So Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will be responsible for putting together the Democratic climate plan. This is both understandable and terrifying. It’s understandable because Democrats need the vote of every one of their senators, which means doing whatever it takes to get skeptics on board. It’s terrifying because Manchin might end up gutting key proposals from President Joe Biden, especially those aimed at drastically reducing the burning of fossil fuels.
The best-case scenario is that Manchin will intervene in ways that help coal miners and highlight his independence without doing too much damage to Biden’s objectives. The worst-case scenario is that he will cripple the climate initiative and effectively doom the planet — because the president’s climate push is almost certainly our last chance to avoid disaster.
I have no idea which way Manchin will go. Nor do I have any good sense of how much he is being influenced by lobbyists and his personal financial interests, as opposed to a desire to do the right thing.
What I do know, and you should, too, is that if Manchin torpedoes Biden — and the planet — on climate policy, it won’t be because he’s serving the interests of his constituents. Coal mining has a proud history in West Virginia. Among other things, the coal miners’ union played a crucial role in the history of labor organizing, which in turn helped create the relatively equal society I grew up in. But coal is West Virginia’s past, not its present, and definitely not its future.
It’s actually startling how small a role coal plays in modern West Virginia’s economy. Before the pandemic, the coal mining industry employed only around 13,000 workers, less than 2% of the state’s workforce. Even attempts to make the number look bigger by counting jobs indirectly supported by coal suggest a state that has overwhelmingly moved on from mining.
So what does the state do for a living? These days West Virginia’s biggest industry is health care, which employs more than 100,000 people (and offers many middle-class jobs). More on that in a minute.
When and why did West Virginia stop being a coal state? Contrary to right-wing legend and fossil-fuel propaganda, coal’s decline isn’t a recent phenomenon driven by burdensome environmental regulations. On the contrary, the collapse of coal mainly happened during the Reagan years: West Virginia coal employment was more than 60,000 jobs in the early 1980s but fell by more than half by 1989. Much of the decline was caused by automation; even more jobs were lost after 1990 as coal companies turned to labor-saving (and environment-destroying) techniques such as mountaintop removal.
As a report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy put it: “If ever there was a war on coal, or more specifically on coal miners, it took place in the 1980s. And the miners lost.”
It’s true that West Virginia, and Appalachia in general, still thinks of itself as coal country. And that’s OK, up to a point. Regions have every right to honor their history. But politicians should serve their constituents’ real interests, not condescend to them by peddling impossible visions of restoring past glories.
So what would politicians who really wanted to help West Virginians support?
First and foremost, they would support a stronger social safety net. Federally subsidized health care is particularly important in West Virginia, where Medicare beneficiaries are a quarter of the population, compared with only 18% of the nation as a whole; the state also experienced a very rapid decline in the number of uninsured after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Federal support for health doesn’t just make it possible for West Virginians to get the care they need; it’s also a major source of jobs. As I mentioned earlier, health care is now the state’s biggest employer, dwarfing what’s left of the coal mining industry. And much of this health care is paid for by federal programs.
Oh, and extending the universal child tax credit — without the work requirement Manchin has been demanding — is especially crucial in a state where jobs are scarce and child poverty is high.
Now, it’s understandable that West Virginians would like to see an economic revival based on more than federal aid. And I’m all in favor of attempting to revive lagging regions through “place-based policies.” But whatever form such policies might take — and experience shows that they’re very hard to implement — one thing is for sure: They won’t involve bringing back coal.
So what will Joe Manchin do? It would be a terrible thing if he were to sabotage Biden’s climate agenda for the sake of narrow regional interests. But while Manchin might do terrible things, it won’t be on his region’s behalf, since at this point anti-environmentalism isn’t even in Appalachia’s interest.
Coal mining is a cultural tradition, and it’s a part of Appalachia’s history. But if Joe Manchin wants to actually serve the people of West Virginia, as opposed to pandering to their nostalgia, he’ll support Biden’s progressive agenda — including his climate agenda.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a columnist for The New York Times.