How we can wrap our heads around Trump’s problematic Paris and coal decisions (Hint: It’s not about Trump)

(Originally published at on July 11, 2017)

So, President Trump has announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. What’s more, he intends to jumpstart coal production — a massive polluter. I’m a part of the 69 percent of Americans who want to restrict carbon dioxide emissions from coal. Trump’s agenda is misguided, rooted in his desire for applause that risks the livelihoods of future generations. It feels like a punch in the gut.

Rather than strike back, I decided to try to understand his stance on climate change policy, to look at the source of applause: Trump voters in coal country. The more I’ve investigated the circumstances of voters in coal counties of West Virginia and Kentucky, the more I approach our differences on climate change with empathy rather than confusion or anger.

Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs plays into a narrative that pits the coal industry’s success against the presence of environmental regulation. Yes, policies regulating dumping of waste and control of toxic pollutants do make operating coal plants more expensive, but putting sole blame on these regulations is misguided. The reduction in coal’s profitability and resulting jobs truly stems from an esteemed Republican economic principle: competition. This competition comes in both competition against coal itself — natural gas — and competition against human labor — automation. Columbia University estimated that 49 percent of the decline in domestic coal consumption came from the increase in natural gas production. This decline in coal consumption compounds with a decrease in needed labor. The Brooking’s Institute explains that most coal mining now takes place in Wyoming instead of Appalachia, and the mining style in Wyoming is more automated and extracts 11 times more coal per employee than mining in Appalachia. The decline of coal isn’t a result of superfluous or flagrant environmental regulation — it’s from competition and innovation from the energy sector.

Trump’s anti-environmental regulation message, while not seeing the full picture, appeases coal country’s fear regarding their socioeconomic future. Coal communities throughout Appalachia are currently ravaged by high unemployment and poor health. In 2014, the New York Times’ Upshot identified the ten hardest counties in live in America, with six of the ten in Eastern Kentucky’s coal country. A snapshot into some of these counties provides more insight to their designation by the New York Times. Kentucky’s Martin and Clay counties’ median household income is half that of the nationwide mean with more than double the national average for percentage below the poverty level.[i] Moreover, obesity rates in Clay County have reached 50 percent compared to 36.5 percent nationwide.[ii] A further investigation into the health detriments of coal mining show that areas of Appalachia in close proximity to coal production as well as the greatest levels of coal mining have higher levels of cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension, lung disease and overall mortality.[iii] [iv] The decrease in employment and high rate of health issues due to coal mining resulted in a disproportionately high amount of opioid prescriptions from the mid-1990s to 2010. As a result, states with historically high amount of coal mining, like Kentucky and West Virginia, rank one and three in the nation for drug overdose deaths in 2015. The combination of all these factors show communities desperately in need of an economic boost, which they believe is only impeded by environmental regulation.

If environmental regulation is not responsible for the decline of the coal industry and the culprit of these communities’ instability, why are these regulations constantly under attack? Of any factor that could impact the livelihoods of coal communities, environmental regulation is the easiest to demonize for two reasons:

  1. Specific policies, like the Clean Power Plan, are easier to pinpoint and attack than general market trends
  2. Solving the problem through repealing regulations is simpler to enact and articulate than fighting shifting markets and technology

These two reasons show coal communities’ appeal and support of Trump’s coal vision because it can improve their quality of life quickly and avoids the work required to shift the economic engine of their communities towards different industries.

So how do we bring these coal communities on board with our vision for America as a clean and green technology innovator? We must help them recognize that making this transition is in their best interest, while also addressing the very real fears when it comes to their livelihood and security. We all can understand fear and anxiety that cripples our ability to plan for the future and focuses all our energy on immediate survival. For these communities, it is challenging and threatening to plan for a future that may never happen if they cannot survive their current reality. Therefore, we need to invest in programs and policies that boost these communities like:

  • Job retraining programs
  • Ensuring health care for millions by protecting the Affordable Care Act
  • Maintaining safety-net programs like Social Security
  • Increased funding for opioid addiction

This is only a sample of policies and programs that could help, but we need to invest in and support a suite of policies to improve these communities’ livelihoods. Until we do so, attempts to pull coal communities into a clean- and green-technology vision will fall on deaf ears.

The disagreement between those of us who want to address climate change and coal communities reminds me of the AJ+ video of CIA agent Amaryllis Fox. In this video, she says “if you hear [your adversary] out, if you are brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that, more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices.” Their opposition to addressing climate change does not stem from pure ignorance or disdain for science, but because their livelihood depends on it. We need to recognize and address these communities’ struggles, and once we do that, we can work together to address climate change and build a stronger America.
[i] U.S. Census Bureau. 2014. “American Community Survery.” American FactFinder: 2014 ACS 1-year estimates. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

[ii] Haygood, W. “Kentucky Town of Manchester Illustrates National Obesity Crisis.” The Washington Post. Web. 12 July 2010.

[iii] Krause, E. 2016. “Addressing the Distributional Impacts of U.S. Climate Policy: Characteristics of Compensation.” University of Washington, Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance.

[iv] Hendryx, M. and M.M. Ahem. 2008. “Relations Between Health Indicators and Residential Proximity to Coal Mining in West Virginia.” American Journal of Public Health 98(4): 669–671.