'Climate Hope': How a New Rebellion Against Coal Is Fueling the Drive for Clean Energy

While many may think about oil when it comes to climate change, the real struggle could be coal. Coal is used for half the nation’s electricity, which is the U.S.’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists warn that the continued use of so much coal could put us on the path to runaway warming, yet federal policy continues to subsidize and support its use. Discussing his books Gangs of America and Climate Hope, Coalswarm founder Ted Nace talks about the rise of corporations and Big Coal, the growing network of grassroots movements against coal, and why, despite the non-binding resolution coming out of Copenhagen, we should have hope.


Christine Shearer: You helped start the successful Peachpit Press, a tech publishing company, and then went on to write a book about the growth of corporate power, Gangs of America. Did something make you want to write that book?


Ted Nace: For a long time I had been thinking that there needed to be a different way of looking at corporations than I'd seen in academic disciplines like economics, sociology, etc. I wanted to look at them the way a science fiction writer or an exo-biologist would view an unusual dynamic phenomenon -- say a strange cloud moving around on a recently discovered planet. Even if the phenomenon did not seem to fit the narrow definition of a "life form" in the way we are accustomed to thinking, the exo-biologist would be trained to realize that life forms might not necessarily fit our preconceived notions. Basically, it seems to me that the corporations we have today -- defined by a structure that gelled about a century ago -- are exactly this sort of thing: a sort of life form. They meet all the standard criteria that biologists use to define life: persistence, metabolism, reproduction, adaptation, etc. By life form, I don't mean to use a metaphor: I really think these things are literally coexisting with us physically, socially, and politically, and we may be on a direct collision course with them for the use of this planet. There's a legal philosopher named Meir Dan-Cohen who has written about how a corporation could actually exist that had no human participation whatsoever -- a chilling thought until you realize that big corporations already function to a certain degree on automatic pilot, since the decisions that guide their behavior are actually determined not really by individual managers but by the programmed parameter known as profit. That's what makes corporations distinct from other human organizations like governments or social clubs. I wanted to highlight this Frankenstein notion, and a natural way to do that seemed to me to juxtapose it up against the well-known judicial doctrine that a corporation is a "person" and up against the 1886 Supreme Court case that gave corporations their first actual Constitutional rights. The fact that these immense, profit-maximizing entities are afforded the rights of human beings is a blatant irony that practically begs to be explored.


Christine Shearer: Especially since in that 1886 case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, "corporate personhood" came not from the actual judicial decision but from the court reporter's notes on the case.


Ted Nace: Yes, and that's just the most well known of a long string of court decisions endowing corporations with greater and greater rights, none of which are grounded in the actual language of the U.S. Constitution.


Christine Shearer: Were you surprised by these findings, how corporate power expanded and came to take its modern form?


Ted Nace: The big surprise for me was to see that even from the very beginning - the eighteenth century discussions on how to arrange the American system of government - people were already expressing a great deal of nervousness about the dangers of the corporate form. The framers of the American system of government went to great lengths to limit corporate power, for example by requiring corporations to renew their charters every 20 years and requiring each corporation to adhere to a particular beneficial function. Those measures worked for nearly a century or so -- until just after the Civil War. Then, due to Supreme Court decisions such as Santa Clara and an assortment of changes in state incorporation statutes, the corporate legal form began to morph and the "modern" corporation came into being, which was much more legally privileged and also much larger than what had come before. It was like a second American Revolution, and I think our society hasn't even begun to cope with it.


Christine Shearer: Your most recent book, Climate Hope, describes a grassroots network of communities fighting – very successfully – the construction of new coal plants in this country. How prevalent is coal and the use of coal plants in the U.S.?


Ted Nace: There are about 600 coal-fired power plants around the country, supplying half our electricity. Recently there were plans afoot to add another 150 coal plants. From a climate perspective, coal is far and away our worst problem because the remaining reserves are so much larger than those of other fossil sources like conventional oil and gas. NASA climate chief James Hansen says that phasing out coal emissions is “80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.” In other words, phasing out coal is really the “silver bullet” for stopping global warming. Conversely, Hansen warns that if we don’t somehow constrain the burning of coal we risk triggering the “Venus Effect” of runaway feedbacks that would render Earth completely uninhabitable. (For the details on this scenario, see Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren.)


Christine Shearer: Do you see connections between the national use of coal and your research on corporations?


Ted Nace: We have a clear planetary crisis and a clearly defined solution, yet our ability to implement that solution is being blocked by the well-financed lobbying and PR sponsored by the coal and utility companies.


Christine Shearer: Could you tell us a bit about the communities discussed in your book, and why they focus on coal?


Ted Nace: Two communities affected by coal represent the diversity of those impacted by coal: one is Little Village, a Latino barrio in Chicago, the other is the Navajo reservation in New Mexico—both suffer very high rates of asthma and coronary heart disease caused by nearby coal-fired power plants. Wherever there are coal mines, plants, or waste dumps, there are health effects: 24,000 deaths per year nationally from fine airborne particles, hundreds of thousands of infants exposed in utero to excess mercury, toxic drinking water in areas near mines and power plant ash dumps. Mining destroys large amounts of forest land and agricultural land, and mountaintop removal—the most destructive type of mining—results in downstream flooding. In return for all this damage, the coal industry provides relatively few jobs. Only about 1 in every 1,000 workers are employed in coal mines or power plants in the United States. Study after study has found that phasing out coal in favor of renewables would create a large net gain in the number of jobs in the electricity sector. In fact, wind industry jobs actually surpassed coal mining jobs in 2008, so the comparison isn’t theoretical.


Christine Shearer: How many plants have been cancelled, and what have been some of the successful tactics to keep new plants from being constructed?


Ted Nace: At least 110 proposed coal plants have been stopped so far by local citizen opposition. Stopping a coal plant always involves a combination of tactics: regulatory interventions, direct actions like sit-ins and blockades, bank boycotts, lawsuits. In general, the idea is to scare away the financial backing for the plant, push regulators and judges to use whatever legal handles are available, and convince utilities that coal is simply too much trouble compared with attractive alternatives like efficiency measures, wind, and solar.


Christine Shearer: Many within these movements have been skeptical of “clean coal.” Could you explain why?


Ted Nace: “Clean coal” is like whack-a-mole. You can take the ash out of the smokestack, but then where do you dump the ash? Each time you clean up one pollution stream, you create a new one. Then there’s the problem of cost. Yes, it’s theoretically possible to separate out the carbon dioxide that causes global warming, compress it into a liquid, and pump it deep underground. But the development of this technology at a commercial scale is a couple decades away, and even then it’s estimated to be more expensive than wind, solar, geothermal, etc. So why not just adopt the clean alternatives?


Christine Shearer: Why aren’t we adopting the clean alternatives?


Ted Nace: Clean alternatives are definitely being adopted across the country, but federal policy still overwhelmingly tilts toward subsidizing "clean coal." For example, the Waxman-Markey bill provides $60 billion in subsidies for clean coal, which is an astonishing amount considering that the aggregate value of the entire coal industry, as measured by the value of its stock on Wall Street, is about $50 billion. This sort of huge subsidy is a simple reflection of the political clout of Big Coal.


Christine Shearer: In addition to writing Climate Hope, you also started the wiki CoalSwarm – could you tell us a bit about it?


Ted Nace: The idea behind CoalSwarm is that information is power, and that making information about coal more accessible to the public could be a way to aid the movement to stop coal. CoalSwarm is an informational website about coal that uses the same wiki technology as Wikipedia. That means anyone can contribute information, and there are now over 2500 articles on the website. For example, you can find out the location of power plants in your state and college coal plants, see photographs and data on those plants, read about lawsuits and demonstrations, and see who’s organizing. People find the information via Google searches, and so far we’ve clocked over 3 million page views.


Christine Shearer: Climate change activists advocate regulating greenhouse gas emissions, so many were frustrated that a non-binding resolution came out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Copenhagen. What did you think of Copenhagen: a potentially promising first step, or a demonstration that reform will have to come from below?


Ted Nace: Copenhagen proves that reform has to come from below. That’s good news, because the grassroots climate movement is growing fast. For example, the number of protest actions quadrupled between 2007 and 2009. The chaotic fumbling that was on display at Copenhagen was depressing, but the amazing progress of groups fighting coal over the past several years – 110 coal plants stopped to date – shows the breadth and strength of the movement, and it also suggests that focusing on particular plants, mines, and waste sites is a productive way to work.


Christine Shearer: Within the U.S., the EPA has finally determined that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that threatens human health, giving them authority to regulate emissions, which they have yet to do. Yet the Waxman-Markey bill working through Congress would pre-empt the EPA’s authority with a cap & trade market for carbon emissions. Do you support Waxman-Markey, or would you rather see the EPA regulate carbon dioxide emissions?


Ted Nace: The Waxman-Markey “cap & trade” bill that passed the House and the parallel bill being considered in the Senate have some good features, such as tougher efficiency standards. But if this legislation passes it will actually hinder the work of phasing out of coal plants by eliminating the power of the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, and that means it would take away the one step that climate scientists have described as the “silver bullet” in addressing climate change. Having the EPA directly regulate power plant emissions may not be sufficient to solve the problem, but it’s definitely an important piece of the solution.


Christine Shearer: Some argue that any U.S. actions on global warming are negated because China is starting to put up so many coal plants, but in your book you dispute this. Could you explain why?


Ted Nace: China’s own reserves of coal are limited—comparable to those in the state of Montana. Analysts project that China’s use of coal, though alarming at this point, is going to top out soon and then decline. Fortunately, China is moving quickly towards renewables, and it’s already moving into the position of global leader in producing wind turbines and solar panels.


Christine Shearer: What are the next steps for the no-coal movement?


Ted Nace: Having stopped 110 coal plants, the next steps for the no-coal movement are to keep fighting the remaining proposals for new plants and to begin to work toward phasing out the existing fleet of 600 old coal plants. This means organizing in all parts of the country and also focusing on coal mining and coal waste sites. This is the year that mountaintop removal mining should finally be banned. It’s also the year to begin focusing on the federal coal leasing program.


Christine Shearer: What can people do to help move the U.S. away from coal? Are there alternative energy sources you see as particularly promising?


Ted Nace: The biggest potential lies in efficiency measures like stricter building standards, enhanced appliance efficiency, and weatherization programs. If the entire country were to become as energy efficient as California, we could retire 80% of the coal fleet. As for climate-friendly generation technologies, utility-scale wind turbines are now cheaper than new coal plants, and they’re especially attractive in offshore sites like Lake Michigan or the Atlantic coast. Rooftop photovoltaic arrays on warehouses, malls, and homes could become a significant provider of power if utilities adopted the sort of “feed-in tariffs” that have enabled photovoltaics to explode in Germany. Solar thermal plants – large arrays in sunny areas that can include onsite power storage – uses a decades-old technology and is currently being expanded very rapidly in California, Spain, and elsewhere. As for technologies still under development, one of the most promising is known as “enhanced” or “hot rock” geothermal. An MIT study of enhanced geothermal power, which involves drilling deep wells and injecting water that is then heated by hot rocks and then brought back to the surface to run generators, reported that this technology could economically power the entire country more or less indefinitely. For details on how all these technologies could replace coal and other fossil fuels, I recommend Google’s “Clean Energy 2030” website.

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