Personal identity is underappreciated fuel for climate crisis

Being from “coal country” is about more than jobs

Josh Chetwynd
Nov 5 · 5 min read
The coal-fired power plant Craig Station (above), which is just outside of Craig, Colo., has long been a huge part of the city’s identity (Source: Jimmy Thomas, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In August 2018, Stacy Razzano quit her job at the Bank of the West in Craig, Colo. She didn’t leave her position after 27 years because of a dispute with a colleague or to spend more time with her family. Razzano departed because she opposed the bank’s decision to divest from coal mines and coal power.

For Razzano and the town of Craig, where 8,900 residents have relied on two coal mines and a coal-fired power plant for employment for years, the divestment was an affront to their identities. Even a local liquor store sports a sign that proclaims “support coal.”

“I’m the face of Bank of the West in Craig, Colorado,” Razzano explained to Colorado Public Radio. “So at that point I had to decide, do I want to be the face? Or do I just want to resign and support my community?”

For environmentalists trying to win over both hearts and minds when it comes to the existential threat of climate change, it’s vital to note the story of Razzano and Craig. The transition from fossil fuels is more than a crucial metamorphosis in the way we consume energy. To Americans who have spent their whole lives in towns that revolve around mining or drilling, even the overwhelming evidence of global warming can be hard to assimilate into their worldviews.

Coal or oil have defined so many parts of the United States for generations. Towns such as Minersville, Penn., or Coal City, Ill., wear their connection to fossil fuels on their welcome signs. Even when the mines close or the oil derricks stop running, some towns have a hard time shaking that identity. For instance, the sports nickname for the local high school in Sunburst, Mont., is the Refiners, even though the Kevin-Sunburst oilfield closed back in 1961.

This sense of connection between plants and towns comes from more than just a paycheck. In Arizona, for example, the closing of the Kayenta coal mine and the imminent demise of the Navajo Generating Station not only means the loss of jobs, but also the end of the donations that power plant workers made to community organizations and a deep cut in the tax base that is key to providing services.

Towns,like Coal City, W. Va. (above) wear their connection to the fossil fuel industry in their names and on their signs. (Source: Sirloin OfBeef, CC BY-SA 2.0)

But the transition to cleaner fuels has to happen for our long-term survival. For that reason, those who can separate their emotions from their vision can see that it’s positive news that the coal industry has deeply declined in recent years. Only about 53,000 employees still work in coal mining nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s a smaller total than the number of people who saw another set of miners — the University of Texas-El Paso football team — lose to Texas Tech earlier this season.

However, coal miners are such a part of American history that millions of people barely blink an eye when President Donald Trump pushes plans to save and expand this 19th-century industry at the expense of cleaner, healthier renewable energy. That inherent nostalgia poses a problem for environmentalists seeking to garner public support for the rapid energy transformation we need to avoid the worst possible impacts of climate change.

So what should environmentalists do to ensure that this concern about jobs — which has real human impact for some — doesn’t thwart our efforts to mitigate climate change — which has an impact on all of us?

Addressing coal communities’ identity is a key strategy, according to Suzanne Tegen, the associate director of Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy.

“Coal is the core of some small-town identities,” she said last month at the Society of Environmental Journalists Conference in Ft. Collins, Colo. We must respect that history, she continued, and not make it “us and them.”

The next step from environmentalists must be to encourage coal communities to re-imagine who they are and who they want to be.

“The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first,” New York Times bestselling author James Clear generally explained in his book Atomic Habits. “Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity.”

Thankfully, many old fossil fuel towns are getting this. For instance, some locales are re-purposing coal-power plants with renewable energy facilities. In Brayton Point, Mass., a retired coal-fired station is being redeveloped into a “logistics port, manufacturing hub and support center for the offshore wind energy sector,” according to an announcement in May. Out west, a retiring coal plant in North Valmy, Nev., is being reconfigured to serve as part of a new solar effort across the border in Idaho.

“Redevelopment of abandoned sites can mitigate the harsh impact of plant and mine closures,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis concluded.

For places where this isn’t feasible, there are other options. Take coal country in Appalachia, where the vast majority of mining and processing jobs have been evaporating since the 1990s. Towns including Shawnee, Ohio, Corbin, Ky. and Crooked Road, Va., have all tried shedding their historic identities and reinventing themselves as tourist destinations. While the success has not been across the board, one 2017 study found that between 2000 and 2014, Virginia created more than 5,000 jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation fields.

Ultimately, the hope is that more people who see themselves as part of coal country will be able to embrace a sign that was seen hanging above the auditorium stage in 2014 at Lynch High School in Kentucky’s Harlan County, which has a long and iconic mining history.

Written in 3-foot-high red letters, it said: “HARLAN IS MORE THAN COAL.”

That said, the environmental movement must recognize that it won’t be able to win over every person whose family has made a living mining or drilling — or every resident of a community that has had coal or oil at the center of its culture and economy. What environmentalists can do is strive to empathize with them, and speak to them with respect, not condescension. The transitions they face may be necessary, but that doesn’t make them any easier or more pleasant.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done.

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