Divestment Days and the “War on Coal”

Next weekend, February 13 and 14, hundreds of cities around the world will witness actions as part of Global Divestment Days, calling for an end to fossil fuel addiction and a transition to a clean-energy future. The Fossil Free coalition coordinating these events grew out of the massive People’s Climate Marches (PCM) on September 21, 2014. Divestment campaigns, urging individuals and institutions (churches, universities, unions, banks, and city governments) to withdraw investment dollars from extractive industries, emerged as a key strategy intended to unite students, workers, and people on the front lines climate change.

In an op-ed the day of the March, Desmond Tutu connected the movement for climate justice with the anti- apartheid struggle, which had been aided by a widespread divestment campaign: “Reducing our carbon footprint [has] emerged as the human rights challenge of our time. The most devastating effects of climate change – deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees – are being visited on the world’s poor. Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither.”

Justice, then, requires that those with the capacity should act in solidarity with those most affected, moving our money, if we have investments, and pressuring those who control the flow of capital to do likewise: “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the. . . human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Three months before the PCM, citing “a moral obligation to act on climate,” President Obama had given the movement some hope with new EPA regulations limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rules mandating an average reduction of 30% by 2030 were a significant departure because they aim to mitigate impacts of coal burning not only on local air quality but also on global warming. If they are implemented as intended, they could deliver cleaner air and water to local communities, mostly poor and working-class, living near power plants, while also showing US willingness to reduce the causes of climate disasters that have already cost thousands of lives in the poorest regions of the world.

The new rules were met with howls of protest from climate deniers, industry executives, and coal-state politicians, charging Obama with waging a “war on coal.” Thousands of union miners and their families took to the streets during the EPA’s public hearings in Pittsburgh, denouncing the regulations as job killers. Their protest was organized by the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and industry lobbying groups, along with the United Mineworkers of America and other labor unions.

In testimony at the EPA hearings, former Teamster activist Mel Packer attributed this unholy alliance of long-time class enemies to the miners’ anger and fear in the precarious post-2008 economy: they have seen horrendous job losses, their small towns impoverished, and all the social ills that come with a sense of having no future. “They, like everyone else displaced in this Wall Street ‘recovery’ but working class disaster, need jobs, good jobs with dignity, union protection, and living wages. Jobs that leave us with some sense of pride at the end of the shift, knowing we somehow contributed to the common good.” However, he cautioned, “That ain’t gonna come from the coal companies.”

In fact, contrary to the industry line about “Obama’s war on coal,” most job-losses across the coalfields predated the new EPA regulations and happened as a consequence of decisions made in coal company boardrooms. These included a shift from labor-intensive “room-and-pillar” underground mining to fully mechanized long-wall mining and surface extraction, including mountain-top-removal (MTR) with its devastating effects on human health and the natural environment. As a result, the “coal state” of West Virginia saw employment in mining shrink to 27,000 jobs by 2014, while poverty is higher and life-expectancy lower in communities near MTR sites. And it is no coincidence that those surface mines usually run non-union, reducing the UMWA’s membership and clout.

The hard truth is, though, that in a state like Kentucky, which generates 90% of its electricity in coal-fired plants, job losses in coal are unavoidable, since many old plants cannot be adequately retrofitted. In fact, the future for coal faces a much greater threat than either the EPA’s regulations or the industry’s job-killing mechanization. Saving the planet requires essentially that we stop digging the stuff.

The Guardian recently reported on a study published in the journal Nature, estimating that about 75% of known fossil fuel reserves must be left buried if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. The study also indicates exactly which fuels must remain in the ground, primarily those requiring extreme modes of extraction: Canadian tar sands oil, much potential shale gas, and, of course, coal, “the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Globally, 82% of today’s reserves must be left underground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90% of coal reserves” must remain unburned.

A “just transition” to a clean energy future, then, requires that we not only divest from fossil fuels but also reinvest in renewables and in training displaced workers for the new economy. Groups like Appalachian Transition work to develop local wind and hydro generation, solar installations, and building retrofits for energy efficiency, as well as jobs in forest and watershed reclamation. As Nick Mullins puts it in his Thoughtful Coalminer blog, not only would this transition “give people good steady jobs outside of the coal mines–it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, satisfy many environmental concerns, and even give us that national energy security everyone keeps talking about.”

The students who initiated the campus divestment movement understood the necessity to both “divest and invest.” They explicitly framed their campaign as a “solidarity tactic” with workers and others most affected by extractive industries. At Swarthmore, for instance, they founded the Mountain Justice organization after a spring break study trip to mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. Student Stephen O’Hanlon expresses the resulting strategy with typical idealism: “As institutions of higher education, we can leverage our economic and political capital to not only transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but to create a more equitable society in the process. By divesting, we can undermine the fossil fuel industry’s social license, thereby threatening their bottom lines. Through reinvesting, we can actively promote the world we want to see.”

This cross-class solidarity approach has spread to hundreds of campuses, with its most recent success at the New School in New York City. Pittsburgh’s Divestment Day rally and teach-in, Friday February 13, are organized primarily by students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, in alliance with traditional peace and justice organizations, union and environmental activists. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in the most mined and fracked corner of western Pennsylvania, will teach us about “living on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry,” while students crank up pressure on their universities to divest from climate-destroying fuels and invest “like Appalachia matters.”

Nick Coles

This entry was posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Issues, Labor and Community Activism, Nick Coles and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Divestment Days and the “War on Coal”

  1. knewman4 says:

    Thanks for this important piece. I’m thrilled that some of my students this semester are involved in divestment day. I’m inspired!

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  2. peacenick11 says:

    Thanks for the comments, Marissa and Tim.

    BTW here’s the Facebook event link for the Divestment actions in Pittsburgh (for anyone local): https://www.facebook.com/events/1428817710743110/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

    — Nick

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  3. Marissa says:

    For the future integrity of our planet, and the health of our children, we indeed have a moral obligation to divest from fossil fuels. However, the way to build a stronger future is also found in the development of sustainable, unionized, and equitable jobs. To grow a better world, we must not only address climate change, but income inequality

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  4. I wonder if the UMWA is broadening its member base by going out and organizing workers in the clean energy field, like solar installation, solar panel production, etc. The UAW took up this strategy years ago, moving beyond auto production. They could help soften the blow from transitioning away from coal by retraining and organizing in new energy jobs. Tim Sheard

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