Threading the Needle on Climate Policy: Protecting Workers, Communities, and the Environment 

A Piece by Dr. Peter Linquiti

November 10, 2020

President-Elect Biden, as well as advocates for strong climate policy, will have to pull off a delicate political balancing act in the next couple years. 

There's no doubt that climate change poses profound risks to all regions and economic sectors in the U.S. And, unfortunately, the adverse effects of climate change - like those of COVID - will fall unequally across socioeconomic lines. 

The political challenge stems from the fact that the fossil fuel industry is a foundational part of the U.S. economy. Many climate activists don't worry a whole lot about the fate of big oil, gas, and coal companies, or their executives and shareholders. But the fate of workers in these industries is an extraordinarily salient political issue for a great many voters. (If you're skeptical, just ask an Appalachian coal miner about Hillary Clinton.) 

My research suggests that prior to COVID there were at least 1.2 million U.S. workers in industries directly linked to oil, gas, and coal production. In a decarbonized America, their jobs will no longer exist. They’re on the receiving end of what my colleague, Nathan Cogswell, and I have dubbed the Carbon Ask. 

Yes, there will be lots of new jobs in clean tech, but we shouldn't be naive about the political impact of proposing to shut down – by policy fiat – entire industries within the economy. Think about it: Some folks argue that climate change poses an existential threat to the planet. I don’t necessarily disagree, but it's important to recognize that strong climate policy aimed at decarbonizing the U.S. economy also poses an existential threat to the livelihoods of these 1.2 million workers. 

In the absence of strong, effective, and well-funded policies to ensure a fair and just transition to a decarbonized economy, we shouldn't be surprised by strong political resistance to aggressive climate policy by these workers, their communities, and their elected representatives. 

Accordingly, the challenge for President-Elect Biden is to thread the needle, simultaneously enacting meaningful climate policy while also channeling significant resources to workers and communities to ease the transition away from fossil fuels. 

Trust matters immensely on this issue. Both sides – climate activists and fossil fuel workers – will have to genuinely believe we're on a path that includes not just shared sacrifice, but shared prosperity as well. 

Peter Linquiti, PhD 

Associate Professor, Environmental Resource Policy Program Trachtenberg School of Public Policy & Public Administration George Washington University 

Twitter: @PeterLinquiti