Campaigning against carbon emissions until the cows come home.

Campaigning against carbon emissions until the cows come home. Photo: Getty

The Environmental Protection Agency's proposed regulation of US power plant emissions signals the beginning 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 War on Tobacco during the 1990s. 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 Richard Blumenthal, a leader in the fight against tobacco as attorney general of Connecticut and now a Democratic senator.

"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 Doug Holtz-Eakin, a Republican economist who recalled polling that he commissioned on the climate issue in 2000 as a senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain of Arizona. At the time, he said, around 80 per cent of respondents thought global warming could be sufficiently 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," Holtz-Eakin 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 fights over coal and tobacco, the numerous parallels offer a potential road map to a settled peace. The burning of both causes adverse health effects. The affected regions overlap in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, and they are similarly struggling. (Wyoming, the No.1 coal producer, did not have a stake in the tobacco fight.) For years, the producers of both have denied and funded the denial of what a vast majority of scientists agree on: the 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.

John Banzhaf, a law professor who is against tobacco, said opponents of climate change have much to learn from the long struggle against tobacco. In that fight, legal action was aimed not only at beating the tobacco companies in court. It was intended to force the release of internal documents that showed the companies had known of the 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 the cost of tobacco. 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 demonstrating how everyone was hurt, tobacco opponents 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 Rick Boucher, a former Democratic congressman who represented Virginia tobacco growers and its coal mines. The bulk of tobacco settlement funds in Virginia went to economic development programs to help move farmers to other livelihoods and to bolster the tobacco regions' infrastructures, including broadband deployment and water and sewer system construction, 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," Banzhaf said. "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 that would be 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 the revenue to lower the corporate income tax, with tax rebates to help workers. That would help ease business opposition to carbon regulations.

Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and advocate for free-market solutions to climate change, said coal states needed to prepare for the transition, and policymakers needed to focus on making it as least wrenching as possible.

"It cannot be sugarcoated," said 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."

The lessons of the tobacco settlement can go only so far, Boucher said. Coal is woven more deeply into the fabric of coal-dependent regions of Appalachia and the West then tobacco ever was. The cost of compensating such regions for the loss of some of the last, good-paying union jobs may be too high.

But Blumenthal said that considering how the sale of carbon emissions permits to industry or a carbon tax could help the regions most hurt is "a very important thought."

"Going into the tobacco debate, we ignored the effects on tobacco-growing regions, but in the end, we found some of our strongest allies were tobacco farmers who knew their days were limited. They were the last generation of many who farmed that crop, but they saw those days ending and they wanted a different future for their kids," Blumenthal said. "I don't know anyone who has seriously considered enlisting the coal workers. I think this is an area that deserves a lot of exploration."