Win-Win: Protecting the Environment is Good Economic Policy, Too.

In May of 2016, then-candidate Trump proclaimed: “We're going to get those miners back to work ... the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners."[1] For a variety of reasons, this has proven to be an impossible and irresponsible promise. It’s no secret that the Republicans in Congress and the White House are firmly determined to undo President Obama’s environmental policies. From an environmental perspective, the stakes are immensely high. The undoing of the Clean Power Plan and a withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords would be catastrophic for the environmental health of the Earth. The utter disregard for the scientific consensus on climate change by Congressional Republicans is both infuriating and irresponsible on a moral and environmental level. But on an economic level as well there are significant costs also-- particularly in failing to capitalize the job-creating potential of the renewable energy industry.  

            As the Trump Administration and Congressional Republicans will soon find out: bad environmental policy is also a bad economic policy. There are serious economic costs to undoing the Clean Power Plan. Firstly, the economic benefits of the CPP are tremendous. Including the health costs that would be avoided as well as economic costs due to climate change, the CPP would have brought $50 billion per year in economic benefits beginning in the year 2020.[2] Importantly, the spatial distribution of these benefits are telling: states like Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania stand to gain the highest percentage of these economic benefits compared to other states.[3] These states, which voted for Republicans in 2016, bought the argument that it was burdensome environmental regulations that are responsible for so many of their jobs being offshored. Depending on how they feel the consequences of not being protected by these environmental regulations, these constituents may well reconsider their votes in the face of increased economic costs due to repealing the CPP.

            But what about the coal industry? Throughout the campaign, President Trump and other Republicans framed the coal industry as the helpless victim of cruel environmental regulations under President Obama. Here’s the thing — and there’s really no other way to say this — the coal industry is not coming back. [4] It’s just not.[5] Sorry, coal country — you all got scammed by the Republicans.[6] The decline of the coal industry was not really due to President Obama or the CPP, it’s mostly due to the growth of the natural gas industry and how it has out-competed coal So now we have the worst of both worlds because not only are the coal jobs not coming back but the newfound frenzy to undo environmental regulations is putting communities at risk of serious pollution which carries significant social and economic costs.[7]

            The economic repercussions of an anti-environment agenda from the Republicans have serious implications for jobs as well. Solar and wind jobs are some of the fastest-growing types of manufacturing jobs in the United States.[8] These jobs pay better than some regular manufacturing jobs and have provided soft landings and retraining for oil and gas workers as well for displaced coal miners. Any serious economic analysis of the energy sector in the United States should recognize that renewable energy is one of the fastest growing industries in the American economy. Yet, instead of seeing this as a wonderful economic opportunity, Republicans are collectively scamming these American workers into believing that they can go back to a job that will never come back while simultaneously rewarding oil and gas lobbyists and executives by repealing these regulations.

            To be clear: Democrats have also dropped the ball in terms of articulating a coherent case for stronger environmental regulations. During the campaign, Secretary Clinton’s now famous gaffe about driving the coal industry “out of business” won her few friends in Appalachia. As a general trend, Democrats tend to focus more on the moral and social costs of climate change — which clearly fail to persuade disaffected manufacturing workers in once thriving industrial regions. If Democrats want to get serious about having a stronger environmental message that will win those votes in purple states, then they need to focus on articulating the real economic benefits of a strong environmental agenda.

            The traditional debate between environmental and industrial interests has rested upon the same tired and inaccurate premises for too long. Too often, defenders of stronger environmental regulations are couched in the rhetoric of “Yes, there are economic consequences to environmental regulations but it’s worth it! What about the polar bears?!” To folks in regions of the United States who’ve been experiencing continual economic decline for the past twenty years, these arguments tend to ring hollow and it’s very much an open question why even if there are economic costs that need to be paid that they should be the ones paying them.

            In the short and long run, Democrats need to re-calibrate their political messaging regarding environmental policy and make the case loud and clear that if it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the economy.