Ep. 46: How Britain Won its War on Coal

At the end of their shift, coal miners wait for the cage to take them up to the surface in a mine, in Canterbury, England, on Dec. 12, 1944. (AP Photo)

At the end of their shift, coal miners wait for the cage to take them up to the surface in a mine, in Canterbury, England, on Dec. 12, 1944. (AP Photo)

As the federal government in Washington tries to prop up coal, the country that basically invented the coal industry is actually moving away from it. England was the birthplace of modern coal mining, and at its height, the coal industry employed 1.2 million people in Britain. But the UK plans to completely stop burning coal for electricity by 2025. What happened? How did Britain move away from coal so fast at a time when the United States, at least its president, wants to hold on to it?

On this episode of Trump on Earth, we heard from Carolyn Beeler. She reported on how Britain won its war on coal for PRI's The World. You can read her full story here.

Beeler said that a divisive national strike in the 1980s was a salient factor contributing to a  profound cultural shift in Britain. Most of the country’s miners went on strike in 1984 to protest the government’s plans to close 20 coal pits. But the strike ended up being a disaster, and it stripped the coal industry of its political and economic influence.

“Not everyone went on strike and the government had stockpiled coal,” Beeler explained. “So instead of showing the country how vital coal was to keep the country moving, this strike proved that they could survive without it. And it really divided the country because you had these picketers on TV clashing violently with police. They were portrayed as thugs.”

In the U.S. coal miners are a symbol of the working class, but in the UK, after the strike, the coal miners were seen as going too far in terms of their militancy. Margaret Thatcher even called them the enemies of democracy. And in the decade following the strike, most of the country's deep mines were closed and the number of people employed in the industry plummeted from around 140,000 to about 7,000 people.

President Trump rose to power, to some degree, based on his support for coal mining. His administration is even actively talking about straight-up subsidizing the coal industry. And coal miners are viewed as working class heroes. So why are our country’s so different? Part of it is just numbers. There are just so few coal miners left in Britain that there’s not much of a coal lobby. But Beeler said that the biggest difference is that there’s no argument about climate change in politics in the UK. It is much less of a political football.
“There’s no debate over whether climate change is real or not,” Beeler said. “It's not really a political issue...it's not something that people feel threatened by when you bring it up, generally. It's a problem to be surmounted, and a lot of people see it as an economic opportunity.

And former coal miners? How do they feel about the government’s plan to stop burning coal by 2025? Beeler went to Yorkshire, England’s biggest coal region, to ask. She said most former coal workers she spoke to told her coal isn’t something they’re trying to save anymore.

In one coffee shop, Beeler met four retired coal miners planning their walking vacation in the Cotswolds. She asked them if they thought the government was turning its back on them.

“And they said, ‘no, coal has had its time and it's time to move on. We need to do something to clean up the environment.’”

>> LISTEN to the rest of the interview to hear how the UK’s 2008 climate legislation moved the country away from coal. Within six years of passing the bill, coal went from supplying more than 40 percent of electricity in the UK to just 7 percent.


Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project.

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