If you’ve ever been to an event where Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, is on the bill, then you probably know that whether a protest or speech, a miners’ rally or press conference, it doesn’t take long for his preacher-like fervor to take over the remarks.
That was the case with Roberts’s latest visit to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., last week, where he addressed some of the biggest issues facing his industry: climate change, unstable miners’ pensions, a just transition away from coal and more than a few Democratic presidential candidates who are vying for the chance to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.
But, in some cases, Roberts’ stance on a number of these issues were surprising and seemed to be at odds with stereotypes about the miners and their views, but, in many ways, the positions of the UMWA, especially on climate change and a just transition, are clearer than that of the current administration, or even the broad Democratic field of candidates.
Roberts unequivocally agrees that man-made climate change is an issue that can’t be ignored. He told the gathering of about two dozen reporters he’s for a scientific solution to the problem, but simply not one that the loudest Green New Deal proponents are fighting for.
“The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has determined that extensive global deployment of [Carbon Capture and Storage] across utility and industrial sources is essential to meeting global climate change,” Roberts said in his remarks, and he’d like to see not just the U.S. but nations around the world increase their investments in carbon capture technology.
Roberts is convinced that any other radical solution would leave coal miners jobless and hopeless, not unlike policy changes around coal in the past. The United States has never before seen a just transition, Roberts argued, and he doesn’t believe anything would be different this time around.
Roberts was also adamant that the “global” part of global warming is missing from many of the most recognizable arguments and policies being presented by Democratic presidential candidates and other liberal political leaders to combat the changing climate. He argued that in candidates’ passionate and visionary plans to curb climate change, they tend to focus on domestic extractive industries, while gliding over the fact that America contributes only a fraction of global carbon emissions.
“It’s time we talk [about] how to address climate change in a way that will actually have a global effect,” Roberts said.
While coal consumption in the U.S. may be dropping, Roberts claimed that around 1,600 new coal fired power stations are currently being built around the world. These power stations, Roberts said, won’t have carbon capture technology, contributing to a global rise in carbon emissions.
Whether it’s technology or policy regarding climate change and a just transition for people working in the coal industry, Roberts wants one thing above all else: for coal miners to be at the table and involved in the discussion. Historically, Roberts repeated, that hasn’t been the case.
It’s no coincidence that the UMWA’s president spoke in Washington right after a seven hour long CNN town hall where 10 Democratic candidates for president presented their climate change policies. Roberts and the UMWA say they are open to a dialogue and invited all of the remaining Democratic candidates to come and talk with miners.
When asked by 100 Days about the response, Roberts said the reactions were positive and rather enthusiastic; however, it is yet to be seen if some of the mining companies will agree to host candidates whose views often don’t align with the industry, he remarked.
Regardless, Roberts confirmed that there will be a venue, whether at an actual coal mine or elsewhere, for any candidate willing to come out and talk with the miners.
Although Roberts did not openly criticize the current administration, between jokes about “happy talk” from politicians about the return of coal and more serious remarks that “it is short-sighted for the United States to isolate itself from international climate negotiations,” it was obvious the Trump administration’s current course is not aligned with the wishes of the UMWA.
But perhaps the most surprising was Roberts’s positive attitude towards Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic U.S. House member from New York who has become the face of many progressive policy initiatives including the Green New Deal. He praised her for talking to the UMWA and recognizing that the first step in a conversation about the future of coal should be securing miner’s pensions, something that UMWA and Roberts have been very vocal about.
Those pensions, supported by a tax on coal, are near insolvency after declines in the industry and a number of coal company bankruptcies. Congress has spent several years debating how to fund the retirement system promised to union miners, who also spent decades contributing to it, but has yet to come to an agreement on a solution.
You can read 100 Days in Appalachia coverage of the most recent Capitol Hill hearing on the issue of miner’s pensions here.