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Does Activism Work in Combating Climate Change?

Mar 28, 2010 - Ted Nace - CSRwire Talkback

Over the past three years, despite a massive effort by the coal lobby to sell the public on the idea of “clean coal,” grassroots activists have successfully challenged and defeated over 100 coal-fired power plants in at least 33 states. The mobilization to stop coal got underway in the Spring of 2007, after Energy Department analyst Erik Shuster circulated a document showing that 151 new coal-fired power plants were slated for construction. Climate scientists reacted with alarm, warning that if this new wave of coal were built, there would be little hope of preventing greenhouse gases from reaching truly dangerous levels.

In fact, according to Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants followed by a phase-out of existing plants over a twenty-year period could provide “80% of solution to the climate crisis.” Coal’s importance stems from the sheer size of the remaining reserves, which dwarf those of less abundant oil and gas. Dr. Hansen’s call to phased out coal was backed up by other climate scientists, nine of whom joined him in writing, “The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis.”

As it took aim at the proposed wave of new power plants, the movement against coal did not rely on any sort of formal coalition. Instead, activists used social networking tools like listserves, blogs, and wikis to share information and coordinate actions. The campaigns undertaken by activists were as a diverse as the groups themselves, which ranged from small organizations like Coal River Mountain Watch to nationwide groups like the Sierra Club. Tactics ranged from the conventional (involvement in regulatory proceedings, lawsuits to block siting permits) to direct action (lockdowns, tree-sits, blockades).

While activists managed to derail proposed plants in a number of “blue” states such as Washington, New York, Illinois, and Iowa, most of the action, took place in “red” states such as West Virginia, Kansas, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska. Democratic leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius lent support to anti-coal forces, but so did some Republican leaders such as Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who pushed for the cancellation of all five plants proposed in his state.

In addition to targeting political bodies, activists aimed their efforts directly at mining and power companies and executives. A nationwide campaign led by the Sierra Club against Dynegy convinced that company to abandon its plans to build over half a dozen coal plants. Similarly, pressure on Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp resulted in a realignment of that company away from coal. In March 2009, a mass protest in Washington, D.C. by over 4,000 people convinced Senate leaders to stop burning coal in the Capitol Power Plant.

One of the most hopeful aspects of the movement has been the increased level of activity by dedicated young people, many of whom have risked arrest and legal prosecution by taking part in direct action protests. In the past three years the number of direct action protests has grown rapidly, with 17 such protests taking place in 2007; 44 in 2008, and 71 in 2009.

While no one can say definitively which tactic works best, there’s no denying the success of the movement: throughout 2009, not a single new coal plant broke ground. In 2008 jobs in the wind industry edged out those in the coal mining industry.

About Ted Nace

Ted Nace is the author of Climate Hope: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Coal (CoalSwarm, 2010).


Updated: 2016/06/30

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