Searching for Cecil Roberts II

May 5, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


Yesterday, in Searching for Cecil Roberts I, I tried to describe the political box that United Mine Workers of American President Cecil Roberts is in on issues like global warming and mountaintop removal. And, I encouraged Coal Tattoo readers and commenters to try to put themselves in Cecil’s place, and understand the pressures he deals with both within his union and in Washington.

Well, today the UMWA president was on my buddy Hoppy Kercheval’s Talkline program, and talked about global warming. On this kind of issue, there’s only so much you can do if you’re being interviewed by Hoppy. He has his GOP talking points about the evil cap-and-trade bill being a tax, and he’s not going to let you get much past that story line.

But surely Cecil could have done better than this:

We’ve never questioned the science (of global warming). I think the Earth is heating up … the question really is and the debate is how much has man contributed to that.

That’s denier talk. Come on now.

To give him credit, Cecil did a good job of explaining where the UMWA is coming from on cap-and-trade, by nothing the union’s desire to slow down the emissions reductions and give the industry time to fully develop and deploy carbon capture and storage technology:

Let’s develop this technology, put it on coal-fired utilities … we’ll create millions of jobs and reduce greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere.

But the denier talk bothers me. And that’s what it is. Let’s review:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (The IPCC) concluded in its most recent review, published in 2007, that the increase in global average temperaturs since the mid-20th century “is very likely” — meaning scientists agreed they were more than 90 percent certain of it — to have been caused by increases in human-caused greenhouse emissions. These emission increases, the IPCC said, “are due primarily” to fossil fuels, with land-use change “providing another significant but smaller contribution.”

Cecil went on to make it appear that dealing with global warming is just a political issue — that the Congress and/or EPA are going to do something, that it’s a political fight that’s over, and the proper thing to do now is to just try to influence the policy to help coal miners as much as possible:

That train left a long time ago. What we have to deal with is the reality that something is going to happen.

That all may be (in fact it is) true.  But by venturing into the land of, “Well, we aren’t exactly sure precisely how much of the warming comes from humans”, Cecil gives ammunition to the very folks within his union and its membership — not to mention the coal industry — who oppose any action on climate change at all.

Imagine how the union meeting goes: Well, gosh, Cecil, if they don’t even know how much of this warming is caused by humans, why should we do anything about it? Let’s wait until they do some more studies.

Instead, why not give his members — a lot of whom probably listen to Hoppy’s particular brand of political commentary –  a clear, concise and scientifically accurate statement about how the planet is warming, humans (and in particular the coal industry) are responsible, and if we don’t do something we’re going to face very bad consequences?

Cecil and others within the UMWA know this. I don’t really think the union leadership is a bunch of deniers. At least I don’t want to think that. And Cecil is a pretty good communicator. Given more time, and with more effort, I think he’s communicate the nature of global warming to his members pretty clearly. The coalfields — and the rest of the country — need him to do so.

I’m going to blog more about this later, but I wanted to also give everyone the link to the UMWA’s prepared testimony on the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. It’s posted here, and it’s worth a read.



9 Responses to “Searching for Cecil Roberts II”

  1. Thomas Rodd says:

    The scientists who develop the consensus on climate change in the annual IPCC reports are from many different countries. Their conclusions have nothing to do with their wishes — they follow the data. It’s certain that they wish that the facts about global warming were something different than what they are.

    These IPCC scientists have actually been fairly consistently wrong over the last decade. Nearly every prediction the IPCC has made — about, say, the melting of global ice — has underestimated the changes that have been observed in the following years. That’s the price of consensus, and it doesn’t bode well for our future.

    Humans have been putting enough “extra” CO2 from fossil fuels into the atmosphere every year to increase the percentage to the point that the earth is heating up much, much, much faster than ever before.

    If you want to mislead people, you can say “it’s not clear how much our burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming” — because it could be 90%, or it could be 95%, or it could be 80%.

    A cigarette manufacturer could just as well say “it’s not clear how much tobacco contributes to lung cancer,” because people have different genetic predispositions.

    The warming climate is like a car that has rapidly increased its speed, and is still accelerating. If we continue accelerating, not too far down the road lies certain hell.

    We do know that if we take our foot off the pedal, the car will slow down — a lot. Let’s not take our foot off the pedal too fast — because we can’t tell exactly how much we’ll slow the car down?

    Come on.

    Drastically reducing CO2 emissions has to be done carefully and deliberately, to avoid plunging the world into a depression. But it’s erroneous and wrong for anyone, including the UMWA, to suggest that we don’t know why we need to act as fast as possible.

  2. This reminds me of what an old friend of mine named Larry Harless told me once.

    “In order to solve a problem you have to unflinchingly recognize that it exists.”

    I heard Mr. Roberts on Hoppy’s show.

    I have followed Mr. Roberts’ career, and believe him to be a good and decent man. And highly intelligent.

    Roberts seems to recognize the problem of global warning and, more importantly, its likely cause.

    But I believe he is still flinching.

  3. Gene Trisko says:

    As an advisor to the UMWA on climate issues for many years, West Virginians should know that the union has been at the forefront of seeking reasonable solutions to climate change that will keep coal miners working, develop advanced carbon control technologies, and reduce our contribution to global climate change.

    The UMWA helped to develop and supported the 2007 Bingaman-Specter climate bill in the Senate. This bill pioneered the use of “bonus allowances” to help defray the costs of capturing and storing CO2 in deep underground storage sites.
    A similar bonus allowance proposal is now contained in the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the House, and the UMWA is working with its sponsors to help ensure that enough allowances will be made available to support significant deployment of CCS technologies at new and retrofit coal plants.

    The union also is concerned with the impact of the Waxman bill’s initial reduction target of 20% by 2020. EPA’s analyses show that CCS technologies will not be commercially available before 2025 on a widespread basis. If utilities have to meet a 20% reduction by 2020, EPA projects that substantial amounts of existing coal capacity may be shut down. A target such as the 14% reduction proposed by President Obama may be less harmful to coal miners and less of a burden to the economy. Ultimately, most bills before Congress call for reductions of 80% by 2050.

    The union helped to support a recent study – also supported by the IBEW, the Boilermakers and the Industrial Union Council of the AFL-CIO – that demonstrates the national job benefits of extensive investments in CCS technologies. Some 5 to 7 million job-years of construction employment could be generated by investments in CCS-equipped plants, with nearly a quarter of a million permanent jobs.

    Making sure that coal remains economic in a carbon constrained world involves many variables in the design of climate legislation, from the schedule of emission reduction targets, the manner in which emission allowances are distributed (for free or through auctions), the amount of financial support for new CCS technologies, the availabiliity of low-cost emission offsets from foreign and domestic sources, and on and on.

    A key issue is that allowances should be distributed to utilities as they were in the 1990 acid rain law, and not auctioned for the highest price. Auctions would immediately raise costs for electric ratepayers because the costs of auctioned allowances would be passed through. Distribution of allowances means that utilities will have to pay for the costs of reducing CO2 emissions to meet targets, but not pay twice for the costs of auctions as well.

    The UMWA took leadership in 2008 by working with Congressman Rick Boucher to develop HR 6258, a bill that would raise $10 billion to support the initial demonstration of CCS technologies, starting as soon as possible. Rep. Boucher’s bill is now included in the Waxman-Markey bill.

    Finding the proper balance among the economic and environmental variables in the climate debate will not be easy for Congress, but the momentum for enactment of federal legislation has accelerated dramatically.

    The UMWA was the first U.S. union to engage the United Nations climate change negotiations, starting right after the Rio Treaty in 1992. The U.S. and the European Union are not the only players in this game. India and China have not committed to any meaningful reductions in the UN process, and are not likely to do so when the next major negotiations occur later this year in Copenhagen.

    China is now the world’s largest emitter of CO2, burns three times the amount of coal that we do, and holds much of our national debt in its sovereign wealth fund. The UMWA supports the IBEW-AEP proposal for imposing a border adjustment CO2 emission fee on imports from countries that do not accept CO2 reduction schemes comparable to ours. This would help to level the playing field and improve the chances that our actions to reduce emissions will not simply be offset by growing emissions from developing nations.

    These are just some of the considerations that are weighing on UMWA’s positions on climate change. The one that is not is avoidance of the issue.

  4. Thomas Rodd says:

    shermangeneral, if I could remove a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere for every wise thing the late, great Larry Harless told me, we’d solve global warming!

    I agree with your post 100%.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Thanks, Gene Trisko —

    Very happy to have you join the conversation here.

    Folks — if you want more detail on the UMWA’s position on this, again, Gene’s testimony to Congress is posted here:

  6. Thomas Rodd says:

    Good post from Gene Trisko, in part because it gets into the tricky details of the current Congressional discussions. Henry Waxman wants to produce a bill by the end of May, I read.

    If the bad data keep coming in on climate change the way they have been, it’s likely that emissions reduction scenarios will be revised in a few years, putting further negative pressure on coal. That will test a lot of people and leaders.

    Meanwhile, the certain prospect of severe limitations on the industry in which your members make a living is a daunting thing, and the UMWA deserves a lot of credit for facing it — in very large measure — with “eyes wide open.”

  7. Phil Smith says:

    I have tried to stay out of this, but I can’t let that go…if you knew Cecil Roberts, you’d know he flinches from nothing. I think Gene’s post regarding the UMWA’s past and current activities about climate change says a lot, and it doesn’t include flinching. Under President Roberts’ leadership, we are staring the issue squarely in the face. You may not agree with our approach or our goals, but you cannot say that we’re turning away from it.

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    No need to stay out of it … your views, the UMWA’s views, everyone is welcome.

    I have to agree that “flinches” is not the right word — and that certainly wasn’t what I was trying to get at in my post.

    But, I do think that Cecil could have chosen better words to describe what he believes the science shows – and what his members should understand about global warming.


  9. Well I think folks are reading more into the term flinch than was intended.

    Maybe hesitance or reluctance would be better.

    It is a heavy cross that he bears.

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