Climate Creativity

Carbon Inequality: Why We Need A Green Revolution in the Midwest

In Carbon Geography:  The Political Economy of Congressional Support for Legislation Intended to Mitigate Greenhouse Gas Production, Michael Cragg and Matthew Kahn demonstrate how geographic carbon inequality in the United States has produced political gridlock in Washington. Representatives from areas with higher per-capita carbon emissions are much less likely to vote in favor of emission-reduction acts, because cap and trade laws would stifle the growth of valuable coal factories in their districts. The trend is shown strikingly on a US map (taken from their paper):

Per Capita Emissions

The conservative, rural Midwest, with its high per capita carbon emissions, would face a dramatically higher “carbon bill” than would the more liberal, low-carbon coasts. These stratified carbon costs help explain the recent struggle of the American Clean Energy Act to produce significant steps towards CO2 reductions: in order to appease carbon-intense states, Waxman-Markey had to concede 80% of its cap and trade auctions, channeling funds back to polluting utilities.

Carbon inequality is deeply rooted in our existing social and political system. A strong negative correlation exists between regional per capita carbon emissions and per capita income. Blogger Devilstower articulated the foundations of this phenomenon in a post in the Daily Kos:

Areas that are centered on extraction industries are far more likely to be poor exactly because of the nature of these industries. These are very top heavy businesses that leave behind environmental damage, little to no infrastructure improvements, and a populace whose jobs skills are not easily transported to another industry. Over the last thirty years, voters in these areas often support conservative politicians because they see these politicians as protective of their jobs. To support these industries, conservative politicians remove regulation that would improve environmental remediation, reduce taxes that would benefit communities, and drive out unions that would protect worker’s rights.

Coal workers want to keep their jobs, so they support conservative politicians who will vote against curbing CO2 emissions and who secure massive coal subsidies. But by ensuring the future of these coal plants, these politicians are, in effect, exacerbating damage to the health, infrastructure, environment, and economic well-being of their supporters. The vast, central region of our nation is powerlessly trapped in a vicious “carbon cycle.”

The solution? Invest in sustainable, clean energy jobs, end coal subsidies, and promote environmental resuscitation in Midwestern states. Cut government funding for coal plants, and, at the same time, provide a way out for workers by instead subsidizing wind and solar. End the carbon cycle.

Fortunately, the Midwest holds great potential for renewable energy investment. Wind power remains a largely untapped resource: the states of the Midwest rank among the highest for potential wind power capacity. North Dakota holds more potential than any other state, and could add about 137,000 MW of capacity. Kansas could add another 120,000 MW. Solar, though slightly less promising for the region, is another opportunity for growth.

Until the entire nation is on board a clean energy revolution, we’ll still be locked in political gridlock. We need environmentally-based community development initiatives that expand opportunities for Midwest workers through education, infrastructure, and clean energy jobs. We need to get workers out of coal mines and onto fresh-air windfarms. Only then will we have broad-based support and productive climate laws.


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