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Environmental policy is labor policy, and Biden must make that clear

December 10, 2020, 5:15 PM UTC

President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda reflects an ideological shift within the Democratic Party. Rather than centering proposed climate action around carbon pricing and other cost-centric policies, Biden’s $2 trillion proposal considers a more benefits-centric approach. Among them: the labor force.

“When I think of climate change, the word I think about is ‘jobs,’” Biden said during a speech in July announcing the plan. “Good-paying union jobs that’ll put Americans to work.”

The country could certainly benefit from an influx of job opportunities right now. The pandemic has significantly increased levels of long-term unemployment, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that 3.7 million Americans in November were categorized as “permanent job losers”—an increase of 2.5 million since February. A more-green economy could revamp industries and create new ones powered by clean energy, the incoming administration and environmental advocates say.

Biden contends his plan could “create more than 10 million well-paying jobs,” ranging from public transit operators to skilled construction laborers, reshaping supply chains and the manufacturing sector in the process.

“There’s over 100 million units of residential housing in the United States,” said Bracken Hendricks, cofounder of Evergreen Action, the climate advocacy nonprofit founded by former campaign staffers of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “Over the next decade, we need to electrify them. We need to solarize them. We need to insulate them. We need to enable them with building management systems for temperature and lighting control for greater efficiency, new low-flow [water] fixtures, Energy Star appliances.”

Hendricks added: “Essentially, what you’re talking about is trillions of dollars of new capital investment into retooling the productive capacity of the U.S. economy.”

The full scope of Biden’s $2 trillion climate proposal won’t pass in a Republican-controlled Senate, should the Democrats fail to win two runoff elections in Georgia next month. But even if they do win, the comprehensive package would likely be filibustered by the opposition party—and Democrats, despite some bold threats, don’t seem likely to end the controversial Senate practice. But Biden will still have options through executive action—rejoining the Paris accords, among other measures—and piecemeal legislation that tackles climate issues on a smaller scale. Some bills could even have Republican support: Infrastructure investment enjoys bipartisan popularity, but it stalled under President Trump. A Biden bill could promote construction of electric-vehicle charging stations and allocate more funds to high-speed rail.

Despite general congressional Republican opposition to ambitious climate policy, a large majority of Americans on both sides favor expanding solar panel farms (92%) and wind turbine farms (85%), according to the Pew Research Center. And 77% of Americans agree that developing renewable energy should be prioritized over fossil fuels. Favor in these investments also tends to increase when paired with a broader economic recovery package.

“For instance, integrating clean-energy investments and climate-related responses into a COVID recovery package makes the COVID recovery package more popular,” said Matto Mildenberger, a professor of political science at UC–Santa Barbara who researches the political drivers of climate policy inaction. “So there’s a real sense the American public wants the government to be walking and chewing gum at the same time right now. And it’s politically advantageous to build climate policymaking into economic policymaking and vice versa.”

Part of Americans’ desire to move away from a fossil-fuel-based economy may be that some of its industries have been unforgiving to workers as of late. The coal industry, which Trump in a signature campaign promise pledged to restore, was already in decline as it competed with lower-cost natural gas—but a wave of bankruptcies, intensified by the pandemic, has left workers anxious over promised pensions and health care benefits. In the past five years, multiple coal corporations paid executives millions in bonuses months before declaring bankruptcy, only to seek concessions from union employees and retirees to mitigate the costs.

Not all labor unions are inherently in favor of progressive climate policy, though. There is a divide in organized labor between wanting to protect jobs and transition to a green economy. The United Mine Workers, on the topic of coal, has historically opposed climate action. Yet the union has repeatedly emphasized its acknowledgment of climate change and that humans have contributed to it. “It’s real…and it needs to be dealt with,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, in a September 2019 speech to the National Press Club. The union supported a 2010 climate bill that would have, among other measures, funneled money into the development of technology that captures carbon dioxide expelled by coal-fired power plants. It passed in the House but stalled in the Democratic-majority Senate.

The progressive branch of the Democratic Party now wants to enact a sweeping Green New Deal, but Roberts believes the legislation is an existential threat to the coal industry. “I don’t think a good starting point for Democrats is eliminating union jobs,” Roberts said at the time. The message was clear: Climate change is real, but any proposal to fix it must account for coal workers.

Like many occupations, mining is a particular skill set, honed over time. Some workers may already possess the skills or education needed to transition to newly created clean-energy jobs, but others won’t. Even if they did, they might be in the later stages of their career, preparing for retirement rather than new career training.

“It’s really important to affirm that concerns over job dislocation and economic transition in the current economy and with the current social safety net are very real and well-founded,” Hendricks said. “We have a frayed social safety net in the United States, and the historic commitment in the last 20, 30 years to industries and communities and transition hasn’t been what it needed to be.”

Biden, so far, appears to have an awareness that jobs will be crucial to generating support for his ideas. He pledged in his climate plan to secure pension and health care benefits for coal miners and their families, as well as to create a Task Force on Coal and Power Plant Communities. The task force, he said, would leverage the “unique assets” of each community to create new high-paying union jobs and training programs.

“Certainly Biden has brought along workers and labor unions in his climate plan in a way that previous Democratic political coalitions have not been able to do here in the United States,” said Mildenberger.

“That aspect of climate politics should be appreciated and confronted head-on,” he added. “It may not be possible to preserve every job that exists right now—just as it’s not possible to preserve every business that exists right now—but an appropriate climate package needs to be responsive to that reality and ensure that workers are not being left behind.”