08/09/2010 02:23 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Clean Energy Legislation Proponents Repeat Mistakes of Anti-Tobacco Movement

"Everyone wants progress. No one likes change."--(the late) Congressman Joel Pritchard, (R-WA)

The effects of cigarette smoking on health were known for decades before anything substantive was done about it. In an underpublicized achievement, President Obama was able to bring tobacco under FDA regulation, nearly a half century following the Surgeon General's Report on smoking.

Although the tobacco companies--aided by some who would become Republican hit men, such as Karl Rove--had much to do with obfuscating the truth (their best, most effective and most disingenuous claim that the relationship between smoking and lung cancer was "merely" statistical), the larger political problem was (and is) the regular farmers and other workers that a reduced cigarette market would injure and displace. Anti-tobacco crusaders did not address those matters concretely upfront, and thereby created an intractable opposition.

Big corporations will always oppose, and will always lie to oppose, anything that might impact their bottom line. Moreover, change is hard, it asks people to relinquish a present that they know, for a future they do not know.

For the US to create a clean energy future that we all realize is essential, we need to address first the economic needs and concerns of oil-workers and coal-miners and others who would be displaced and injured by a move to clean energy. When those groups see a good future for themselves and their families in the change, then major opposition can be converted to strong supporters.

A gratuitous, "there will be plenty of jobs", or "don't worry we will take care of you", won't do. The programs and policies need to be concrete, implementation must begin in advance of a comprehensive clean energy program, and money must be allocated over multiple years to have credibility.

What are those programs and where would the money come from? A few preliminary, obvious, thoughts would be to eliminate oil company subsidies as a source of some money and to use that money in states such as West Virginia and Kentucky that would be most severely impacted by a carbonless future to establish pilot clean facilities, to train workers, and to pay them commensurately with salaries they currently earn.

But, the detailed, long-term answers to those questions would be best developed from a close consultation between policymakers and industry workers who would be displaced. This issue should be subject #1 at the environmental organizations that are serious about moving the country, rapidly, along a path to renewable clean energy and energy independence.

We can have a clean energy future. To get there, we need first to address the needs of those whose livelihoods would be most negatively impacted by that change. Otherwise, opposition will be intense, and action delayed and watered-down.

It is, moreover, the right thing to do. Why should mineworkers and oilworkers sacrifice themselves and their families for the rest of us, if we are not ready to sacrifice for them?

Cigarette smoking continues to wreak havoc on our national health, and ensnare our children. More immediate action, several decades ago, might have stopped this scourge by now. Those engaged in fighting the tobacco lobby--by the way, John Boehner, who thinks he should be the next House Speaker, handed out tobacco lobby checks to his colleagues on the floor of the House--lost precious decades and needless deaths, disabilities, and costs by not addressing, first and foremost, the dislocations for those whose livelihoods would be most negatively impacted. But, with that problem, it was never too late to start.

Climate change affords us no such luxury of time. We do not learn from past strategic mistakes not only at our own peril, but to the entire planet's.