I've been a pretty consistent critic of coal over the years, regularly calling it (rightfully so) the enemy of mankind while writing about the terrible damage its mining, burning and waste storage causes. Mountaintop removal mining is a downright evil practice that literally blasts mountains and levels streams and valleys to get at coal in a cheaper way.

The activist in me screams that we need to stop burning coal yesterday and that every day we delay in killing it outright puts us that much closer to some seriously bad future climate scenarios.

The pragmatist in me though warns that if we ever expect to actually stop burning coal, we've got a lot of upfront work to do first. Chief among them is to take care of the people who feed their families and pay their bills with coal money. We need to give people like coal miners, coal company office workers, and mining equipment makers greener alternatives that pay them just as much, if not more, money.

Coal mining is a pretty terrible job — it's hot, dangerous, backbreaking labor that often happens thousands of feet under the ground. It's a testament to the lack of job alternatives that there are people fighting to keep their mining jobs. It may be a terrible way to make a living, but you can raise a family with the money it pays.

A recent move by the Republicans to cast Democrats as enemies of coal in coal states is a good reminder of the power of the coal lobby and the need for the Democrats to approach this carefully. The GOP is blasting traditionally coal-friendly Democrats and going after them in a big way. They're targeting races in states like Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia (where coal makes up a quarter of state revenue) and howling for Democratic blood.

Elliot "Spike" Maynard is a retired state Supreme Court judge who is running against 17-term Democratic Representative Nick Rahall on a heavily pro-coal platform. He was blunt in his language when he told POLITICO "If you vote for Spike Maynard, you’re voting for your job and to mine coal. If you’re against me, you’re voting against your job and against mining coal."

Maynard may be overstating his case a bit; Rahall is known for being one of the most backwards and coal-friendly Democrat when it comes to climate change, but he is right in pointing out that, as a party, the Democrats are more likely than the Republicans to enact anti-coal legislation.

If Democrats ever hope to get ahead of the curve on this one they have to start pouring money and resources into coal regions to incentivize greener industries to bring in good paying jobs. We have to be able to point to one available greener job paying the same money and offering the same benefits for every coal job that we hope to kill. We can't leave behind the workers, or doing so will make the process of disengagement from coal that much harder and will make it difficult to make similar reductive moves in industries like fishing. Giving them greener alternatives would also blunt any power the right has in scaring voters to their side of the political spectrum.

Plus, leaving out the workers would be kind of a stupid move — going greener should be about lifting everyone's lives up to a more ecologically sustainably level. We can't push down those people over there so the rest of us over here can rise up.

It's a decade+ process that needs to start happening right now.

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