The Canary in the Coal Mine: Stopping Climate Change
By Tina Gerhardt
Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight against Coal
By Ted Nace
How to address climate change? As time is running out, the question has become of critical concern.
Nace's volume Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight against Coal (http://climatehopebook.com/) is at once a first-person narrative about a personal journey from concern to growing curiosity to the front lines, but it is also a chronicle of the growing anti-coal movement, particularly between 2007 and 2009.
In May 2007, climate scientist James Hansen argued that ending emissions from coal is "80% of the solution to the global warming crisis." Hansen called for coal to phased out entirely by 2030. (http://stormsofmygrandchildren.com/)
Ted Nace took note of the assertion: "The idea that climate change could be addressed by something as straightforward as phasing out coal intrigued me, since that did not strike me as an impossible goal [...] This is doable, I thought" (13-14).
So Nace started to research what environmental groups were doing in support of Hansen's call for a moratorium on new coal plants and stumbled on a list of 151 proposed coal-fired power plants posted on-line in the spring of 2007 by Department of Energy analyst Erik Schuster. Quickly, this list became a rallying cry for a wave of climate action.
Since none of the established national non-profit organizations dedicated to the environment had taken up Hansen's call for a nationwide freeze on new coal plants, Nace was inspired to act. He set up a web-site with the banner headline "Coal Moratorium Now!" to post information about the status of each proposed plant. The site has since morphed into the CoalSwarm.org (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Portal:Coal_Issues) an information clearinghouse about coalmines, plants, companies, impacts and politics, groups and actions, nation-wide and around the world.
Climate Hope's sixteen chapters present an incredible array of actions nation-wide, from sit-ins at coal mines to blockades at big-city banks' ATM machines, and the movement's varied participants, which included activists, organizers, politicians, lawyers and community residents. One appendix tallies up the protests against coal; another lists the coal plants that have been canceled, abandoned or put on hold.
How-to manual and chronicle, the book is hard to put down and inspiring. Nace presents how this period of intense mobilization managed to shut down over 95 of the 151 plants proposed in 2007.
He explains well and in an easy to understand style the science. For example, he demonstrates why coal - rather than oil or gas - is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel and therefore key to the fight against global warming.
And the various success stories presented embody different political approaches. For example, Attorney Carol Overland pinpoints why new coal plants are not economically viable. It's an argument that - in the current ongoing economic recession - has traction with politicians and investors alike. (It's also an argument that could prove useful in the fight against proposed nuclear plants.)
Problems with cost estimates include cost overruns and potential legislation for carbon caps, which would require infrastructure and financial resources be set aside for carbon capture, sequestration and monitoring.
While costs associated with coal plants are increasing, the costs for renewables - like wind, solar and geothermal - Nace argues are dropping. Furthermore, in some areas wind can generate comparable supplies of electricity.
Nace's study covers successes shutting down proposed coal-fired power plants from the Northwest to the Southeast; from California's solar power to Delaware's wind farms; from solar farms in the Southwest to greenhouse gas emissions reductions initiatives in the Northeast. And the volume does not, to its credit, focus solely on the bi-coastal regions: Nace also looks at efforts in key mining states of landlocked regions, such as West Virginia, Illinois, Ohio Kentucky, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Most of all, Nace talks about the range of people who became concerned about coal plants, decided to take action and did so successfully. Nace discusses the actions of governors, judges and regulators to prevent intended coal plants from being built, as well as the withdrawal of proposals for plants by companies.
And he touches on the potential for change vis-a-vis coal-fired power through the decisions of executives responsible for optimizing their shareholders investments: for example, although Warren Buffett was initially supportive of new coal-fired plants, he canceled six plants between 2007 and 2008.
Buffett did not cancel new coal power plants due to a burgeoning environmental consciousness. Rather a combined pummeling of legislative change and rising costs motivated his decision: CA and WA passed new state legislation for carbon dioxide emissions and for renewable energy; potential federal carbon legislation loomed; litigation and the threat of litigation existed; and construction costs continue to rise. Meanwhile, renewables are becomingly increasingly competitive.
Nace discusses how Hopi and Navajo elders organized at Black Mesa. In another case, he presents community residents elsewhere who had grown weary of the health and environmental degradation. In each case, people took action and, in the face of incredible odds, won.
And he mentions organizations, such as Rising Tide and Rain Forest Action Network. He also considers the merits of decentralized organizing, as he participates in and camps out at a climate convergence. And he discusses the benefits of direct action, including street theater and lockdowns.
The volume is timely, documenting how the fight to shut down coal plans is turning from the proposed ones to existing plants.
Ted Nace's Climate Hope complements well previously published books about coal. Jeff Goodell's Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future (2007) (http://www.amazon.com/Big-Coal-Secret-Behind-Americas/dp/0618319409) focuses on the coal industry, its dirty secrets - the deaths, the health risks, the environmental degradation - and the U.S.'s addiction to energy. Jeff Biggers' Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (2010) (http://jeffrbiggers.com/) is at once a memoir or family history, sharing the effects of coal-mining in his family, and also an historical account of coal-mining in southern Illinois. Biggers calls attention to how coal mining affected indigenous populations, drew on slave labor, involved tense labor disputes, health abuses and ecological devastation. Nace's book rounds this selection out by focusing specifically on the success of the recent moment to close down proposed plants. It's an inspirational story, for coal and beyond.
Nace's volume convinces that addressing climate change - despite the failures of the UNFCCC process and the gridlock in passing U.S. legislation - is doable.
Tina Gerhardt's work has appeared in Alternet, Grist, In These Times and The Nation.com.
She has covered climate change summits, including in Copenhagen, Cochabamba and Bonn.