Uniting against Executive Order on the Clean Power Plan

The grandson of a Pennsylvania coal miner — now an environmental scientist—says President Trump is wrong on coal

By Nathan Phillips

Last week, standing beside a dozen coal miners, Donald Trump signed an executive order to undo President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The Obama plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from dirty coal-fired power plants and other polluting sources. Trump’s executive order comes just weeks after his rescission of the Stream Protection Rule, allowing coal mining waste to be dumped into streams and rivers. Like many, I reacted with renewed outrage to his nonstop assault on the biosphere. Then I reminded myself that the environment is just collateral damage to Trump in his attempt to divide and conquer America. Recognizing this is key to defeating his attempt to roll back environmental protection.

Despite being a setback for our planet, our economy, and the very people his order purports to benefit, Trump’s order cannot revive the declining coal industry or reverse the momentum of our national and global transition to cleaner energy. Moreover, his easy stroke of the pen belies a complicated and potentially lengthy regulatory process required to rescind the Clean Power Plan. Trump knows all this, as do his coal industry–funded political allies. He fulfilled his empty campaign promise to “bring coal back” for one reason: to strengthen his base. His attempt to divide our nation with a dirty energy wedge will work only if he can alienate his large opposition from his base. Reactions to his order show that some are playing into his strategy.

A widespread media reaction to Trump’s order is exemplified by Christopher Ingraham’s Washington Post blog of March 31, dismissing the entire coal industry as “employing fewer people than Arby’s.” While true, this argument plays into Trump’s hand. That’s because it’s not about the coal jobs themselves, but about what coal jobs stand for: downtrodden working-class white people. There are tens of millions of them who see perceived slights on a coal miner as a slight on themselves. The disregard with which media perceives coal miners is evident in comparing them to low-wage fast food workers rather than to, say, museum workers, who also outnumber coal workers. Trump was speaking to working-class white voters while praising the coal miners on the stage.

Yet his praise for coal miners was just a veneer covering his contempt for them, as revealed by his remarks. Trump spoke for the miners, saying, “… you’ll get another job; you won’t mine anymore. Do you like that idea? They said, no, we don’t like that idea — we love to mine, that’s what we want to do…They love the job. That’s what their job is.”

To me, as the grandson of a western Pennsylvania coal miner, Trump’s remarks ring hollow. Coal miners do not fit Trump’s static worldview of employment. I think that’s why the applause was muted when he dictated that mining is “what you’re going to do.” Given the opportunity to develop skills for better-paying and cleaner jobs, miners will abandon the dirty and dangerous work without a moment’s hesitation. And the opportunity is here: the number of solar energy jobs alone surpasses that of coal, oil, and gas combined, and along with wind energy jobs, continues to grow while coal is increasingly unable to compete. That’s a large part of the reason that 75 percent of Trump supporters approve accelerating thedevelopment and use of clean energy.

Reactions like that exemplified by the Washington Post support Trump’s culture war and help drive a wedge between those who should and can be allies: the coal mine, fence line, and pipeline communities, comprising an intersection of victims of corporate polluters from the African American and Hispanic communities living along the fence lines of polluting fossil fuel power plants to the indigenous and rural communities robbed of their land and right to clean water and air by new fossil fuel pipelines like the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines to the largely white working class communities of coal miners to whom Trump is lying about their economic and environmental security.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander describes the common cause and solidarity poor whites and blacks shared during the earliest days of slavery and indentured servitude in the United States. Their collective power was broken by a pernicious, but successful divide-and-conquer strategy by the ruling class to pit whites against blacks by blaming them for their misfortune instead of the unjust economic system. Likewise, it was by design that every person on stage with Trump during his signing was male; his playbook is to divide society along gender lines. He is using the same tactic today that divided US society from its beginnings. A backlash by dismissing coal miners as a small constituency is a mistake that strengthens Trump’s hand.

Boston University can play a meaningful role in overcoming Trump’s attempt to divide us. BU’s developing Climate Action Plan can prioritize renewable energy sources like wind and solar for our campus electricity, helping stimulate the clean energy economy and removing our economic support for coal. BU can improve on its initial step of committing to divest from coal and tar sands oil and remove our investment in funds that support unjust fossil fuel infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline. At the same time, our research, education, outreach, and engagement should support a “just transition” that helps the victims of job losses and pollution in the fossil fuel economy develop the knowledge and skills to benefit from a growing clean energy economy and a better quality of life.

Most powerfully, BU can look both within and outside itself to unify around intersections of race, gender, class, environment, and social justice in relation to energy. Within our diverse campus community, and in our connections and outreach to coal mine, fence line, and pipeline communities, we represent a latent, but powerful network with the potential to overcome division and unite for clean energy and a livable planet for all.


Nathan Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, can be reached at nathan@bu.edu.

This article on coal vs. clean energy can be found on bu.edu.

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