Work in a Warming World

Imagine you’re running a company with 1,000 workers. For sake of example, it’s powered by a waterwheel, which is operated by three people.

Here’s the catch: the sluiceway empties into the office itself. At present, the office can’t function without the water and the waterwheel — but, the longer the water flows, the soggier the office gets. Sooner or later, it’s clear that the office might have power, but everyone and everything in it will be underwater.

Those three workers are in an interesting position. You can’t fire them today, since that would put everyone out of work as soon as their laptop batteries die. But you can’t keep them in their current jobs forever, either: not only will everyone be out of work, but the flooded laptops will be ruined, too. What would you do in this situation?


The truth is, we’re about to find out. According to the Financial Times, in a recent analysis of Joe Biden’s proposals for climate and energy policy, the fracking industry sees the presumptive nominee as an existential threat to their industry. If enacted, Biden’s policies might cost 600,000 jobs.

That’s a lot of people. A lot of livelihoods. (And, yes, a lot of swing voters, if you want to look at it that way.) But here’s the thing: 600,000 jobs represent about three and a half thousandths (0.36 percent) of the total U.S. labor force, which was right around 165 million before Covid struck in earnest.

And so we face the choice: what do we do with and for these people, whose jobs might embody 20th-century American progress but whose continued work is making the world less livable for everyone — and helping to give political cover to other countries that don’t want to break up with fossil fuels yet, either?

I hope that one of the lessons of 2016 is that we shouldn’t try to write people off or pretend to buy them off with vague ideas of retraining. Dignity matters, and our culture has hooked work awfully close together with dignity.

But I hope we can also agree that the overriding need for dignity does not mean we can’t also have priorities and act on them. We don’t still have a whaling industry, and that’s a good thing.

Which is more American: risking the future of the planet to preserve the already-tenuous jobs of 0.36 percent of the labor force with outsized political clout, or finding new ways for 600,000 people to contribute to a future that’s more sustainable in every way?