Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A war on coal?

Today at Georgetown University, President Obama is expected to issue his most sweeping address on climate change to date, calling for America  to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

The New York Times quoted Obama environmental advisor Daniel Schrag, who advocates transitioning off of coal:
The one thing the president really needs to do now is to begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants. Politically, the White House is hesitant to say they’re having a war on coal. On the other hand, a war on coal is exactly what’s needed.
I thought it might be interesting to explore that political hesitancy, so I examined a National Mining Association list of the top coal producing states (my home state of Kentucky is 3rd) and measured political leanings at the federal level.

First, a quick breakdown of this list. The top 5 coal producing states are Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Those 5 states account for 71.8% of coal mined in the United States; Wyoming alone yields 40%.

Up for grabs in those 5 states are 10 Senate seats and 61 congressional seats. Currently, Republicans are the majority representatives in these states, holding 7 Senate seats and and 42 congressional seats, leaving Democrats the remaining 3 Senate spots and 19 spots in the House.

In terms of presidential elections, these states are fairly entrenched with one party or the other. Pennsylvania has historically gone to the Democrats; George Bush was the last Republican to carry the state, doing so in 1988.

The remaining states are Republican territory. Clinton was the last Democrat to claim West Virginia and Kentucky, carrying both states in 1992 and 1996. Jimmy Carter carried Texas in 1976, and going all the way back to 1964, LBJ was the last Democrat to win Wyoming.

In terms of swaying elections, Pennsylvania (21) and Texas (34) are the only states in the top 5 with significant numbers of electoral votes.

At first glance, it seems the Democrats have relatively little to lose politically by pursuing a more aggressive environmental agenda, especially in comparison to the global importance and significance of taking meaningful action on climate change.

However, a "war on coal" won't put Texas in play for Democrats, but it might cause Pennsylvania to lean red.

And then there's Ohio. There's always Ohio, which is the 10th largest coal producer, mining 2.6% of U.S. coal. Ohio and its 20 electoral votes are already fickle, and an aggressive stance against coal may turn yet another blue state red.

But for all the talk of these swing states, putting the 41 electoral votes from Ohio and Pennsylvania in play wouldn't have changed much in the past two elections. Obama would still have won in 2008 and 2012 without carrying either state, though he won both in both elections. However, without Ohio, George W. Bush would have lost in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Would a stance against coal affect presidential outcomes? Maybe. If Florida stays blue, probably not. But if Florida goes red along with either Ohio or Pennsylvania, probably so.

But the better question is: Why do we care so damn much? We put more emphasis on winning the ability to govern than actually governing. What is the point of having power if you can't exercise it to push your agenda? 

As much as I dislike many Republican policies, that party has a better track record when it comes to actually enacting its agenda. The Democrats need to step up and stand for something. The Affordable Care Act was a weak and compromised bill, and Obama dropped the ball on repealing the Bush tax cuts, eventually leading to this sequester mess. 

Climate change is arguably the most important challenge humanity will face in the 21st century, and if the Democrats fold again, we'll have a "do-nothing" party to go along with our "know-nothing" party.

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