WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulation of power plant emissions signals the start of a fight over coal and climate change. Any chance of a resolution is likely to depend on the combatants agreeing to a reduction in emissions in exchange for help to coal-dependent regions and assistance to workers struggling with higher energy costs.
In that way, the so-called War on Coal is reminiscent of the 1990s War on Tobacco. Then, federal and state officials keyed in on a widely reviled product pulled from the earth in some of the nation's poorest regions, intent on regulating it to minimize its health effects and societal damage. A truce took hold in large part because workers dependent on it for their livelihoods -- and the lawmakers intent on defending it -- were compensated.
"We really were looking for a way to reimburse the states for the payments they were making for people hurt by disease, and to help the states that would be impacted most negatively if demand dropped" for tobacco, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., then a leader in the fight against tobacco as his state's attorney general. "There is absolutely a way to do it again, and in the long run, those regions would be much healthier financially and economically to be less dependent on one product -- especially a product of finite quantity in the ground -- than to continue to eat, live and breathe coal."
But the public may not be ready to take up arms against climate change the way it was open to battling cigarettes, said Republican economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, who recalled polling that he commissioned on the climate issue in 2000 as a senior adviser to Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign. At the time, Mr. Holtz-Eakin said, around 80 percent of respondents thought global warming could be dealt with through recycling.
"In the end, smoking became unacceptable. That was not a legal statement. It was a social statement, and consensus was broad and has held for a long time," he said. "Maybe you get there on carbon emissions, but right now, this is an issue for the elites."
Though there are significant differences between the coal and tobacco fights, numerous parallels offer a potential road map to a settled peace. Burning both causes adverse health effects. Affected regions overlap in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, and they are similarly struggling. (Wyoming, the No. 1 coal producer, did not have a tobacco fight stake.) For years, producers of both have denied, and funded the denial of, what a vast majority of scientists agree on: damaging results of the products' use.
The government's method of weaning the nation from each product -- by raising the price -- has a regressive impact. In the case of carbon emissions, it hits not just the poor, who can least afford higher energy prices, but also those in rural areas who tend to drive long distances.
The impact of raising the cost of fossil fuels would be broader than taxing tobacco. Smokers, in the end, can quit, difficult as that may be. A Montana rancher cannot give up his pickup truck.
Law professor John Banzhaf, who is against tobacco, said climate change foes have much to learn from the long struggle against the crop. In that fight, legal action was aimed not only at beating tobacco firms in court. It was intended to force release of internal documents that showed the companies had known of the deleterious health effects of their product, had hidden it and had financed efforts to muddy the public's understanding.
Anti-tobacco forces did not simply aim to raise tobacco's cost. They targeted the industry's tools of promotion: advertising, lobbying and its think tank, the Tobacco Institute. Legal action was meant to alleviate the broad societal cost of smoking -- higher Medicaid costs, more intensive use of the health care system and thus higher taxes. By showing how everyone was hurt, tobacco foes tried to engage the public.
Perhaps most important, they sought to undercut the economic argument that kept tobacco-state lawmakers firmly on the industry's side, said former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., who represented his state's tobacco growers and its coal mines. The bulk of Virginia's tobacco settlement funds went to economic development programs to help move farmers to other livelihoods and bolster the tobacco regions' infrastructures, including broadband deployment and water and sewer system construction, Mr. Boucher said.
That helped ease opposition to the settlement in Congress and led eventually to legislation allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco.
After more than a decade of fighting, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act was signed into law in 2009 with little fanfare, or even notice.
"The idea of buying off people, as repugnant as that sounds to some, makes a lot of sense," said Mr. Banzhaf. "Why pay off the coal companies? It's simply analysis. Here is the cost if we don't. Here is the cost if we do."
Already, numerous economists have tried to devise a carbon tax less harmful to the working class, by using part of the proceeds to lower other taxes hitting workers. Last year, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center explored using a carbon tax to generate revenue to lower the corporate income tax, with tax rebates to help workers. That would help ease business opposition to carbon regulations.
Former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., an advocate for free-market solutions to climate change, said coal states needed to prepare for the transition, and policymakers needed to make it as least wrenching as possible.
"It cannot be sugarcoated," said Mr. Inglis, executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative. "There's no way everyone in coal in Kentucky or West Virginia is going to go out and get a job putting up solar cells."