The Green Transition Depends on Taking ‘Coal Country’ Seriously

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is not well-loved among Democrats in Washington these days, but for champions of a greener world economy, he is someone who needs to be understood. In fact, for anyone looking to forecast the outcomes of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, all you need to do is track Manchin’s moves and those of his political counterparts in the world’s top coal-producing democracies to understand the new politics of the green transition and energy nationalism. 

At the moment, Manchin, a Democrat who represents the coal-producing state of West Virginia, is the main obstacle to a grinding push by progressive Democrats and President Joe Biden to pass a $150 billion clean electricity package as part of Biden’s long-stalled $3.5 trillion Build Back Better bill. Manchin is especially opposed to a part of the bill that offers financial incentives for electricity providers to shift to renewables as their energy source and imposes penalties that amount to a carbon tax on those that rely on fossil fuels. He is also unhappy with language in the bill that would limit investments in carbon capture technologies. Manchin is just one politician, but because of the arcane rules of the U.S. Senate, if Biden is unable to build a bridge between him and the progressive wing of the party on climate change policy, the president will head to Scotland empty handed. 

Biden, however, will probably not be alone in that regard. Besides the U.S., which ranks as the world’s third-largest coal producer, India, Indonesia and Australia all have their own Joe Manchins. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, said last month he was going to skip the Glasgow summit, known as COP26, altogether, and he only reversed course after facing a public backlash. Ambitious progressives and climate change activists looking for creative workarounds to the obstructionism of fossil fuel-loving incumbent politicians would do well to study them all. The Glasgow summit’s outcomes may ultimately be disappointing for progressives, but carefully observing which kinds of pressure campaigns work to overcome resistance by politicians from fossil fuel-rich regions offers a chance to adjust political strategies ahead of COP27 in Egypt in 2022. 

While Manchin’s legislative maneuvers in the Senate have been the cause of much vexation on the Democratic left, they should not be viewed in a vacuum. A veteran politician with a propensity for conservative traditions, Manchin grew up in the heart of American coal country. He built his own coal-trading and storage business when coal was still king, and his financial fortunes and that of his family are closely tied to his companies, Enersystems and Farmington Resources. Since his election to the Senate in 2010 after stints as West Virginia’s secretary of state and governor, Manchin has consistently resisted climate change initiatives that reward the switch to renewable energy and punish fossil fuel producers. 

Politicians in other coal-rich parts of the world are making the same dramatic plays when it comes to resisting legislation aimed at accelerating the green transition. Indeed, Manchin has apparently even inspired his own fan club, drawing enthusiastic support from Australia’s Joel Fitzgibbon, a Labor politician and member of parliament. Like Manchin, Fitzgibbon also comes from coal country, in New South Wales. First elected in 1996, he has long been a passionate defender of Australia’s coal industry, and like his American idol, he has been a vocal critic of progressives in his own party who advocate for accelerating the transition to renewable sources of energy. Like Manchin, Fitzgibbon has also been an ardent proponent of carbon-capture technologies that would reduce coal- and gas-powered plants’ emissions, rather than replace them with greener alternatives. 

On the climate action front, the real political work to be done in localities where fossil fuel production has historically dominated the economy is to build back beyond better.

Yet, Fitzgibbon’s failed bid to push through a carbon-capture scheme within his own Labor party is telling, and his announcement in September that he plans to retire reveals even more about what makes for ripe political conditions at the local level when it comes to promoting the energy transition. Fitzgibbon’s home turf in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales is not just home to a coal mining industry. It is also winemaking country and a key tourism hot spot. It turns out that loudly accusing your party compatriots of “ideological craziness” for pushing to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels is not great politics when wine is one of the country’s top exports and climate change threatens the livelihoods of a substantial number of your own constituents. In other words, the economy of Fitzgibbon’s home district is more diverse than it seems at first glance, and as a result, so are the politics around diversifying energy. 

This is where the similarities between Fitzgibbon and Manchin end, and that, too, should be instructive. West Virginia ranks second to Wyoming among top American coal-producing states, with Pennsylvania, Illinois and Kentucky rounding out the top five. It is no coincidence that former President Donald Trump won three of these states—Wyoming, West Virginia and Kentucky—in the 2020 election. But it is equally instructive to note that the other two, Illinois and Pennsylvania, have continually diversified their economies, making it easier to wean their way off fossil fuels. 

By contrast, since the start of the natural gas fracking boom 10 years ago, West Virginia has been consistently hobbled by its dependence on coal for revenue and jobs. One of the poorest states in the country, it has recently suffered historic floods that have raised concerns about its vulnerability to extreme weather. Progressives in the state and in Washington say that Manchin’s intractable stance on climate change policy is to blame for the risks West Virginia is now facing, and their constant refrain has been that whatever jobs are lost from closed coal mines will be replaced by green energy jobs. 

Progressives probably have a point, but swapping out fossil fuel-powered energy jobs for jobs in the renewables sector does not address the fundamental lack of diversity in West Virginia’s economy. At best, retraining programs in the renewable energy sector will result in reemployment only for some, but not all of those put out of work by the decline in coal demand. On the climate action front, the real political work to be done in localities where fossil fuel production has historically dominated the economy is to build back beyond better. Making other industries equally or more competitive than the energy sector will be paramount for building political momentum for the green energy transition.

To make real progress on climate change goals, progressives in the U.S. and other advanced industrial democracies are going to have to take a much more honest look at the root causes of the resistance to the green energy transition—and take the potential impact of employment dislocation seriously. Demonizing the Manchins of the world will help stoke the progressive base, but it is unlikely to attract converts from the moderate center or change facts on the ground in regions dependent on fossil fuel.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every other Friday.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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