Environmentalism Is the New War on the Working Class | Opinion

"There should be a real liberal party in this country, and I don't mean a crackpot professional one." – Harry Truman.

John Kerry, President Joe Biden's new climate czar, took a private jet to accept an environmental award in Iceland in 2019. "It's the only choice for somebody like me, who is traveling the world to win this battle," he unironically told a reporter when asked about it.

If this sounds like a clueless joke, it's not. President Biden's chief environmental officer took the least carbon-efficient means of travel known to man because it was "the only choice" he could think of for a member in good standing of the indulged upper classes.

But this is no anomaly when it comes to liberal climate activism; it is a perfect encapsulation of what it has become: a vanity project of the jet set that directly harms working-class interests. And it's this green agenda that directly threatens the working class that Biden has prioritized as he has taken command of the federal government.

The first victims of this agenda include the upwards of 10,000 people, many of them union members, who expected to work on the now cancelled Keystone XL Pipeline. But this draconian climate agenda that cost so many jobs should not have come as a surprise. As a Rasmussen Reports poll found, most Americans—52 percent—predicted that Biden's decision to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement "will cost American jobs and force households and small business to pay higher utility bills."

Regions from the Appalachians to the Rockies could experience massive job losses, particularly if Biden embraces the green demand to ban all fracking, even on private land. In Texas alone, as many as a million good-paying jobs would be lost. Overall, according to a Chamber of Commerce report, a full national fracking ban would cost 14 million jobs, far more than the eight million lost in the Great Recession. That could turn even vital smaller towns into instant slums. And in places like New Mexico, where spending on public programs hinges on the oil industry—now experiencing a 60-day moratorium on new permits, thanks to President Biden—even issues like education will be impacted.

What has happened to the party of the people?

The climate story is just one part of a bigger one, which led Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan to complain that the party of the people increasingly resembles the old Republicans, with lockstep support from Wall Street, the celebrity circuit, Silicon Valley and other elite sectors like professional service and law firms. Put simply, the Democrats have won the battle of the elites, with Democratic campaign spending more than tripling in recent years.

These trends have led some progressives to urge the party to abandon the white working class and rely instead on educated millennials, minorities, professionals and globally-oriented businesses as the cornerstones of their electoral coalition. In this configuration, Democrats won't have to worry about creating good blue-collar jobs.

Compare this with former President Donald Trump, who won three-quarters of the white working-class vote, and even made significant gains with racial minorities. Trump has done best with those who work with their hands—in factories, in the logistics industry and in energy; these working-class voters, as a recent study by CityLab noted, repair and operate machines, drive trucks and operate our power grid.

And it is these people, in rural areas and small manufacturing towns, who will have to pay for the "enlightened" climate policies that have led to higher energy prices virtually everywhere they have been implemented, from Germany to Australia. A recent study in Ecological Economics, for example, concluded that green energy policy hit rural communities in Germany much harder than cities, even though they are "on par" with big cities in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) production.

Fracking Sucks
Demonstrators march for climate change action. David McNew/Getty Images

These policies tend to hit those industries that depend on resource-based product. A canceled petrochemical plant in Ohio will do no harm to Washington regulators or San Francisco trustifarians; it's a blow that will be sustained entirely by blue-collar Midwesterners.

But we don't have to project what these policies will mean to working-class Americans. That reality is amply demonstrated in California, a state whose policies are widely embraced by Biden and his administration ("Make California Great Again? That's Biden's plan," read an ecstatic account in the Los Angeles Times). California's Democratic leaders like to tout the state's social justice capitalism. But its state policies have been disastrous for California's middle and working classes. State energy policies have made California gas and electricity prices among the highest in the nation, increasing electricity prices since 2011 five times as fast as the national average. In 2017 alone, those prices increased at three times the national rate. These prices have been devastating to poorer Californians—particularly in the hot interior, where "energy poverty" has grown rapidly.

Although these policies have offered subsidy catnip to dominant tech oligarchs and the wealthy investors so prominent in the state, California, whose industrial sector employs the state's diverse blue-collar workforce, has fallen into the bottom half of states in manufacturing sector employment growth, ranking 44th last year. Its new industrial job creation has lagged compared to gains from competitors such as Nevada, Kentucky, Michigan and Florida. Even without adjusting for costs, no California metro area ranks in the U.S. top ten in terms of well-paying, blue-collar jobs. Meanwhile, four—Ventura, Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego—sit among the bottom ten.

California regulatory policies, shaped largely by climate concerns, have also pushed housing prices so high that the state is home to six of the nation's worst markets for first-time homebuyers, according to recent AEI survey. California also accounts for four of the six largest metros with the lowest homeownership rate.

Moreover, large parts of the state are increasingly off-limits to the working class; according to a recent study by economist John Husing, not one unionized construction worker can now afford to buy a median-priced home in any coastal California county. Not one. Not only are construction rates lower than in other states, but even if you build it, you can look but not touch.

None of this is to say that we should do nothing about climate change. But there are many opportunities to address climate change without destroying the working class. And the California experience is not one that should inspire true believers in social democracy.

The state suffers the nation's highest poverty rate in the country, and the widest gap between middle- and upper-middle-income earners of any state in the Union. Minorities—notably, African Americans and Latinos—do considerably worse in California's metros than elsewhere in the country, according to a recent study we conducted at the Urban Reform Institute. As major companies have left the state, fields like hospitality, which generally pay low wages, have become some of the few high-growth industries. Over the past decade, 80 percent of the state's jobs have paid under the median wage, notes Chapman Business Professor Marshall Toplansky. Half of these paid less than $40,000.

Even worse, California's economic policies, which have wrought so much havoc on the working class, have not even been particularly effective in reducing GHGs, particularly once we consider the carbon footprint of people and companies moving out of the state.

Rather than follow the flawed California approach, the Biden administration has the opportunity to address climate issues without worsening the condition for working-class Americans. Instead of a precipitous elimination of fossil fuels, a gradual shift toward using natural gas over coal—the source of the biggest reductions in GHG—as well as continuing investment in nuclear power would allow us to reduce emissions without the expense and unreliability stemming from total reliance on renewables.

On an even simpler front, over the last 15 years, environmental groups like Resources for the Future and "progressive" Silicon Valley firms like Sun Microsystems have widely recognized telework's ability to reduce both GHGs and personal vehicle use. What this means is that the pandemic has opened a new path to serious GHG reduction: the dispersion of work, particularly to the home.

If Democrats want to win back working-class voters and keep the loyalty of minorities— who, according to a 2016 Economic Policy Institute study, will constitute a majority of blue-collar voters by 2032—they need to focus on creating well-paying jobs for non-college graduates. Latinos may prove particularly critical, given their heavy representation in blue-collar professions like the service fields, construction, logistics and manufacturing. The surprising tilt toward Trump and the GOP by these voters should be seen as something of a warning shot.

Although Trump left office thoroughly and deservedly discredited, pre-COVID, the wages of the working class were on the rise. We cannot afford a return to Obama-era policy, which favored Wall Street and Silicon Valley and did little for middle- and working-class voters while their incomes stagnated.

Some progressives may seek to "de-program" strongly pro-Trump elements, but the real solution is to improve the daily lives of working people. This means encouraging the reshoring of manufacturing, the building of affordable communities on the periphery and better health care coverage and infrastructure.

It's time to abandon the current tendency to please the progressive gentry first—the brand of liberalism that Harry Truman warned about and, if he were alive, would find truly appalling today.

Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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