Democrats’ challenge: Tackle climate change; don’t antagonize blue-collar workers

Democrats running for president are trying to strike a delicate balance: promising aggressive action on climate change as they work to win back blue-collar voters, some of whom could be hurt by a swift shift away from fossil fuels.

Polls have shown climate change to be among the top issues for Democrats this cycle. But a push to end the use of oil, natural gas and coal might undermine the party’s efforts to rebuild its “blue wall” in the industrial Midwest, political observers said. 

“Democrats have a clear message on economic inequality and a clear message on climate. But I don’t see how they mesh the two together,” said Michael McKenna, a pollster aligned with Republicans. 

Bernie Sanders, a frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, speaks to local leaders in Gary, Indiana. (Photo credit: Northwest Indiana Times.)

At a recent campaign event, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sought to find a middle ground. He called climate change an “existential threat” but acknowledged policies implemented in response would create problems of their own.

“Somebody who is working in the fossil fuel industry today trying to support his or her family is not my enemy,” Sanders said in Gary, Indiana, a city that has lost 25,000 manufacturing jobs over the past 30 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “They need help in that just transition.”

Fossil fuel jobs are largely concentrated in states where Democrats have had little recent success, including West Virginia, Wyoming and Texas. 

But there are roughly 60,000 workers in oil, natural gas or coal production and generation industries who live in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, according to the Energy Futures Initiative, a non-profit group that releases an energy jobs survey each year. 

Former President Barack Obama won each of those states in 2012, part of his blue wall of support. But in 2016, President Donald Trump won all three, receiving just 80,000 more votes than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Trump, who called climate change a “hoax,” made appeals to working-class voters a specific part of his campaign, running against free trade agreements and promising to revive industries like coal mining. Support nationally among white, non-college educated voters for Clinton fell by 5 percentage points compared to Obama’s 2012 total, according to this study by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Jeremy Symons, an environmental lobbyist, said Trump’s embrace of coal miners may have appealed to blue-collar workers more broadly who viewed Democrats as favoring an urban, coastal base. Democrats need to frame their efforts on climate change by “prioritizing policies that invest in solutions with good paying jobs,” Symons said. 

Donald Trump promised to protect the coal industry as president.

There are hundreds of thousands of workers in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries in the U.S., according to the Energy Futures Initiative report.  

But the growth of green jobs hasn’t eliminated concern among workers in more traditional energy fields that they’ll be left behind. In a letter to House Democrats earlier this year, seven unions warned of “adverse job implications” of a carbon tax. The AFL-CIO, meanwhile, has criticized the Green New Deal, an ambitious, if largely undefined, plan to address climate change.

With more than nine months to go before the Iowa caucus, differences are just beginning to emerge among the 20 candidates who are now officially running for the Democratic nomination.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former US Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) have made climate change a central focus of their campaigns. O’Rourke this week pledged a $5 trillion investment to halve greenhouse gases by 2030.

But the presumed frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden, didn’t mention climate in his speech at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, union hall kicking off his campaign, focusing instead on a need to rebuild the middle class.

“Climate change remains a tough political lift under any circumstances,” said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in environmental policy. “There is some evidence that the issue has increased saliency, particularly among Democrats, but there is inevitably a challenge in discussing possible policy remedies.”

Video: Under the Trump administration, carbon dioxide emissions are again on the rise.

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