When Peabody Energy announced it was entering bankruptcy, environmentalists let out a collective cheer, hailing—perhaps prematurely—the death of coal power.
But while greens hailed King Coal’s downfall, the heart of coal’s empire shuddered: From North Yorkshire to Appalachia, where mineworkers fought and died for decent livelihoods in the mines, a way of life that sustained generations is evaporating. Paradoxically, these mining towns are also on the front line of the worst immediate impacts of coal pollution, but that doesn’t make the disruption any less painful.
Yet Appalachia’s funereal air does carry some notes of hope: In response to Peabody’s bankruptcy announcement, Carl Shoupe of Harlan County, former miner turned climate activist with the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), proclaimed that the crisis “proves that the time to build a new economy that is good for all people—not just a wealthy few—is now,” and called for measures to transition the local economy away from coal while at the same time “keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”
Progressive labor advocates actually see Peabody’s turmoil as a potential turning point that could help fuse the seemingly divergent agendas of environmentalism and labor. For years, Labor Network for Sustainability (LN4S) has been pushing for a socially democratic energy system anchored by the principles of “just transition” toward “decent, dignified jobs” that support a healthier planet.
The first step toward post-coal transition, LN4S argues, is to “define a common vision” that puts workers at the center of energy transformation—not unlike the way labor has historically done, via its more radical formations, in the fields of civil rights, healthcare policy, and, lately, unjust international trade agreements.
Earlier this year the group convened a Labor Convergence on Climate Change, a grassroots analog to the Paris summit. The assembly of labor and community activists engaged in the kind of critical dialogue that is sorely missing from the short-term agendas of many unions. They hammered out a five-year plan for a “robust job and transition program” based on renewables and promoting “viable examples of worker ownership models that prioritize sustainability, both environmentally and economically.” Another priority is launching comprehensive reclamation programs and a Superfund-like remediation fund to help heal the damage mining pollution has inflicted on the regional habitat for decades.