate-concerned vote. Just check out England, BC, Germany and France in recent years for examples.

      The difference is that in most democracies the parties talk about climate and vie for the votes. In the USA neither party did.

      I think the reason is that in the USA there is a larger threat of big fossil dollars being applied to narrow and specific electoral collages swing spots.

  16. We are asking coal miners and their communities to pay a high price for rescuing the world from the changing climate. That alone is enough reason, though of course not the only reason, to make plans for economic development for those regions to help them move from coal to some other local industry.

  17. A.J. says:

    Who knew that human disruption of the global climate had become such a narrow, provincial concern?

    Well, more people might be paying lip service to it, but a good test might be to try mentioning it at the turkey table and see how many eyes roll. ;-) At least around here, issues of efficiency and longer term concern don’t get the same sort of respect as immediate economic issues.

  18. Ben Lieberman says:

    @David Goldstein: Something like the First in Line concept would be critical, though I’m not sure those affected would like the image of standing in line. But language aside, I don’t think anyone has tried to come up with a climate policy that would separate the legitimate interests of extraction industry workers in having jobs and thriving communities from the illegitimate interests of fossil fuel corporations in destroying the planet’s environment for profit.