Environment

How to Solve Our Economic and Environmental Crises

Everything from our food systems, water sources, oceans and deserts is negatively influenced by our obsession with mining, transporting and burning carbon-based fossil fuels.

The global economy is still hemorrhaging from the global economic crisis, and we can't turn on the television or look at the Internet without being reminded of the ecological crises that are unfolding all around us (including, of course, the growing disaster in the Gulf). Yet the answer to both sets of problems -- ecologically and economically -- are one and the same.

We can't talk about sustainable environments without talking about sustainable economies. And we can't have any type of economic model that doesn't take our fundamental ecology into consideration. We're actually talking about two sides to the same coin.

Our changing climate continues to make profound impacts on how people live, work and play. Everything from our food systems, water sources, oceans and deserts is negatively influenced by our obsession with mining, transporting and burning carbon-based fossil fuels. Using energy security and independence as a mantra, the United States government and fossil fuel industries are aiming to pump billions of dollars into oil exploration and mining the last bit of accessible coal.

While our national attention may be focused on oil, our coal addiction is similarly threatening our environmental, economic and human health. Proponents of coal argue that it's plentiful, cheap and readily available, and with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), coal's climate impacts can be mitigated.

In reality though, coal is anything but cheap when health and environmental costs are taken into consideration. Coal is responsible for over 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions and yet the aim is to mine and burn more of it. The so-called magic bullet of CCS is very costly to implement and according to an MIT study titled "The Future of Coal" the first commercial CCS plant won't be on stream until 2030 at the earliest. It may prove to be too little, too late -- and even if the technology is ever viable, burning coal more cleanly will never solve the problem of the impacts of coal extraction.

In most parts of coal country (Appalachia, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado) local communities have not seen the direct benefits of coal. In fact most of these communities suffer from serious health impacts, limited supply of drinking water, restricted access to natural resources, poor education and health systems that are sorely lacking. It is no coincidence that some of the poorest counties in the U.S. are found in the coal-producing counties of eastern Kentucky. Coal has shown little economic promise and its economic, health and ecological legacy are devastating.

The impact of coal on health may be the best way to open the dialogue about the costs of coal. Coal combustion emissions damage the respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems and contribute to four of the top five leading causes of death in the U.S. A 2008 West Virginia University study publishedin the American Journal of Public Health has found that as coal production increases in an area, so does the "incidence of chronic illness in nearby communities." The main findings from the study show that people in coal mining communities have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease; a 64 percent increased risk for developing chronic lung diseases such as emphysema; and are 30 percent more likely to report high blood pressure.

The data and evidence on coal's impact on our health is mounting daily, and yet we fail to focus on coal as a health risk. Given the evidence, the time has come to turn coal into a pariah.

The true cost of coal, including the environmental and the health costs, will affect large swaths of the population. With emerging data in the last year and a half showing the consequences of coal on people's health, the environmental justice movement needs to partner with the medical establishment to publicize the facts. We need to make coal the next tobacco..

We should start by waging a serious campaign that would involve doctors, nurses, public health officials and patients speaking out about the connection between consumers of coal energy and their immediate health concerns. By connecting the human element to the issue we can expand the climate discussion beyond the environmental community. From there we can have campaigns to divest from coal and shareholder actions, exposing the fiduciary risks of investing in coal. Perhaps even a national ad campaign akin to the anti-tobacco ads -- using health as a vector to raise the public consciousness about climate and energy.

After all, climate change is not solely an environmental problem -- it is a human/planetary problem. If we are going to rely on a small base of environmentalists to carry us through this crisis, we are in trouble. Our spokespeople on this issue have to come from a wide spectrum of citizens and leaders. The mainstream movement has lost sight of the justice element of the work and is less interested in building a broad, national movement to pressure and push for change. The problem is that the debate around climate is very wonky and policy-oriented, which leaves most communities out of the conversation. We have to build bigger and broader constituencies to make a difference. Without such a base, our future depends on Washington insiders and mainstream environmental groups. Compromise and backroom deals will prevail and we will make no significant progress in reversing climate change.

Of course, we have to go beyond a health campaign; without providing alternatives to and a transition from coal, an anti-coal campaign is weak. How coal is replaced as a base-load energy source requires political will and significant investments. Jobs that are dependent on the mining, transporting and burning of coal need to be replaced and workers retrained. This places us squarely in the green jobs/economy discussions. The new energy economy has a lot of potential for providing good, clean and green jobs -- but that will not happen on its own and it will require strong voices to demand it and demonstrate how it can be done.

Rethinking a green economic model requires bringing together labor, community organizations, environmentalists, progressive economists, government leaders and policy makers, along with the private sector to have a conversation about sustainability, the economy and ecology.

Can old manufacturing centers be revamped to produce parts for wind turbines? Can resources go into developing new solar technologies with local production? This is where we should be focusing our expertise. Exploring and expanding on alternative energy sources and green manufacturing provides jobs and even expands the economy, while sustaining our environment -- this should be a risk worth taking.

Heeten Kalan is senior program officer for the Environmental Health and Justice fund at the New World Foundation.