The recent UN climate change report wake-up call

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued on Sunday October 7 an urgent call to action to governments all around the world: In its report, the IPCC stated that major changes are needed within the next decade to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degree Celsius. One key IPCC recommendation is the enactment of a global carbon tax, set at above $135 per ton of CO2.

Carbon pricing also took top billing when the Nobel Prize in Economic Science was awarded the next day to NYU professor Paul Romer and Yale professor William Nordhaus. Norhaus’s work makes the case that “The most efficient remedy for the problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions would be a global scheme of carbon taxes that are uniformly imposed on all countries.”

The choice for governments around the planet is clear: Business-as-usual policies, favoring fossil fuels, with ever more frequent floods (shortly after hurricane Florence and huge flooding in the Carolinas, we got hurricane Michael and devastation in the Panhandle of Florida) and heatwaves affecting billions; or, embracing the job creating opportunities of renewables and green technology. Unfortunately, today’s policies are lagging both available technologies and what needs to be done. This is why seventy-four countries and over 1,000 companies (including oil & gas giants BP, RD Shell and Statoil), investors and NGOs have signed a pledge calling for governments to “Provide stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon pricing that helps redirect investment commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge.”

What about the US? What does climate change mean in our country, particularly for minorities? Unfortunately, nothing good. We have a climate gap in this country, the main reason being that millions of low-income people, many of them minorities, tend to live in the geographical areas that are most impacted by climate change. Think about the coastal plains prone to flooding in the Gulf of Mexico, in densely populated metropolitan areas such as Houston and New Orleans. Think also of poor urban areas that are “jungles” of asphalt and concrete, literally magnifying heat waves during droughts or times of extremely high temperatures, as in the Los Angeles basin. It is no accident that the two most devastating hurricanes in the U.S. over the last 15 years, Maria and Katrina, took place in areas essentially populated by minorities. 2,975 Puerto Ricans died because of Maria, and over 1,800 because of Katrina.

Incidentally, the vulnerability of low-income populations to climate change is by no means a U.S. specific problem. Some of the world’s poorest populations suffer even more acutely from extreme weather: Bangladesh, one of Asia’s poorest countries, located in flood plains North of the Bay of Bengal, is struck periodically by devastating floods with casualties in the tens of thousands. At the other extreme, hundreds of millions in Africa ate threatened by the increased desertification of large areas of the continent: Droughts lead to famines, and those often lead to wars…such as in South Soudan for example.

Low income and minority populations also suffer from polluted air: Who lives close to chemical plants or refineries? Not the 1%, assuredly. Foul air is often associated as well with coal-fired electricity plants, although those affect such a large swathe of land that they are—ironically—more “democratic” in the damage they create to our lungs. This is why China is making such a gigantic effort in renewables: Otherwise most of their citizens, poor and rich, will choke from the fumes emitted by the enormous quantity of coal-fired electricity plants in the country. The impact has been such in recent years that there are fears that life expectancy in China will regress, despite many advances in health care. In addition to foul air, and housing located in flood or heat wave prone areas, minority populations in the U.S. are also handicapped by a communications deficit: Basic communications issues like poor quality connection to the internet still affect a number of minority neighborhoods in many large towns of our country. When communications become a matter of life and death, such as during the Katrina and Maria hurricanes, sub-standard access can and does cost lives.

Are there solutions to the plight of minorities in face of the dangers of climate change? Can more be done to reduce this climate gap? Yes. In one word, infrastructure.

Basic public infrastructure is by definition democratic, since it helps everyone. Holland has spent billions and treasures of national ingenuity to ensure that the best system of dikes and levees known to mankind protects its whole population from flooding—after all, on average the whole country is below sea level. Unfortunately, the same attention was not afforded to the Louisiana levee system, which was physically overwhelmed by Katrina. In Europe, most countries have invested in putting their electric lines below ground, where they are less vulnerable to flooding (not the case in Puerto Rico) and will not cause uncontrolled fires during droughts—as happened in 2017 in Northern California.

Communications infrastructure is indispensable to mitigate the worst impact of climate driven catastrophes, since it helps all communities—low income, minority as well as more fortunate ones—inform their residents of the best approaches and conduct to stay safe.

Transportation infrastructure: Better roads and public transportation can also help put everyone out of harm’s way much more quickly when emergencies occur.

Housing infrastructure has a longer-term positive impact, but it is also necessary to ensure diversity in our neighborhoods and that low-income populations are not always at the front-end of the impact of devastating storms and other climatic events.

Renewables infrastructure can help create more decentralized electricity power systems, less reliant on large centralized power units and transmission infrastructure that proves over and over again to be very vulnerable to the extreme vagaries of weather.

If we spend the trillion dollars or more we need to rebuild our infrastructure, we will also achieve the additional feat of decreasing inequality in our country, improve living and working conditions for our minority populations, and reduce this climate gap. Let’s do it!

Does this also apply to coal country? Are renewables and green jobs providing opportunities in the top coal producing states?

 At a high level, let’s start by defining “Coal Country.” In terms of coal as a feedstock for electricity production, the top ten states are essentially a combination of Appalachian and Great Plain states: West Virginia; Kentucky; Wyoming; Indiana; Missouri; Utah; North Dakota; Mississippi; Nebraska; and Wisconsin. In terms of job situation, measured by unemployment statistics, West Virginia (5.3%—49th in the U.S.); Mississippi (4,8%—47th); Kentucky (4.4%—41st); and Wyoming (3.9%—27th) are worse off than the national average. North Dakota is third best in the nation at 2.6%, but that is due to the shale oil & gas boom in the state. The other five “coal states” are all close to the national average of 3.7%. Having said that, actual coal jobs are disappearing everywhere. The share of coal in U.S. electricity generation has fallen from half in 2000 to less than one third in 2017. Over a much longer period of time, the impact is much more dramatic: There were a million of coal jobs in America at the beginning of the 20th century, and only about 100,000 today. Even in West Virginia, a state with 1.8 million people, coal jobs only total about 11,000. Beyond the declining share of coal in our energy matrix, the main reason is automation—think mountaintop and strip-mining instead of labor-intensive underground operations. Wyoming, home of the largest and most productive coal mining operation in the U.S., the gigantic Powder River Basin, only has 5,700 coal jobs, for a population of 600,000.

In contrast, renewable “green” jobs are growing fast in the U.S.—as in all our economic competitors, such as China, Germany and Japan. Last year, wind power alone employed more than 100,000 in our country, and solar jobs reached 370,000. These totals dwarf coal jobs, exceed those in the natural gas industry (about 400,000), and will likely overtake the 500,000-strong oil industry employment soon.

Now, what about green jobs in the top coal producing states listed above? They are growing fast there too, in some case despite unfriendly regulations slowing down the progress of renewables. In the Appalachian states of West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as in Utah with its vast desert territory, the focus is on solar; in the wind-swept Great Plains states of Wyoming, North Dakota and Nebraska, the focus is on wind power. The Midwestern states of Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin embrace both solar and wind.

More specifically, what are these green jobs? They start with installing solar panels on roof stops or building large-scale solar farms in open terrain, in both cases a very labor-intensive process. They continue with the development and building of wind turbine projects, large or small depending upon local conditions. At the local level, electricians are always in high demand: for example they need to install the DC to AC invertors that are used in any solar installation; and mechanical engineers and technicians will also find plenty of work in installing wind turbines, with their sophisticated “gear-boxes” and rotary blades. But the new jobs do not stop there. The best way to move towards a carbon-free energy future is to consume less energy: There are lots of new potential jobs in energy efficiency, both at the residential level (e.g. improving home insulation for cold winters, and installing windows that block the sun in summer), and commercial and industrial level, where reducing the energy footprint of large buildings has become a large industry. Most cities are looking at electric and bio-fuel bus fleets, and other forms of energy frugal transportation. Much of the bio-fuel research and development in the U.S. is done in the agricultural and feedstock-rich Great Plains and Midwestern states mentioned above, helping many a rural community. The shifts in power generation created by the growth in solar and wind power—in different locations than the power generation they displace, such as closed coal-fired power plants—lead to shift in electricity transmission lines, with corresponding new local jobs to build new lines and optimize existing ones. There are also many job opportunities in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions, as well as management and accounting positions that grow with the renewable industry. As a result, in fairly large Missouri, employment in renewable energy, conservation and related activities now exceeds 55,000, and is growing steadily. In aggregate, the Great Plains and Midwestern states have a higher than national average employment rate in the deployment of wind energy.

In some of our other coal producing states, there is evidence of local efforts to promote the re-training of people employed in the coal industry towards renewables-related jobs: In Wyoming, local companies are teaming-up with a Chinese wind turbine manufacturer to create the largest wind farm in the state. This is becoming very prevalent from Texas to Nebraska and North Dakota: Texas produces now 18% of its electricity from wind-power, with another large oil & gas producer, Oklahoma, also generating a lot of wind-power—without any local subsidies. In Kentucky, a local coal company, Berkeley Energy Group, announced last year that it would build the largest solar farm in the state, to generate new solar jobs to replace those lost in coal. The largest city in the state, Louisville, is among the coalition of 200 cities that have signed the “We are still in” pledge to uphold the Paris Climate Accord, after the Trump administration took the U.S. out of this global agreement. And research groups in Kentucky have demonstrated that shifting away from coal and investing in renewables and energy efficiency programs would lower electricity bills, increase local employment and improve individual health throughout the state. In West Virginia, the best know bastion of “King Coal,” new outfits like Solar Holler and the interestingly named Coal Field Development are focusing their efforts to train West Virginians who have lost their jobs in the coal industry, for example to prepare them to be solar panel roof installers and electricians in the solar industry. These groups have used innovative funding tools for their efforts, such as crowdfunding, and are making progress in adverse local political conditions. One of the local regulations that affect solar energy negatively is the one prohibiting purchase agreements for solar installation: In many other states, these agreements allow homeowners to install solar panels on their roofs at little or no up-front costs.

This shift from coal to green jobs is a process of local re-invention, best described by Deborah and James Fallows in their best seller “Our Towns: A 100,000-mile journey into the heart of America.” In their book, the Fallows describe how in Rapid City, SD, a young owner leads the drive to transform the family hotel into a “LEED-certified ‘green’ hotel. This can happen anywhere in Coal Country.

We need to answer the UN wake-up call and address climate change with a renewed push towards renewables, everywhere in the U.S., lest ever stronger hurricanes, flooding and droughts devastate much of our country and population. Let’s join this global call to arms and make our planet great again!

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