THE BLOG
09/03/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Transition to Clean Energy Includes Future for Coal Miners of Today

It's hard to take the mile-high view on climate change when you're toiling away underground to put food on the table and a roof over your family's head.

That's certainly the case for coal miners, whose concerns about meeting the needs of their kids here and now trump whatever concerns exist about the world those kids will inherit 30 years later. When you spend your days 600 feet below the surface, where temperatures range between 55 and 60 degrees year-round, you might not notice that the biosphere above you is slowly roasting.

As the director of an organization whose goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I know that our success will cut the demand for coal in our nation and perhaps globally. As demand for coal decreases, so will the number of jobs in coal mines.

This worries me a lot. I have the utmost respect for the men -- and women -- who put their health and lives at risk to keep our houses comfortable in the summer, our lights on at night, and our food from spoiling. In the race to save the planet, we cannot leave these hard-working people behind.

As I look at the numbers, I'm convinced that won't happen: There are currently about 88,000 coal-mining jobs in the U.S. The Department of Energy predicts that by 2030, 20 percent of our electricity will be produced by wind, creating 500,000 jobs.

But these are numbers. How will the transition to clean energy really play out in the lives of today's miners?

It's a question that's weighed on my mind for some time. That's why I was so happy to hear about Matt Reuscher (seen below).

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A little over a year ago, Matt was working at a coal mine in Coulterville, Ill. He'd grown up in nearby Sparta, Ill., where the mines aren't just a source of employment; they're a way of life, but clearly not an easy one. The mine runs around the clock -- with daytime, evening and overnight shifts -- and miners must rotate their shifts every two weeks. The varying hours and exhausting work often leave miners with little time to spend with their families.

Like his grandfather, who spent his entire working life extracting coal, Matt entered the mine, and at the age of 23 found himself in an elevator cage each day with 50 or 60 other men, making the descent into the earth.

A year later, Matt was out of a job, the victim, you might say, of our changing climate. Because of the severe drought in the Midwest, water was in short supply. Coal-mine operations use lots of water to process their product, and restrictions forced the mine to cut back production.

"I was low man on the totem pole, so I was laid off," says Matt.

With job prospects in the area virtually nil, Matt and his girlfriend headed to St. Louis, where he managed to get an interview with StraightUp Solar, a company that installs commercial and residential solar energy systems.

If he hired simply on the basis of experience, Dane Glueck would have passed on Matt Reuscher, who had never worked in the renewables field. But the president of StraightUp Solar liked what he saw in Matt's easygoing nature and strong work ethic -- nobody questions the work ethic of a coal miner -- and so he gave him a chance.

The decision worked out well for both. Dane has a valuable employee -- "We just love Matt" -- who gets the job done, and Matt has a good-paying job with a promising future. He and his girlfriend recently bought their first home.

This is the kind of scenario that should play out more and more as we gradually wean our nation off fossil fuels. We can facilitate an orderly transition to clean energy with a revenue-neutral tax on carbon. And if we give that revenue back to households, consumers will have the extra income needed to pay for any increased costs associated with the carbon tax. A number of conservatives -- George Shultz, Art Laffer and Greg Mankiw -- have expressed support for this market-based solution.

A tax on carbon will not instantly shut down America's coal mines. The decarbonization of America will be decades in the making. In those intervening years, as demand for solar, wind and other clean energy skyrockets, jobs in the mines will be replaced many times over, as companies like StraightUp Solar expand and take on more employees.

Our grandchildren's future will be brighter if we put a price on carbon that hastens a cleaner economy. For Matt Reuscher, the future's looking brighter already.