In the Kentucky senate race’s likely only debate Monday evening, challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes showed that even in coal country, a Democrat can fight back on climate change. Grimes repeatedly challenged Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on his party’s fight against protecting miners from black lung, and she pushed back when he tried to blame decades of coal industry job cuts on federal regulations that haven’t even been implemented yet.
Grimes also went after McConnell’s argument that because he’s “not a scientist,” he’s incapable of talking about climate change. “I don’t think you have to be a scientist to recognize the realities of what are happening around us,” Grimes said. Not being an economist, she added, “didn’t stop Senator McConnell from having an opinion on how to move the economy forward.” McConnell didn’t repeat the “not a scientist” line at the debate. Instead he dismissed the whole issue of climate change by saying that in the 1970s, people were concerned about a new ice age. McConnell also repeated the idea that even if we wanted to cut carbon, it’d be impossible since no other country will take action. Then he moved on to attack the “devastating assault on the coal industry by the EPA.”
While the coal industry has been culturally important to the state of Kentucky historically, as of 2009 it employed around 19,000 workers directly, which is less than one percent of the state’s total employment. That’s down from 47,000 in 1979, a much higher proportion at the time. Thousands more coal miners have lost their jobs in recent years, some at least in part due to environmental regulation, but many others due to cheap fossil fuels elsewhere in the country. As Grimes said, “all of the jobs that have been lost in this state, they’ve happened on your watch, Senator.”
“You’ve been there 30 years, and you don’t want to take responsibility”.
Grimes is not the greenest of candidates. She avoids discussing climate change when possible, describes herself as pro-coal, and opposes the EPA’s proposed regulations on carbon emissions. It is somewhat unsurprising when even telling an interviewer she believed climate change was real was enough to draw criticism from the McConnell campaign.
McConnell said a never-passed bill to put a cap on carbon and the EPA’s emissions cuts are responsible for an “administration-driven depression.” But it couldn’t possibly be caused by EPA regulations that weren’t even proposed until 2014, and haven’t yet been implemented. The culprit is the coal industry itself. As Paul Krugman pointed out in June, coal companies fought the real war on coal miners throughout the last several decades, cutting tens of thousands of jobs by using strip mines and labor-saving technology, to mine millions of tons more coal while killing jobs.
As Republicans have reliably fought environmental regulation in the name of coal miners, they’ve actually cut off the federal spending that cushioned the worst effects of industry layoffs. Coal employment is still declining in the U.S., and at-risk workers rely on government support to allow them to transition to growing industries. They also rely on the social safety net to keep them healthy and prosperous in the meantime. As Grimes noted, black lung among coal miners is at its highest level in 40 years. In fact, one of the Obama Administration’s biggest actions on coal has been to better protect miners from black lung, something that many Republicans in Congress fought hard to oppose.
In fact, McConnell and other Republicans oppose cutting carbon out of concern for the owners and shareholders of fossil fuel companies, not workers, who they have refused to help time and time again. More broadly, they oppose the idea that government intervention is necessary to drop carbon emissions and slow catastrophic climate change or to help working people when the forces of capitalism upend their lives. It’s no wonder that despite all the talk of Democrats killing coal jobs, Grimes has been endorsed by the United Mine Workers of America.
As they said in their endorsement: “She is the only candidate in this race who is also a supporter of coal miners. She cares about their health and safety on the job. She cares about what happens to them once they retire after a career of dangerous, backbreaking work. She cares about what happens to their families, and what can be done to make their communities stronger.”