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Don't Give Up: Sierra Club Leader on How We Can Win the Fight for Clean Energy

The Sierra Club's Michael Brune talks about how we can transition to clean energy, and how his million-member organization plans to flex its muscle.

There's no doubt that progressives took a trouncing in the midterm election, and there is ample reason to fear the influx of anti-science GOPers and Tea Party candidates coming into office. In the days following the election, President Obama said he was abandoning a climate bill for the next few years, and disappointed environmentalists by further extending a hand to the natural gas and nuclear industries.

This news comes at the same time the Union of Concerned Scientists released new information warning about the threat of an unprecedented number of wildfires that are the likely result of a warming planet, and the risk of a massive die-off of coral reefs -- our undersea forests -- that are crucial to the ocean ecosystem.

With pressing climate change threats colliding with political stonewalling, what do we do? AlterNet recently sat down with Michael Brune, who took the helm of the Sierra Club earlier this year, after serving as the executive director of Rainforest Action Network for seven years. A new edition of Brune's book, Coming Clean: Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal has just been released. Brune gave us his take on what we can do next, how we can continue to prepare for a clean energy future, and how his organization of over a million members, is planning to harness its potential.

Don Hazen: Obviously this election was disappointing on many levels, including environmental issues. On top of that we have this phenomenon of almost the whole Republican party becoming climate deniers. The big question is what happens now -- to the environmental movement, the Sierra Club, the whole issue of climate change?

Michael Brune: I would say, as bad as the election results were, it's not as though we have to give up on climate change or bow down to those conservatives in Congress. Democrats do still hold the White House, one branch of Congress, we do have a lot of champions in Congress, the courts, the State Houses, the White House -- a lot of people who do have power and intellectually agree with the need for greater urgency on this challenge.

There is a lot we can do to stay on the offense and make dramatic progress in the next few years. Even with a realistic, sober analysis of our situation, I can still see ample reason for optimism, which isn't to diminish the challenges we face and it's not to deny the fact that the challenges are steeper now than they were a few weeks ago and they are more daunting then at the beginning of 2010 or last summer.

However, I not only think can we accomplish a lot, I'm confident that we will.

DH: What are some examples of what we can accomplish?

MB: The fight against coal is one of the areas where we should be the most optimistic. The work that the Sierra Club has been doing over the last few years on climate has been to stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants. There were 150 new plants that were proposed early in the Bush years -- the Sierra Club and a big movement of grassroots groups have defeated 138 of them! There are a couple dozen more that have been added since then so there are more on the books but we have a plan in place where we think we can defeat 90 percent.

So that's historic -- that's a major change -- it gives us the opportunity to create a major change in how power is produced in the country. Now we are in a situation where the U.S. has an old and outdated fleet of coal-fired power plant -- 78 percent of U.S. coal plants are 30 years or older, 60 percent are 40 years or older. We've got dozens and dozens which were build in the '20s, '30s and '40s that don't have pollution controls, they don't have scrubbers, they don't have effective ways to deal with soot and smog and coal ash -- they consume large amounts of water and create large amounts of water pollution. And the kicker is that they are now being held to higher standards, where as though they have been grandfathered in under the Clear Air Act in 1970 and they were grandfathered in when the Clean Air Act was reauthorized, the administration is going through a series of rule-makings that will force these plants to either be upgraded or retired which creates a big opportunity.