Fill in the blank: Coal/oil/natural gas is king.
The saying reflects the economic and employment reality in the oil-rich U.S. Gulf Coast, the coal towns of Appalachia (whose latest hopes are pinned to less-polluting but still problematic natural gas), and the automotive industrial complex of car makers and parts suppliers across the Midwest. It also represents the biggest hurdle to a national consensus on a needed shift in climate change policy.
“If you’re living today where automobiles or energy and steel were — or are — king, you’re probably and rightfully anxious,” said Harvard President Larry Bacow, who grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, and has family members who eye the coming energy transition with anxiety and skepticism. “They fear what it will mean for their town, their region, and their livelihoods. These people are not, in fact, being irrational. They are looking out for their own self-interest — clearly in the short term. They believe, and in many cases have good reason to believe, that they could emerge as net losers.”
Bacow was an introductory speaker at a webinar this week by The Roosevelt Project, a Harvard and MIT collaboration started by MIT professor and former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. The initiative seeks ways to ease the coming transition to clean energy by focusing on places that will feel it most sharply. Moniz said at the Tuesday event that there are significant political repercussions to the economic concerns of the millions whose lives will undeniably be disrupted.
“If we do leave workers and communities behind, as we are seeing today in Washington, D.C., we will just continue with political headwinds,” Moniz said.
The project has sponsored white papers on the problem and produced four in-depth case studies of regions where the dislocation may be felt most: the industrial Midwest; New Mexico, which has a significant fossil fuel industry; the oil-rich Gulf Coast; and Appalachia, already hit hard by the decline in coal even as jobs in natural gas extraction increase.