US Must Reform Energy Grid to Combat Climate Change

Rachel Alexander

Like many Whitman students, I sometimes find climate change to be a very abstract problem. We discuss it in class and plan programs to reduce our carbon footprint on campus, but it’s hard to visualize carbon emissions or see tangible results of ocean acidification in our day-to-day lives. However, after looking at the smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), climate change seems frighteningly real and imminent. NGS is one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country, and is single-handedly responsible for a quarter of Arizona’s carbon emissions. The clouds of smoke overshadowing the desert surrounding it and the train-fulls of coal waiting to be burned make NGS a seemingly perfect candidate for closure as America slowly moves towards a clean energy future.

Unfortunately, the NGS is also located on the Navajo Nation, where it provides over 600 jobs to a community with a 55% unemployment rate. It illustrates perfectly the economy vs. environment trade-off that many opponents of action on climate change use to oppose a transition to clean energy. The jobs argument is an important one because even with imminent global catastrophe, Congress will never pass a climate bill which might cause thousands of constituents to lose jobs.

Fortunately, clean energy has great potential to create jobs. The wind farms surrounding Walla Walla might make passing drivers think of electricity, but they also signify good jobs. Walla Walla Community College is developing a program devoted to wind energy technology because people with the skills to build and maintain wind farms are in such high demand. These jobs are great for Walla Walla and the surrounding area, and could be used to sell legislation mandating a renewable energy portfolio or the phase-out of coals plants.

However, wind jobs in Walla Walla mean nothing to the workers who will lose their jobs if NGS closes its doors. Simply creating new jobs with renewable energy is not enough; jobs must be created in the communities which will be most directly affected by a shift away from fossil fuels as a source of energy.

By creating new jobs for workers who mine coal, drill for gas or run dirty power plants, environmentalists will gain new allies in the fight against climate change. Most people recognize that coal and oil aren’t perfect, even if they don’t believe that climate change is happening. In Vernal, Utah, I spoke with George Burnett, the founder of George sells a variety of merchandise embossed with his slogan and spends a large amount of time standing on the side of the road with a Honk If You Love Drilling sign waving at passing cars (at least three-quarters of them honk). He spoke about a recent decision by the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to close some drilling operations in the area. In spite of the fact that he doesn’t accept climate change, George said he is not opposed to developing wind and solar power, but he doesn’t want to see jobs lost because of the harm it causes communities like his. Find a way to provide those displaced workers jobs making homes more energy-efficient or installing solar panels, and even George might support your environmental project.

The bottom line is that combating climate change requires nothing less than redesigning our entire energy grid. A lot of people stand to lose jobs if we transition away from fossil fuels, and ignoring this reality when making energy policy will isolate those workers from the larger goal. Many Navajos understand that the United States is moving away from coal power, and efforts are underway in some chapters of the nation to develop solar projects which train Navajos to install, maintain and repair panels. Efforts like this which help people stay employed will make renewable both ecologically and economically sustainable.