Thus, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia will be responsible for developing the Democratic climate plan. It is both understandable and terrifying. That’s understandable because Democrats need the votes of every senator, which means doing whatever it takes to rally skeptics. It’s terrifying because Manchin could end up gutting President Biden’s key proposals, especially those aimed at drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels.
At best, Manchin will step in in a way that helps the coal miners and underscores his independence without undermining Biden’s goals too much. The worst-case scenario is that it will cripple the climate initiative and effectively doom the planet – because the president’s climate push is almost certainly our last chance to avert disaster.
I have no idea where Manchin will go. I also don’t know how much he is influenced by lobbyists and his personal financial interests, as opposed to a desire to do the right thing.
What I know, and you should too, is that if Manchin is torpedoing Biden – and the planet – on climate policy, it won’t be because he serves the interests of his constituents. Coal mining has a proud history in West Virginia. Among other things, the Coal Miners Union has played a pivotal role in the history of labor organizing, which in turn helped create the relatively egalitarian society in which I grew up. But coal is West Virginia’s past, not its present, and certainly not its future. .
It is actually surprising how little coal plays a role in the modern economy of West Virginia. Before the pandemic, the coal industry employed only about 13,000 workers, or less than 2% of the state’s workforce. Even attempts to increase the number of jobs by counting jobs indirectly supported by coal suggest a state that has shifted massively from mining.
So what does the state do for a living? West Virginia’s largest industry today is healthcare, which employs over 100,000 people (and offers plenty of middle-class jobs). More on this topic in a minute.
When and why did West Virginia cease to be a coal state? Contrary to right-wing legend and fossil fuel propaganda, the decline of coal is not a recent phenomenon driven by heavy environmental regulations. On the contrary, the coal collapse mainly occurred during the Reagan years: coal employment in West Virginia was over 60,000 jobs in the early 1980s, but fell by more than half in 1989. Much of the decline was caused by automation; even more jobs were lost after 1990 when coal companies turned to labor-saving (and environmentally destructive) techniques such as mountain top removal.
As a report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy puts it, “If there ever was a war on coal, or more specifically against coal miners, it was in the 1980s. And the miners lost. .
It is true that West Virginia, and the Appalachians in general, still see themselves as the land of coal. And that’s OK, up to a point. Regions have the right to honor their history. But politicians should serve the real interests of their constituents, not condescend them by peddling visions impossible to restore to past glories.
So what would politicians support who really wanted to help West Virginia?
First and foremost, they would support a stronger social safety net. Federally subsidized health care is especially important in West Virginia, where Medicare beneficiaries make up a quarter of the population, compared to just 18% of the nation as a whole; the state also saw a very rapid decline in the number of uninsured people following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Federal health support doesn’t just get people in West Virginia the care they need; it is also an important source of jobs. As I mentioned earlier, health care is now the state’s largest employer, eclipsing what remains of the coal mining industry. And much of that health care is funded by federal programs.
Oh, and extending the Universal Child Tax Credit – without the Manchin-demanded work requirement – is especially crucial in a state where jobs are scarce and child poverty high.
Now, it’s understandable that West Virginia wants to see an economic recovery based on more than federal aid. And I am very much in favor of the attempt to revive the lagging regions through “place-based policies”. But whatever form these policies take – and experience shows that they are very difficult to implement – one thing is certain: they will not involve bringing back coal.
So what will Joe Manchin do? It would be a terrible thing if he sabotaged Biden’s climate agenda in the name of narrow regional interests. But while Manchin could do terrible things, it won’t be on behalf of his region, because at this point anti-environmentalism isn’t even in the best interests of the Appalachians.
Coal mining is a cultural tradition and part of Appalachian history. But if Joe Manchin is serious about serving the people of West Virginia, instead of bowing to their nostalgia, he will support Biden’s progressive agenda – including his climate agenda.
The Times commits to publish a variety of letters For the publisher. We would love to hear what you think of this article or any of our articles. Here is some tips. And here is our email: email@example.com.
Follow the Opinion section of the New York Times on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.