Winners and Losers: COVID and Coal

President Biden signed 17 executive orders immediately after his inauguration on January 20th (January 26th blog). Many of them nullified President Trump’s policies which had deliberately ignored climate change and thwarted mitigation efforts. Foremost of these new policies was the US return to the 2015 Paris Agreement. As we see in these quick changes, however, executive orders are not laws; the next administration can void them easily. The November 2020 election ended with Democrats winning both the presidency and both houses of Congress but it was a very thin win. The election has delivered a 50:50 tie in the Senate and 222-211 Democratic advantage in the House of Representatives. Despite a gap of 7 million in the popular vote and 306-232 difference in the electoral college, changes of fewer than 50,000 votes in a few key states could have given the presidency back to President Trump.

The country is polarized to the extreme. As a break from the anger and politicization, there’s a cute piece in The New York Times that collected some funny opinions of how else we could divide the people of world.

The destructive polarization is not restricted to the United States; such extreme opposition also exists between poor and rich countries. Right now, we face two global disasters in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. In this circumstance, such schisms can have deadly consequences. These are collective disasters, where nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

Fortunately, COVID-19 will be a much shorter problem. We already have mitigating vaccines at hand; the main issue now is distribution. This serves as a teaching moment regarding what to do in other global disasters. Here is what the NYT writes about the global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19:

“If Poor Countries Go Unvaccinated, a Study Says, Rich Ones Will Pay”
Peter S. Goodman

A failure to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in poor nations will worsen economic damage, with half the costs borne by wealthy countries, new research shows.

In monopolizing the supply of vaccines against Covid-19, wealthy nations are threatening more than a humanitarian catastrophe: The resulting economic devastation will hit affluent countries nearly as hard as those in the developing world.

This is the crucial takeaway from an academic study to be released on Monday. In the most extreme scenario — with wealthy nations fully vaccinated by the middle of this year, and poor countries largely shut out — the study concludes that the global economy would suffer losses exceeding $9 trillion, a sum greater than the annual output of Japan and Germany combined.

Everything is connected. Even if we’re only acting in our own self-interest, we have to care for each other. The immediate economic mitigation efforts are, not surprisingly, focused on COVID-19. In the US, any economic stimulus bill will need bipartisan support because it requires 60 votes for approval. So far, this is not within reach. Republican senators agree that, as it stands, the stimulus bill proposed by Democrats is too big and costly. They also object to the bill’s independent measures, including a federal increase to a minimum wage of $15/hour. It would be possible for Democrats to pass the bill with a simple majority along party lines (a reconciliation bill), however, such an accomplishment would necessitate complete unanimity.

Joe Manchin is the sole Democratic senator from West Virginia, which voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2020 elections (68.6% vs. 29.7%). West Virginia is a poor state (personal income per capita is 76% of the national average). The coal industry there employs about 30,000 people and is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi river. Senator Manchin’s vote is essential for any legislative achievement of the Biden administration. He holds a lot of power in Congress right now and President Biden and VP Kamala Harris know it.

In order to put some pressure on Senator Manchin, VP Harris went to WV and gave a speech on how important the stimulus bill will be to the state’s poorer residents. Senator Manchin’s support will be especially critical in passing climate change legislation. Presently, the senator believes in climate change mitigation but he advocates research and advanced technology rather than ending the use of coal or other fossil fuels. This is, technically, possible. Major developments in the technology of carbon capture can remove some pressure from the fossil fuel industry. That was not VP Harris’ focus, however:

Harris also spoke about the economic situation of the West Virginia coal industry.”All of those skilled workers who are in the coal industry and transferring those skills to what we need to do in terms of dealing with reclaiming abandoned land mines; what we need to do around plugging leaks from oil and gas wells; and, transferring those important skills to the work that has yet to be done that needs to get done,” she said.

Every major transition involves closing some old venues and opening new ones. VP Harris identified an obvious loser in the energy transition: the coal industry. However, the solution that she has offered is not likely to gain much support. Successful solutions need to subsidize both the winners and the losers. I used the example of Germany in my October 8, 2019 blog, “Wisdom from Germany: How to Transition Away From Coal”:

TOKYO (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that her country would withdraw from coal-fired power production by 2038, showing her support for the deadline recommended by a government-appointed commission.

The so-called coal commission said last month that Germany should shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest and proposed at least 40 billion euros ($45.7 billion) in aid to coal-mining states affected by the phase-out.

West Virginia has a long history of conflict over coal and nobody is going to be swayed by the simple suggestion that coal miners look for another job. Indeed, after Harris’ speech, Senator Manchin expressed his disappointment with the new administration’s approach. Nor is he alone in being open to proposals from both sides of the aisle, but none of his peers in this ambivalence are climate deniers. They include: Arizona Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly as well as Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

The 2022 elections are not far away and politicians are mindful of their constituencies. Coal miners are not the only losers in this transition. President Biden is looking to accelerate the energy transition by banning new oil and gas leases on federal lands. Over a quarter (27.4%) of the US belongs to the federal government. This includes more than 20% of the land in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

This step is necessary to hasten the transition away from fossil fuels but at the same time, states that are going to be directly impacted should be compensated. Big oil companies, which have long denied climate change, have been suffering because of both the pandemic and the shift to renewable energy. They will certainly be among the losers in the energy transition and that loss will transfer to workers.

In my December 26, 2018 blog, I discussed the Yellow Vests demonstrations that took place in France. France taxed transportation fuels to minimize carbon emissions but didn’t take into account the millions of people who live outside of major metropolitan areas and need their cars for essential purposes such as driving to work. Understandably, people were upset.

In terms of fuel sources, Poland is probably in a similar position within the European Union to West Virginia in the US. The EU stands at the forefront in its commitment to replace fossil fuels by sustainable energy sources. Poland, however, is one of the EU’s poorest countries and is heavily dependent on coal. As with Senator Manchin, Poland has veto power on many EU decisions. Special arrangements had to be made for Poland to go along with the transition.

In his inauguration, President Biden made a commitment to be the president of all Americans, regardless of whether they voted for him. In any major transition that he plans to try to institute, he has to apply this commitment to include winners and losers of more than just the election. I agree with the argument that mitigating climate change makes all of us, including future generations, winners. However, by the nature of these transitions, we must make sacrifices now in order to ensure a better future. Some of us will bear the brunt of these changes. We should be able to offer remedies to ameliorate these sacrifices.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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4 Responses to Winners and Losers: COVID and Coal

  1. Loralei Sirota says:

    I do think that another a similarity that COVID and climate change actions have in common is the polarization that you mentioned. In terms of actions to mitigate climate change, such as looking for alternatives to coal, there is such a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans on some important issues, to the point of denial of the issues. Similarly, COVID vaccination has become a partisan issue when it really should not be. I definitely agree that it is a waste of time, and in the case of vaccines resources, to focus so much on partisanship in the United States when COVID and climate change are issues that affect the entire world. There’s needs to be less emphasis on being petty and more on helping out marginalized communities and less wealthy countries.

  2. Yulia Tsoy says:

    I was not particularly interested in politics in America because for a while, as a fresh immigrant, I was more concerned with more pressing problems. When Trump became president, I thought that people simply chose a candidate with a less spoiled reputation from two not very successful candidates, they trust him as a simple guy who speaks a simple understandable language, cocky, spontaneous, business-oriented. I was worried about the aggressive struggle against illegal emigrants. I am for the regulation of emigration, but we must not forget that these people are not vermin, but people, and not from a good life put themselves and their children at risk. I was greatly surprised by his attitude to the problem of climate change, moreover, it seemed to me very unprofessional and short-sighted for a politician, very careless statements compromising scientific researches and works related to climate change. I was very surprised and thought that he was certainly a misunderstanding who became president for very strange and unexpected circumstances. But every year he said and did things that are not only unforgivable for the president, but also dangerous for the country. Without going into politics and a lot of details right now, as a resident of the United States, I was offended by the way he behaved himself as bully made fun of, teased Greta Thunberg, she is just a teenager with Asperger syndrome. I was disgusted, ashamed by his extremely unacceptable behavior, and the whole world was looking at Americans as we were the same as our president. As a result, the 2020 elections for my family were not so much a party’s choice as a choice of moral values. For the first time in my life, I watched the President’s inauguration with such joy, relief and hope. I am very glad that among the first presidential decrees was the US return to the 2015 Paris Agreement it proves that the current Government understands the importance and responsibility of the fact that the fight against climate change can be effective only when it is the policy of the State.

  3. Snoozer Beds says:

    Winning and losing is not matter with such a pandemic, the most important thing is how we fight with it and stand together.

  4. Menachem Muller says:

    I think there is a major problem when countries need to balance their own needs with the world’s collective good. We often see backlash to this on issues like immigration and globalization. WHO did create COVAX to ensure poorer countries received vaccinations but they have been pretty ineffective so far. They blame richer countries for not supporting them enough and for making secret deals to ensure vaccinations for their own citizens. Many “first world” countries have donated money to COVAX, but democratic leaders do not get elected by people living in other countries and so they are hesitant to give too much money. Senator Manchin holds a lot of power, but my own personal belief is that he will vote with the Dems on reconciliation and they may even pull a moderate Republican or two although I doubt it. I like the idea of subsidizing workers who lose their jobs due to climate measures and I wonder how that can be implemented. How much should we give to a coal worker who lost their job and for how long should we give?

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