By Deirdre Griswold
This year, possibly for the first time ever, the United Mine Workers
did not endorse a presidential candidate. In 2008, the union was an
early endorser of Obama, and has usually supported Democratic
candidates. The union’s decision to sit it out this year was an
indication of the crisis that has befallen coal miners, who don’t know
where to turn for help.
In 1923, there were 700,000 coal miners in the United States. Today,
there are fewer than 88,000. In this same period, the total amount of
coal produced here annually has doubled, while productivity per worker
has increased about 14 times.
Mining coal is a hard, dirty and dangerous job. Most of the mines are
in areas, like Appalachia, where poverty is high and other types of
work are hard to get. Historically, coal miners have been among the most
class-conscious and militant workers. Their harsh conditions and the
high-handed, brutal tactics of the mine owners resulted in class
struggles that have at times amounted to open warfare.
Both capitalist parties want the votes of miners and their
communities but have no answers to their rising problems. The
Republicans tried to make hay this year by blaming growing unemployment
in mining areas on government regulation of coal mining and coal-fired
power plants, which are major producers of greenhouse gas (GG)
pollution. Romney even found some coal miners willing to stand on the
platform at one of his campaign rallies. The Republicans failed to
capture the union’s endorsement, but the workers were disappointed
enough with the Obama administration to withhold their support.
No mention of climate change in debates
Capitalist politics is based upon deception of the masses of people.
This election was no exception. While the presidential debates were
about the budget deficit and taxes, the all-important issues of jobs,
poverty and climate change got little attention from the candidates.
Climate change in particular was never even mentioned.
It should have been a perfect opportunity to bring to hundreds of
millions of viewers a clear, scientific explanation of what is happening
to the world’s environment because of rampant, profit-driven industrial
expansion, and then present a program of what to do about it.
Here, in the richest of all capitalist countries, the technology and
the human power exist to remake the entire infrastructure and begin to
turn around the intensifying cycle of unnatural disasters now unfolding.
The energy of every person who needs and wants a job and training could be employed in such an endeavor.
Of course, nothing of the kind happened. The absolute lack of any
plan, even to deal with the after-effects of hurricanes, tornadoes,
droughts and floods, let alone with their causes, was made painfully
clear during and immediately after the election. Millions had their
lives turned upside down by climate-change-induced catastrophes all over
the country, from wildfires in the West and drought in the Midwest
grain belt to the swath of submerged and hammered communities hit by
Hurricane Sandy, which rampaged from the New York-New Jersey coast all
the way to the Great Lakes and into Canada.
Yet the recent annual U.N. talks on climate change, which took place
this year in Doha, the capital of oil-rich Qatar, got nowhere as usual.
The governments of the rich and powerful capitalist countries that
have produced the vast majority of carbon dioxide gas that today
blankets the earth, trapping its heat, have blocked any efforts to set
quotas for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. Nor could the
small island countries that face extinction as sea levels rise get any
meaningful help for their people.
However, the lack of an international agreement hasn’t stopped every
country from moving ahead with tackling this urgent problem. Most
notable is the People’s Republic of China. It is worth citing a few
facts about what China is doing, especially since most of the U.S. media
present China as a major problem in climate change.
China pioneers ‘clean’ coal
China relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy. It has the largest
coal deposits in the world, and is presently the largest consumer of
coal. This is a huge problem for China, and has contributed to serious
air pollution in most of its cities.
But in 2010 China became the world’s largest investor in clean
energy. When the 2008 financial crisis hit, the U.S. spent trillions on
bailing out the banks and other financial institutions. China, seeing
its export market drying up as the Western capitalist economies plunged,
did something different. It invested nearly a trillion dollars in its
infrastructure, much of it dealing with the problem of energy
conservation as well as clean energy generation.
It established the Thermal Power Research Institute, the Clean Energy
Research Institute and many other government bodies to integrate
scientific breakthroughs with industrial development. This led to vastly
expanding its investment in renewables like solar panels and wind
In October the China Institute of Atomic Energy announced it had
completed the construction of an experimental fourth-generation fast
neutron reactor that is now contributing 20 megawatts to the power grid.
The plant utilizes 60 percent of the energy in its uranium fuel,
compared to just 1 percent for older pressurized water reactors. The
next step in China’s nuclear program is a fast reactor that uses
recycled fuel — thus beginning to draw down the huge piles of
radioactive waste accumulating around the world.
China’s investment in cleaner energy has also led to the development
of new ways to use coal without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
This year, a coal-fired plant called GreenGen went online in Tianjin
that is generating 400 megawatts of electricity with near-zero emissions
of carbon and sulfur. The carbon is sequestered and pumped back deep
underground. GreenGen is a pilot plant; if it performs as expected,
China will build more and phase out the older polluting plants.
Coal is not the answer for all time, obviously. Coal, like oil and
gas, is a fossil fuel. It was created by geological processes over
millions of years, and it is being depleted at an alarming rate by human
extraction. It is not renewable.
Over the short term, however, the new coal-fired energy technology
can help China reduce its GG emissions — which it committed itself to do
at the U.N. conference in Copenhagen three years ago. It voluntarily
set itself a target of a 45 percent reduction in GG emissions per unit
of economic development by 2020. (Bloomberg News, April 3)
China is still a developing country, one that has to feed and house
1.3 billion people — four times the population of the U.S. How can it
afford to be on the cutting edge of dealing with global warming, when
only two generations ago most of its people lived in dire poverty?
The answer is that, despite the growth of the capitalist market in
China, its central financial and industrial institutions are still
publicly owned and operated according to a planned economy made possible
by its socialist revolution of 1949. Even Western capitalists, who
would love to break up state control over the Chinese economy as they
did in the former USSR, recognize this.
‘Earth, the Operator’s Manual’
The U.S. Public Broadcasting System aired a documentary last April
entitled “Earth, the Operator’s Manual.” It can be viewed online. Among
the people interviewed on this program, which deals with the question of
climate change, is Jon Hofmeister, the head of Shell USA.
Hofmeister says about China: “There is literally a plan in their
energy policies. It’s good to have a plan — having that long arc of
commitment. … We’re not making the decisions at the national level that
need to be made in terms of the next decade and the next several decades
after that. … Places like China have a clear plan, and they are driving
forward and they are building an energy infrastructure for the 21st
century which will perhaps supply energy to the world’s largest economy —
China, not the U.S.”
How ironic that a major capitalist — from the oil industry, no less —
should speak admiringly of China’s economic plan. Of course, Hofmeister
would be horrified if we were to suggest that Shell, Mobil, General
Electric, Ford, Citibank and all the huge corporations and banks that
have a lock on the U.S. economy should be taken over through a workers’
revolution so that the riches of this society, built by the workers,
could be organized in a rational plan and used to meet people’s needs,
not the profit greed of a small class of parasitic owners.
No, Hofmeister wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants the
capitalist government to invest the workers’ money into just enough
planning of infrastructure so that his company won’t fall behind China
and can still produce enormous profits for his class.
One of the U.S. companies that has started doing business in China is
Peabody Coal. It actually divested its mines in Appalachia by selling
them to a company created for this purpose, which then conveniently went
bankrupt. This pushed the responsibility for the miners’ pensions and
health coverage onto the government — a common trick nowadays.
Peabody is involved in the GreenGem plant, and would probably like to
take the technological knowhow that China has developed in the field of
near-zero-emission, coal-fired energy generation and make profits from
it here in the U.S. But Peabody wouldn’t sink much of its own money into
such a plan. It would agree with Hofmeister that the government should
pay the lion’s share. The primary concern of Peabody, as a capitalist
corporation, is not clean energy. It is profit.
The U.S. capitalist government, however, is already so overburdened
with paying the banks their interest on the national “debt,” spending
trillions on protecting the worldwide imperialist interests of big
capital, and also repressing the working class at home — where we have
the largest prison population in the world — that it is trying to figure
out what to cut, not what to add.
Mattoon power plant, dead before it was born
Actually, there was a plan to build such a low-emissions coal-fired
power plant in the U.S., beginning back in 2004 with the founding of the
FutureGen Alliance. Millions of dollars were sunk into it before the
Bush administration withdrew funding. After the bubble burst, the new
Obama administration said in 2009 that some of the stimulus money should
go into building the FutureGen plant in Mattoon, Ill. But it seems that
the plug has been pulled on that plant, and it is now going nowhere.
The capitalist system has no answers to the problem of global warming
or to the despair of the coal miners, who are being replaced not by
environmental regulations but by new technology like mountaintop
Meanwhile, many communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy are still
suffering. And the Midwest drought has lowered the Missouri and
Mississippi rivers by as much as 20 feet, threatening to halt shipping
there. (Thanks to WW subscriber Joe Johnson of Wisconsin for this
The profit motive, which is so totally entrenched in this capitalist
society, stands in the way of a rational reorganization of the economy
that would provide jobs for all while re-greening the planet. Only the
working class and the oppressed, fighting in their own interests, have
the power to bring this ruling class down and put production on a
sustainable basis. Environmentalists have a duty to do all they can to
help make this happen.