With a US$2-trillion infrastructure plan on offer, and a $1.8-trillion American Families Plan backing it up, U.S. President Joe Biden took advantage of his first address to a joint session of Congress to reprise a central theme from his election campaign: that climate action and job creation go hand in hand.
“For too long, we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs,” Biden said. “For me, when I think ‘climate change,’ I think ‘jobs’.”
He cited union jobs to install 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, farmers being compensated to plant cover crops that sequester carbon dioxide, wind turbine blades “built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” and a U.S. push to manufacture electric vehicles and batteries as examples of the gains his country could achieve by taking action to reduce emissions.
“American tax dollars are going to be used to buy American products made in America to create American jobs,” Biden added. “Independent experts estimate the American Jobs Plan will add millions of jobs and trillions of dollars to economic growth in the years to come,” and “nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree; 75% don’t require an associate’s degree.”
All of which makes the infrastructure plan “a blue-collar blueprint to build America. That’s what it is.”
Climate scientist Marshall Shepherd, a former president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the University of Georgia Atmospheric Sciences Program, says it was exciting enough “to hear climate change mentioned several times” in the course of the speech.
But “President Biden’s focus on climate change and jobs was interesting because it debunks cliché claims about harming our economy,” he writes for Forbes. “At the end of the day, I am pleased that policy-makers are finally speaking the language that normal people understand about climate change, rather than sounding like policy wonks or ivory-tower scholars.”
Not that the infrastructure plan has any shortage or critics: recent news coverage has had the White House signalling that it’s open to compromise on the scope of the plan and reaching out to key legislators, such as Sen. Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV), in hopes of a bipartisan deal.
“Of course, there are still standard talking points in some corners that cling to the notion that climate solutions will harm the economy and kill jobs,” Shepherd adds. “The premise is that plans like the Green New Deal would cause job losses in the fossil fuel sector and that carbon taxation would lead to economic shockwaves rippling in many directions.”
But more reasoned analysis argues “that carbon taxation will lead to explosive economic growth and a ‘new industrial revolution’ driven by new jobs in labour-intensive renewable energy and clean technology,” he adds. As far back as 2019, Forbes author Silvio Marcacci wrote that “renewable energy jobs are booming across America, creating stable and high-wage employment for blue collar workers in some of the country’s most fossil fuel-heavy states, just as the coal industry is poised for another downturn.”
And indeed, job transition for fossil states and communities is emerging as a centrepiece of the Biden plan, with a White House interagency working group identifying up to $38 billion in unspent funds “that could be used to spur job creation in communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry,” Utility Dive reports. The April 23 report identifies 25 regions hit hardest by coal industry declines and prioritizes them for “grant funding for infrastructure such as roads, broadband, and water systems, for the deployment of clean energy projects, and for environmental remediation.”
By July, the report said, the working group planned to kick off a series of meetings to discover how the Biden administration can best support “good-paying, union job-creating investments in priority Energy Communities.”
That focus is utterly essential, said Carol Zabin, director of the Green Economy Program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, since people in affected communities will resist an accelerated climate plan if they think it’ll make it harder for them to support their families. “If we leave people behind, we’re not going to get the job done,” she told Utility Dive. “We need a big tent.”
Ed Crooks, vice-chair of Americas at Wood Mackenzie, said Biden lived through the community backlash to former president Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. “While it’s clear something needs to be done to keep current energy communities in the boat with the rest of the nation on climate change, Crooks said it’s less clear whether the policies outlined by the White House report will make a difference,” Utility Dive writes. “The problem is the majority of the solutions tried in the past haven’t worked, including attempts at retraining displaced workers for careers in new fields.”
“We—meaning the U.S., but also other western capitalist democracies—are not very good at managing the impacts of economic change,” Crooks said. “Places that have been hit by the decline of the steel industry in the 70s and 80s remain economically depressed 40 years later.”
He added: “The thing that has become a huge cliché is ‘learn to code’, and the implication that former miners should become software developers. That’s been tried quite a bit actually, none of which has shown any sustained success.”
By contrast, Crooks pointed to the pragmatism in the interagency report, with its focus on jobs in broadband, road construction, and environmental remediation—as well as areas that could run counter to a transition off carbon, like carbon capture and storage, or what Utility Dive calls “potential low-carbon applications for coal”.
Through a community lens, that kind of approach “seems realistic, given that you’re not asking people to completely change their lives,” he said. “You’re not saying, ‘train as a software developer and move to the Bay Area’.”
That history—combined with a 52% drop in coal mine employment between 2011 and 2020—might help explain why the United Mine Workers of America is placing conditions on its support for the Biden infrastructure plan. “Change is coming, whether we seek it or not,” the union stated last month. But its support for the Biden plan will hinge on whether it includes “a comprehensive strategy for helping communities whose livelihood still relies on coal,” Grist reports.
“We believe the second coming of the Lord’s going to get here before a just transition makes it our way,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts told media. “It’s time for the people in power to say, ‘This is how we’re going to do this.’”
Grist says mine workers are looking for results in all directions, including retraining support, preference for solar and wind manufacturing and coal mine remediation jobs, and support for existing coal jobs. But even then, “the union’s shift could prove a tough sell,” writes Associate Editor Kate Yoder. “The average coal industry worker puts in 50 hours a week for $75,000 a year—which often comes with a pension and health insurance. Exposure to coal mine dust is a health hazard, but some are skeptical the alternatives will pay as well.”
At the news conference to launch the union report, Yoder adds, Roberts said resistance to renewables was misplaced. “Anybody in Appalachia that would say, ‘Well I don’t want good-paying jobs in Appalachia because they might come from the Biden administration’—I find that to be utterly ridiculous,” he told media. “We’ll take the good-paying jobs any way we can get them.”
But the follow-on coverage in the Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia showed how politically fraught that position might be.
“Predictably, supporters of an energy transition applauded the UMWA for its proposals,” the Gazette-Mail writes.
“We’re thrilled that the United Mine Workers support the necessary transition from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy,” said the Pennsylvania-based Center for Coalfield Justice.
“We can’t move forward with a clean energy economy without coal miners and coal communities,” added Ted Boettner, senior researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute. “The UMWA knows that better than anyone. Their plan to preserve coal country is a huge step forward to ensuring that no worker is left behind and that smart federal investments and policies can provide a solid foundation for working families and coal impacted areas.”
But within days, Roberts was rebalancing his position in a 51-second video posted on YouTube.
“There’s some misinformation floating around, particularly in the southern coalfields of West Virginia and some other places with respect to our position on coal miners’ jobs,” he said. “Rule number one, proposal number one…was that current coal miners would keep their jobs and we would actually create additional jobs by bringing back the steel industry,” which currently relies on metallurgical coal.
With just over 50,000 Americans still working as coal miners, and other jobs facing transition, as well, Zabin and Crooks both agreed the $38 billion will be enough to start the transition but not to finish it. But it’s still a decent downpayment.
“No, $38 billion is not enough, but if it’s focused on those few communities and it’s integrated with other big public investments, then you have a chance,” Zabin told Utility Dive.