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Cleaner energy can mean climate justice for fossil-fuel workers, too

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Whether first or sixth generation, Montanans care for each other. We treat our state as a common family home, and transcend our differences to help each other adapt to new challenges.

Montana Cares, at , is promoting Ballot Initiative I-11. It embodies our highest values while confronting new challenges presented by climate change. I-11 would commit Montana to reliance on renewable energy sources such as hydropower, solar, and wind for 20 percent of our electricity by 2020, 48 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050. That would help accomplish what climate scientists say we must do to mitigate the effects of rapid changes in air and stream temperatures, torrential rainfall, erratic crop growing seasons, and accelerating plant and animal extinction. Montana already is feeling the effects of climate change. From August to the first snowfall, our tourist industry suffers because more frequent wildfires choke our big sky.

These are tough problems to address because solutions affect the self-interest and livelihood of our extended family. However, if we really care for our common home, our way of life, the future we pass on, we must find a way for everyone to survive and succeed in phasing out fossil fuels, which once were helpful, but which have become destructive. I-11 is a realistic family plan to do that. It addresses the issue of job losses resulting from a move to cleaner, renewable energy sources.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates 5,000 people are employed by the state’s coal mines. However, the Montana Coal Council, also an industry group, counts only 1,281. About half of those are in unions. Add 456 to 480 employees in Montana’s seven coal-fired power plants, and the total number of people employed in the Montana coal industry becomes 1,761. Some workers on trains carrying coal and in businesses that deal with the coal industry would lose jobs as well.

Thus, an 80 percent reduction in coal generated electricity in Montana would affect 1,409 (80 percent) of the coal and utility breadwinners. However, since 23 percent of Montana’s coal is used in-state to produce electricity, about 325 (23 percent) workers will be displaced by Montana’s need to transition to more life-sustaining energy. Many of the other 1,436 workers will be affected by actions in other states that already plan to use less coal. As we care for our entire family, whose health, employment, and way of life are being adversely affected by climate change, we also must be concerned for fossil fuel workers and their families.

Initiative I-11 would help fossil-fuel workers, their families, and industry to gradually transition over 35 years and would offer enhanced retraining and additional unemployment benefits for displaced fossil fuel workers during that time.

Ballot initiative I-11 also satisfies America's Clean Power Plan requirements for Montana, reducing CO2 by 48 percent come 2030. If we work together, set aside personal self-interest, and truly look out for each other to reach these 48 percent and 80 percent renewable energy goals, we’ll provide employment all over Montana -- as well as in areas transitioning from being “coal country” to being “windflower and sunflower country.”

Together, let’s confront our common concerns and rekindle hopes for the future. Climate change is upon us. Transitioning to renewable energy to combat it will affect the employment of some in our family. But doing nothing will affect other Montanans involved in agriculture and recreation. Climate change endangers everyone's health as the range of disease bearing insects expands to warmer areas. I-11 addresses these and other issues. Please read it, support it, and maximize opportunities for those who will benefit by leasing land for wind turbines and solar collectors.

-- Rev. John Soderberg is a retired Methodist pastor living in Bozeman; State Sen. Mike Phillips, a Democrat, represents District 31 (Gallatin County).


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