A few years ago, my wife and I attended a community meeting convened by the governor of our state to discuss a proposal to build a 1,000 megawatt natural gas-fired generating plant in our neighborhood. Many people in the crowd were construction workers from all six New England states who were there to support the proposal. For them, it was all about jobs, feeding their families, and hanging on to a piece of the American dream. I disagreed with their position, but I understood why they were there and why they were concerned.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a senator from Rhode Island and one of the most thoughtful people in Congress. Together with James Slevin, the president of the Utility Workers Union of America, he has penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post laying out the case for putting a price on carbon emissions. The message these two people have to share is that the workers who dug America’s coal, drilled for oil and gas, constructed pipelines, built generating stations, and created utility grids are the ones who provided the energy needed to make America one of the world’s leading countries.
Nothing ever stays the same, as the only constant in life is change. Renewable energy is disrupting many traditional industries. Whitehouse and Slevin want to make sure those workers and their families are not just tossed overboard to sink or swim during the energy disruption that is gathering momentum today.
The best way to do that, they argue, is to put a price on carbon emissions and use that money to ease the transition to jobs of the future. “We have come together in an unusual but badly needed alliance to argue for a path forward to address the twin threats of a changing climate and growing economic inequality,” they write.
“The path forward also features a new, and newly respectful, way of talking about the men and women who took on the difficult and dangerous tasks of producing such fuels for our economy — not the usual rhetoric from environmentalists who have too often dismissed the contributions of these workers and diminished the threat to their livelihoods.
“There should not be, and does not need to be, a trade-off between protecting our planet from destruction and supporting workers who have spent their livelihoods in carbon-intensive industries that also sustain the economy.
“The answer is imposing a price on carbon and using the revenue in a way that helps workers, families and communities.
“Pricing carbon is the most powerful and efficient way to reduce carbon pollution. Charging big corporations a price for their carbon emissions — as many other countries around the world already do — would generate abundant revenue to provide economic security for coal workers, their families and the communities they call home.
“A price on carbon makes the transition period to lower-emitting energy sources less harsh than it would be under raw and sudden market conditions; miners and power-plant workers will be less at risk. In other words, a carbon price could mean the difference between a controlled descent and a steep crash.”
How should America honor these people? Whitehouse and Slevin suggest the best way is to insure the pension and health plans that were promised to them are not made worthless by companies who simply declare bankruptcy and walk away. The money provided by putting a price on carbon emissions could do that. “It is important that we provide not only workers, but also the communities they call home, the opportunity to remain vibrant places where families live and work — not municipal tombstones abandoned to cold market forces,” they say.
Whitehouse and Slevin conclude with these thoughts.
“These men and women undertook the difficult and dangerous jobs that made America great. Look at them as our energy veterans; they won the world war for economic dominance and powered the American Century. As new technologies take hold, and we power into a new American Century, they must not be left behind.
“In our divided country, a sad and unnecessary part of our national climate conversation is its failure to respect the economic value our energy veterans created. Too many good people feel abandoned and disrespected. There is a simple human proposition that hard and successful work deserves appreciation and fair treatment. Let’s honor that proposition.
“A carbon price represents the best answer to our climate danger. It also makes it affordable to do the right thing and help bind our country together. We should seize that chance.”
Powerful words. Back at the time of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin once said, “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” That quote is socialism in its purest form. The job of America is not to enrich the wealthy, it is to provide a place where all can lead a peaceful, productive life free from want and worry. That may seem archaic in the superheated political maelstrom that surrounds us where it is fashionable to blame the poor and the sick for their own miserable existence.
By suggesting a different point of view, one that honors the contributions of America’s energy workers, Whitehouse and Slevin are offering us a way out of the box we have built for ourselves. Will we be smart enough to take it?
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