WCP: Workers, Climate Change, and Useless Stereotypes

Wind turbines that are partly under water.

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Stories about climate change often depict workers as uniformly resistant to progressive policies. They are more interested, it would seem, in protecting jobs in coal mining than in protecting the planet. That stereotype misses a large part of the story, as James V. Catano explains in Working-Class Perspectives (new window) this week. From coal miners to farmers to the men and women who work on fishing boats, workers have important insights on climate and work, and they want a voice in determining policies that affect both.

As the Biden administration pivots the US from eliminating to increasing social and economic programs, certain priorities are coming forward. The pandemic is at the front of the line, followed closely by Biden’s “other priorities,” among the most notable being, as Maegan Vazquez notes, “health care, immigration and climate change.”

All of these issues could lead to significant changes for workers. Too often, though, all we hear about workers’ responses are generalizations. In reality, their reactions are much more nuanced than stereotypes of the working class suggest. Given the highly politicized, often divisive nature of the rhetoric surrounding climate change, we should listen more closely to what workers are actually saying.

Coal and oil producers, energy workers, and even Democratic politicians have all expressed concern about how climate change policies will affect the economy. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin offers one example of the need to search out nuance, particularly given his opposition to a $15 minimum wage. While he is a strong proponent of fossil fuel use given his state’s economic dependence on coal, Manchin also believes that  clean-energy investments could yield new jobs.

Like Manchin, fossil fuel workers blend climate concerns with livelihood concerns. Witness the recent opinion essay by Michael Patrick F. Smith in the New York Times. Proud of having worked as “a bartender, a stage hand, a guitar player, a junk hauler and a furniture mover” as well as an oil-field worker, Smith does not hesitate to sing the praises of labor and oil. But he is hardly unprogressive in stating what workers in the oil patch need: solutions that unite green approaches and good jobs. Speaking specifically of infrastructure projects to cap old and leaking wells, Smith argues that “Common sense Republicans and Democrats should come together to find . . . win-win solutions to a problem everyone knows we have. This particular plan is as close to a no-brainer as you’ll find in politics: jobs good, leaky oil wells bad.”

While both Manchin and Smith argue for the merits of traditional fossil fuel production, they are also open to popular green approaches, such as solar and wind power generation—a multi-point stance not always visible within today’s polarizing rhetoric. In the New York Times, Dionne Searcey notes the more typical way of framing the discussion: “Wind energy has long been a target of criticism in America, with some opponents blaming turbines for interrupting vistas, taking up land for hunting, or shifting jobs away from the fossil fuel industry. [The storm-caused power] crisis in Texas has provided a new rallying point for some of this political messaging.” The blunt oppositional rhetoric being used during Texas’s grid collapse came from Republican conservatives and their allies, however, not from the likes of worker-focused Manchin and Smith. Contrary to easy stereotypes, they argue not only for more responsible use of fossil fuels but also for green technologies that could create jobs and mitigate climate change.

Workers in other industries also recognize the need to address climate change. Farming and fishing both obviously depend upon the environment. The fishing industry and its workers are already being affected by rising ocean levels, increasingly erratic storm patterns, ocean warming, and salinity shifts – all tied to climate change. Knowing that, when Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse wanted to bring Manchin on board with alternative power sources, he did so literally: he took him onto a fishing trawler. As the trawler captain hosting Whitehouse and Manchin noted, “Senator, this is not my father’s ocean any longer. Things are getting weird out there”

Addressing that weirdness is complex, as are the impacts on workers in the fishing industry. Ostensibly low-impact projects such as off-shore wind power will lower emissions, for example, but they also will create problems for fishers. Some East Coast wind-farms are being planned for highly productive fishing grounds, where maneuvering fishing vessels even in clear and calm weather can prove difficult.

Solutions such as floating platforms anchored far out to sea are not without their own consequences.  The heavy cables needed to anchor them to the bottom, together with the miles of cables required to bring power ashore raise concerns among fin fisherman, crabbers, and lobstermen alike who will have to navigate this web of cabling.

But it is patently unfair and untrue to cast such concerns as unthinking opposition, particularly for people whose livelihood depends upon a healthy environment. In fact, like many workers in affected industries, many men and women in the fishing industry are more informed and sophisticated in their discussions about climate change mitigation than many of those charged with designing policies.

Instead of stereotypical opposition, workers are more likely looking for necessarily complex solutions. National Fishermen magazine, a venue dedicated to addressing the industry from its workers’ viewpoint, recently hosted several webinars on the impact of wind power in particular and climate change policy in general.  Participants represent varied backgrounds and opinions, and their discussions show thorough knowledge of the data and the facts of policy and process.

All of this is not to say that there are no blunt naysayers on either side of the question.  Nor am I arguing for some happy middle ground.  That’s its own over-simplification. No matter the solution, one fact has been established over years of studies and proposals:  workers’ desire to have a voice within climate-change initiatives is legitimate and valuable in creating policy. Generalizations, stereotypes, blunt arguments by or about workers simply aren’t useful or effective in addressing the problems we face.  The best policy solutions will emerge when we engage with and listen to worker concerns instead of buying into simplistic stereotyping.

James V. Catano is producer/director of Enduring Legacy:  Louisiana’s Croatian Americans and author of Ragged Dicks:  Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man. He is Professor Emeritus of English and Screen Arts at Louisiana State University.