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Krugman: In The Real War On Coal, The Mining Industry Won And Workers Lost



Paul Krugman has another column in the New York Times explaining that slashing carbon pollution has a small economic impact while “the consequences will be terrible if we don’t take quick action.”

For those raising concerns about the impact on coal miners, he offered this chart in his blog of total mining jobs from Historical Statistics of the United States (HSUS) and the FRED database:


As he explains, “strip mines and machinery in general have allowed us to produce more coal with very few miners”:

The real war on coal, or at least on coal workers, took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And coal workers lost.

Strangely, we never hear about Reagan’s war on coal (as I’ve said). Or George H. W. Bush’s war on coal.

Of course, if conservatives truly cared about coal miners they wouldn’t work so hard to block coal dust reforms — an action that United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said in 2012 “amounts to nothing more than a potential death sentence for thousands of American miners.”

Pretending to care about workers and jobs while really promoting the agenda of the 1 percent — industry and pollutocrats — is a classic rhetorical strategy conservatives use to maintain support for their job- and climate-destroying agenda from the 99% who are in fact hurt by their policies.

Krugman points out that today, “coal mining accounts for only one-sixteenth of 1 percent of overall U.S. employment; shutting down the whole industry would eliminate fewer jobs than America lost in an average week during the Great Recession of 2007-9.” Again, if conservatives were actually concerned about the jobs of the 99 percent, they wouldn’t put so much effort into blocking all progressive job creation proposals.

Given that every major study makes clear that the cost of action is low, that the new EPA power plant standards could spur investment that would give the “US economy a boost,” as Krugman has argued, why is there such visceral opposition from conservatives? The Nobel Prize winning economist asks you to look at this from the point of view of Ayn Rand devotees, who believe that “the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest is always good and that government is always the problem, never the solution”:

Along come some scientists declaring that unrestricted pursuit of self-interest will destroy the world, and that government intervention is the only answer. It doesn’t matter how market-friendly you make the proposed intervention; this is a direct challenge to the libertarian worldview.

And the natural reaction is denial — angry denial. Read or watch any extended debate over climate policy and you’ll be struck by the venom, the sheer rage, of the denialists.

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes made a similar point on his climate special last August, “That is the logic behind the pervasive view on climate change on the right: We don’t like the solutions to this problem, so we officially declare this not to be a problem.” See also my 2008 post, “Krauthammer: The real reason conservatives don’t believe in climate science.”

Interestingly, for all you pessimists out there who see only a dung heap in GOP delay and denial, Krugman remains optimistic in a “Where’s the pony?” sort of way:

So the real obstacle, as we try to confront global warming, is economic ideology reinforced by hostility to science. In some ways this makes the task easier: we do not, in fact, have to force people to accept large monetary losses. But we do have to overcome pride and willful ignorance, which is hard indeed.

The post Krugman: In The Real War On Coal, The Mining Industry Won And Workers Lost appeared first on ThinkProgress.

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Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Jun 14, 2014

Solar power employs more people now than the coal industry ever did, game over coal you had a good run.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 14, 2014

Josh, solar employed 143,000 Americans at the end of 2012, coal employed 80,000.

Coal generated 1,514 TWh of energy; solar generated .33TWh.

Not only did coal generate 4,588 times as much energy as solar, it took 44% fewer people to do it. That makes solar employees 8,193 times less productive than coal employees.

What an awful waste of money.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 15, 2014


Well, Bob, that is not an apples-to-apples comparison. The solar jobs are mostly installers. To get closer to a fiar comparison, you have to include the people who build, operate, and maintain the coal fired power plants, and who clean up the mess left behind from strip mining or fly ash pond leaks. I would also include the medical establishment that treats extra cases of asthma from the rest of us having to breath the resulting pollution. And of course a considerable fraction of the U.S. rail industry is involved in moving coal.

You would also have to consider the lifetime of the installed solar, not just its production in a year. Once you stop digging coal, the coal fired plants are useless, while the solar keeps on going. 


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 15, 2014

Hops, are we also including the people who manufacture solar panels in China? What about the steelworkers who mine the ore, who fabricate the panel frames, who replace panels after their relatively brief lifetime, who safely dispose of the poisonous cadmium inside?

These rabbit-hole arguments are seldom productive. But the fact is that solar, despite its health benefits, is still an extremely expensive and impractical form of energy. There’s no way to fudge a ratio like 1:8193 – Americans are paying a lot of people to run around acting like they’re doing something important & productive. They’re not.

If you need an analogy, it’s more like painting an apple orange and calling it a pumpkin.


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Jun 15, 2014

Coal use should decline in developed nations. It is our moral imperative. However, it is far from “game over” for coal even in the developed world, especially if solar power is supposed to be the reason…

Take a look at the breakdown of US power consumption here. The great solar PV growth in the US caused an increase of 834 GWh in the first 2 months of 2014 in comparison to the first two months of 2013. Compare this to the increase of 39515 GWh from coal over the same period to see just how far from “game over” we really are. 

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 15, 2014


We will eventually run out of coal anyway. Might as well move on.


Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 16, 2014


We have these coal-fired power plants spewing camium, arsenic, mercury, and lead into the air, and coal ash sitting in ponds that have leaked or will leak, and we’re supposed to worry about cadmium locked up in solar panels?

Anyway, surely we can recycle panels like we do appliances.


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