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Climate Activists Put the Heat on Obama

Obama already has it in his power to slash greenhouse gas emissions and thereby limit the damage climate change inflicts in the years ahead. But will he exercise that power?

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Progressive organizations have talked in the past about uniting in pursuit of common objectives, but those efforts usually fizzled. This time it’s different, Radford says: “We’re focused on having a really powerful ground game. We didn’t invite anyone that didn’t have field organizers and a substantial [membership] base.” And the intent is to play hardball. The Democracy Initiative will not merely seek to gain access or befriend politicians, a mistake that progressives have often made in Washington; instead, it says it intends to punish or reward politicians depending on how they vote and govern. This resolution will be tested now that the most recent push to reform the Senate rules fell flat, after Senate majority leader Harry Reid reneged on his pledge to fix the filibuster in late January.

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Grassroots organizing is also central to a crucial battle against climate change that has yet to receive national attention: the campaign to block coal exports from ports in the Pacific Northwest. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels, and the West, especially Wyoming, holds plenty of it. Coal companies are eager to sell to China and other booming Asian economies, but that requires transporting the coal by rail to the Pacific coast as well as constructing terminals where it can be transferred to cargo ships. 

“There are five proposed coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest,” says K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions, a clean-energy group that is a leader of the Power Past Coal campaign. “Just two of those terminals would have greater impacts on climate change than the Keystone XL pipeline would.”

Paralleling the strategy and tactics of the Beyond Coal campaign, activists with Power Past Coal have reached far beyond environmental circles to organize and educate a wide range of constituencies about the links between coal exports and climate change. Power Past Coal says it has the support of 600 medical doctors, 450 business leaders and dozens of local elected officials, especially from the small towns through which the coal trains would travel on their way to the coast. Most of these allies are not primarily motivated by climate change but by concerns over traffic and local pollution, Golden says, “but we always bring the climate angle in as well.” 

“Our strategy is to make [the idea of coal exports] toxic, to organize broad constituencies against it, and to make it hard for public officials to approve it,” Golden adds. Building and educating broad constituencies also builds the political power needed to win the larger fights ahead. “Our approach has been much closer to that of the Beyond Coal campaign than to the cap-and-trade effort, but ultimately those two models for making social change need to come together. We do need a cap on carbon emissions…. We need to have that policy fight. But first we need to build the political power to have that fight and win it.”

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Some champions of cap-and-trade now recognize this flaw in their previous approach. Praising the Beyond Coal and Keystone XL campaigns for “engaging people at the local level, which is a critical aspect of gaining political power,” Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says, “It’s maybe something we didn’t pay enough attention to. It’s a lot easier to mobilize people around concrete new investments in polluting facilities than around new legislation or regulations for EPA.”

Policy expertise has its place, however, and Lashof, the director of the NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air program, has produced a new blueprint for how Obama’s EPA can use the Clean Air Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions. (There is a great irony here, because the cap-and-trade bill that the NRDC and most other big environmental groups championed would have stripped the EPA of regulatory authority over coal-fired power plants under the Clean Air Act.) The new NRDC plan would deploy the act primarily against the roughly 1,500 existing power plants in the United States; of those 1,500, roughly 500 are coal-fired, and they account for 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention thousands of deaths, heart attacks and asthma cases every year. (To be clear, the Beyond Coal campaign is focused on blocking new coal plants.) The EPA would work with state governments and utility companies to find cost-effective ways to scale back or shut down many of these 500 plants. Replacement power would come from improving energy efficiency and increasing solar, wind and other renewable sources, as well as some natural gas. The electricity sector’s greenhouse gas emissions would decline by 26 percent by 2020.

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