In 2005 (how long ago that seems!) ex-Presidential candidate Al Gore premiered “An Inconvenient Truth”, that seminal documentary that introduced the public at large to the concept of anthropogenic climate change, global warming and greenhouse gasses. Almost immediately, his radical proposals to cut back on emissions, of which there were many, sent ructions through the industrial and ecological sectors. In order to save the planet, he argued, there would be jobs on the chopping block.
Pundits and critics were quick to paint human industry and the well-being of our environment at polar opposites. In order to save one, they argue, we must hoist the other onto the sacrificial altar and swing the axe. For more on that, look no further than the Appalachians, where red candidates for years have courted the attention of voters by continually bringing up the bygone era of coal mining: an industry that’s been left behind in the dust through a combination of economic and technological factors.
Now look to the White House, where, in 2017, the current administration decided to pull the country out of the historic Paris Accords after months of banging gongs against current environmental standards and regulations – standards that were, apparently, bad for business. According to their rhetoric, the United States should be experiencing an economic renaissance: a smoky, smoggy, rebirth of the good ol’ days, where miners traipsed into the re-opened tunnels to risk black lung and cave-ins in pursuit of coal. With all that money pouring back into small communities, there’d be an economic spike, allowing for companies to rebuild in the Rust Belt, in turn allowing for financial turnaround in impoverished states, unicorns would come out of the forests…
As it turns out, kicking the Paris Accords to the curb hasn’t done America much in the way of economic prosperity. Well, to be fair, since pulling out of the accords, the coal jobs have come back: all 1000 of them. That’s about a 2 per cent increase in coal mine employment over the course of a year, a far cry from the utopian (albeit stinky) economic boom the Republican plank promised. Mines are largely automated these days, fewer and fewer regions rely on foreign coal imports, and those states and countries that do rely on coal generally produce it locally. To put things in perspective, Wal-Mart employs approximately 2 million people. Coal mines employ about 52,000.
Critics have lambasted the coal “revival” as, essentially, putting one’s head in the sand and hoping for the best. At the same time, however, haven’t we at least helped to revitalize at least some of these ailing communities, even if the climate is going to change? Think again.
Researchers at the University of Illinois have charted the effects of what climate change will do to the US economically, and the results aren’t pretty. Using an experimental program called SEAGLAS, researchers charted the projected economic futures of different regions in the United States, should carbon emissions continue to pile up at their current rate, using factors like crop growths, crime rates and energy expenditures. Bad news, Devo fans: workin’ in a coal mine isn’t going to help much. According to these economic projections, climate change will exacerbate the already yawning wealth chasm, not close it, especially in places like the south. There are a variety of reasons behind this sharp divide. By 2100, expect the GDP of most southern counties to nosedive more than 20 percent, while others – places in the Pacific North and New England seem geared up to receive more than a 10 percent uptick. It’ll be the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the country.
So why the big shuffle? In part, It’s due to hanging demograpchics. As the world gets hotter, already hot places in the US are going to suffer – including crop die offs and creeping desertification. The climate change debate has been muddied many times by a variety of parties hoping to increase short-term gains by sacrificing the future. If the United States doesn’t get its act together, things might only get worse.