If You Want Climate Change Buy-in in the Heartland, Start by Giving Them What Carbon-Dependent Companies Do: A Living
There is a major piece of the puzzle that anyone who was not raised in a region that was supported by one industry misses about the climate change discussion. Most of the regions outside of cities are dependent on one or two businesses for their region’s entire economy. And most of those are carbon-based. In asking them to save the world, you are asking them to give up their livelihoods without offering an alternative. But if you bring them the ability to make a better life for themselves, they will be loyal to you and bring their friends and family with them.
1980s Flint, Michigan
This is not speculation. I was raised in the outskirts of the now-notorious Flint, Michigan, during its fall from being “Car City USA” to a poor, violent shell of itself as the jobs slipped away in the 1980s. Even as jobs declined, they were still the main source of income in town. This meant that even if you weren’t on the factory line, the success of your business depended on the good money of the workers on the assembly line. Restaurants, doctors’ offices and drugstores needed the car industry, as did the schools and the libraries.
Even with declining profits, we were loyal. Every car on the street had an American decal of some form; the big three were everywhere, and people would comment on the presence of a Japanese car in the area. This was true for two main reasons: First, if you knew someone who worked for the company, you could get discounts. Employees had the ability to be generous with friends and family, and we took advantage of it.
Second, we knew the consequences if there weren’t enough cars being purchased. At the school lunch line, the cashier kept the clipboard of names of kids on the free-lunch list sitting next to her on bright neon paper. While it was never spoken aloud, we could see whose parents were laid off that week by the presence of their name on that list and the lack of the $1.10 in their pocket. Decades later, each time I search for a different car, I cannot look at Toyotas and Hondas without imagining that I would be adding to the lunch list. Though I have moved thousands of miles away, this is something I will probably never be able to overcome.
Applying the Lesson to Climate Change Planning
Which brings us to climate change. Politicians and clean energy companies don’t need to win the science argument at all if they win the economic argument. Do what the carbon-dependent companies did in the 1950s. Go to the areas that are full of skilled laborers. Ask them to build windmills and batteries, electric charging stations and solar panels. Treat them well for doing it. Offer incentives for keeping in-country manufacturing jobs in the sector.
Give the employees building your clean energy items good jobs and benefits — good enough to buy a house and work extra shifts to make their kids into first-generation college graduates. Give them the health benefits they need to keep them well and the time off they need to return happy and rested. Let them have some say in what they deserve, and offer longevity with a promise you won’t be leaving for China. Ever.
Make them love your product; offer them discounts for themselves and for others. Create employee contests to see who can use their products to drop their household bills the most on social media pages. Let them give discounts to their friends. Create a low-income solar initiative to help those struggling with power bills to get by. Make this a smart move for those who are struggling economically. Do this and they will love you. They will support the climate change ideals that you do, maybe not because they believe or don’t believe in the upcoming end of the world, but because you represent food on the table and a highly reduced power bill. They won’t see their own version of the lunch line each time they eye an electric car, but the home-packed lunch and the parents with time to volunteer on the school field trip.
I am a scientist who believes wholeheartedly in climate science. But I also know that this is not the conversation that will help those who can’t keep their house when carbon companies are the only way to make a living in town. For much of the country, we are simply having the wrong conversation.
Buy-in is possible in coal country, oil country and the regions who need the profit margins on SUVs to keep economically afloat. But it means that anyone pushing clean-energy climate initiatives will need to buy into these regions with support in the form of making them the center of the new green economy using the workforce that already exists. Green jobs need to meet or exceed the living, benefits, and number of opportunities that carbon does. If someone can offer this, they will also earn the fierce loyalty of the hardest-working region I have ever lived in.