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Clinging to our economic past is not the way forward

Ortbals Headshot 1 1 16By ALAN J. ORTBALS
    I was watching the Today Show a few Sunday mornings ago. If you haven’t seen it lately, they’ve revamped their format into a news magazine show that takes a look at a variety of issues over its one-hour broadcast. It’s a huge improvement over their daily doses of pablum.
    One of its segments reported on what are called “sunny day floods” in Miami Beach, Fla. These sunny day floods are caused by “king tides,” which are getting higher and more frequent. Streets and parking lots flood and the waters are inching close to buildings.
    It’s a repercussion of climate change, they said. Melting glaciers are raising sea levels around the globe. As one Miami Beach resident put it, “Anyone who doesn’t believe that global warming is real, is an idiot.”
    City officials don’t see the point in arguing climate change, however. Regardless of the cause, they need to take action. So, they’ve adopted a $400 million plan to lift half the city’s streets by two feet; install an 80-mile system of storm sewers and pumps; and build 5-foot high sea walls designed to prevent the pumped-out water from flowing back in.
    This is just Miami Beach’s cost. Similar things are happening, they said, all along the eastern seaboard as well as the west coast.
    At 8 o’clock, I switched over to CBS Sunday morning, another news magazine show that I’ve been an avid viewer of for decades. They featured a story called, “The View of Voters in West Virginia Coal Country.” It focused on McDowell County, a coal mining area that was once one of the most prosperous in the state but which has seen its population plummet by 80 percent, collapsing with the fortunes of the coal industry in general. Unemployment is twice the national average and many people are receiving welfare and food stamps.
    McDowell County voted for Donald Trump by 4 to 1 because he promised to bring the coal industry back and they believe he can do it. As one woman said, “I think he can do anything he said he could do. He’s that good.”  Forgetting for a moment that coal mining jobs have been greatly diminished by automation and coal mines have closed because they can’t compete with cheap and plentiful oil and natural gas, if Trump could actually turn back the clock, should we?
    The global warming phenomenon is caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. CO2 traps heat and scientists recommend 350 ppm as a safe level. This year, we surpassed 400 ppm and 2016 is projected to be the hottest year on record, breaking last year’s record. In fact, 16 of the 17 hottest years have been in this century.
    Dr. James Hansen, a former NASA climatologist and activist, has said that CO2 levels will actually have to be reduced to 350 parts per million “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”
    So, on the one hand we have coastal cities that simply can’t pick up and move so they have to stay and fight the rising sea levels and foot the bill for climate change. If it costs a small city like Miami Beach $400 million, what will the total cost of global warming be?
    On the other hand, we have people who only know coal mining, see Trump as a savior and want the government to do whatever it has to do to open those coal mines up and bring those jobs back. They don’t want to move and they don’t want to retrain for jobs that are actually in demand.
    I saw Congressman Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, on television recently. He was talking about how Democrats need to reconnect with the blue collar folks like those coal miners. He said, “We talk to them about job retraining. No one wants to hear about job retraining. They just want a job.”
    I don’t know how Donald Trump thinks he’s going to bring the coal industry back but it would seem that public subsidies would be necessary. After all, gas is selling for less than two bucks and they just discovered an immense oil and natural gas field in Texas. It’s unlikely that coal is going to be able to compete head-up any time soon.
    There are jobs out there. Truck drivers, welders and the building trades, just to name a few, are all in high demand in many parts of the country. Should people who live in Appalachia, clinging to the past, be expected to move to where employees are in demand and learn the skills to fill those jobs?
    Rather than try to bring back an industry that time has passed by and doing it to the detriment of coastal cities, we should focus on education. Technology and global competition are constantly reducing the demand for unskilled labor in this country. Meanwhile, our supply of unskilled labor continues at a steady pace. People need to get a good base education so they can learn the skills that are in demand and be able to learn new skills as demand changes. Clinging to the past isn’t the way forward.
    Alan J. Ortbals is president and publisher of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at or (618) 659-1977.

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