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Defying Dystopia: Shaping the Climate Future We Want

By Nick Buxton - ROARMag, December 2017

We live in an age of dystopias on demand. Whether it’s Black Mirror, The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no limit to satiating our desires for dark, apocalyptic visions of the future. Unfortunately the scariest experience does not involve the world of the imaginary; it just requires reading the latest climate science.

In one such piece in July 2017, New York Magazine managed to pull together all the possible worst-case climate scenarios in a longread called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Through interviews with climate scientists, it painted a world of bacterial plagues escaping from melting ice, devastating droughts and floods so frequent they are just called “weather,” and biblical-like tableaus of entire nations on the move. The piece is bleaker than the darkest of sci-fi, because there is no way of dismissing it as fiction.

Facing our fears of climate crisis is one of the biggest challenges we face as activists. Not a week goes by without warnings of an “ice apocalypse” or a “point of no return.” We are bombarded with bleak visions of the future. And it’s a challenge that we continue to struggle with — one we have mainly filled with demands for action. For a long time, the answer was to provide easy actions that people could take so they could feel empowered. But it was soon evident that no amount of energy-saving lightbulbs was going to halt the capitalist juggernaut. Now the answer, from the left at least, is that we must confront capitalism to overcome climate change. Yet this can hardly be described as an easy win, or likely to allay our fears of a dangerous future.

In the anxious void, we have often not engaged or challenged the visions of the future described by climate scientists or environmentalists. And I don’t mean questioning the science, but assessing their expectations of humanity’s response to those climate impacts. Do they accurately describe how people behave in the face of disaster? Do they countenance the idea that people might respond in a way that doesn’t fit the model of the dystopian dog-eat-dog world? Is it possible that their expectations actually serve the purpose of those determined to repress alternative futures?

When Companies Deny Climate Science, Their Workers Pay

By Carla Santos Skandier - Common Dreams, December 28, 2017

After decades spreading misinformation about greenhouse gas emissions’ role as a driver of climate change, the deceptive tactics of the fossil fuel industry are slowly beginning to backfire.

In December, for instance, General Electric announced major cuts to its fossil-fuel-heavy power department — and the pain of this unplanned transition is already being felt by the people least responsible for the company’s decisions: its workers.

In the last two years, many stories have surfaced on the knowledge major fossil fuel companies like Exxon-Mobil had about the climate impacts of their activities, and the many tactics these same companies employed to deceive the public about these impacts. But they may have also managed to deceive themselves.

Cheered on by a president who’s gone above and beyond to prop up the fossil fuel industry — from announcing his intent to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement to pushing for approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline — dirty energy companies are deluding themselves that business as usual is a possible path forward.

This self-delusion may be beginning to reach its limits. The latest sign arrived on December 7 at General Electric — a global player in electricity for the past 125 years — with the announcement of an 18 percent cut to the power department, the biggest and one of the oldest departments of the company.

CEO Russell Stokes pulled no punches explaining the cuts: The decision aims to right-size the business amid a decline in fossil fuel usage — particularly coal and natural gas. The announcement came a mere two years after GE’s decision to double its fleet of large coal turbines — a clear misjudgment.

This would be good news if it not for one detail: jobs. GE’s decision alone will cost 12,000 jobs worldwide.

If companies continue to resist transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, these massive jobs losses will be just the beginning.

The Department of Labor estimates that roughly 200,000 people are currently employed in the oil and gas extraction and coal mining sectors. But the number could be in the millions if supportive work, construction, and indirect services of fossil fuel dependent communities are also considered.

Fortunately, the renewable industry is booming. The Department of Energy recently reported that almost twice as many people were employed in solar energy last year than coal, gas, and oil electricity combined.

But matching displaced fossil fuel workers to new jobs won’t be simple. It matters where those jobs are being created, and someone will have to make sure fossil fuel workers get a chance to qualify for new positions.

As if this weren’t hard enough, companies’ continuous denial and misrepresentation makes things worse. Their decision to “right-size” usually comes as last minute massive lay-offs, without giving workers a chance to plan ahead.

In the last few weeks alone, major institutions like Johns Hopkins University, ING bank, and the French insurance giant AXA have pulled their investments from coal, and the World Bank has announced it will no longer invest in any fossil fuel projects. The writing is on the wall, and the decline of fossil fuel production is both necessary and increasingly inevitable.

This is all good news for the climate. But we also need a plan to support those employees on the front lines of the energy sector. We need to stop letting workers’ lives be collateral damage of misguided corporate decisions.

The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal

By Gwynn Guilford - Quartz, December 30, 2017

The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.

His people had settled the Clintwood and George’s Fork area, along the Appalachian edge of southern Virginia, in the early 17th century. Around the turn of the 1900s, smooth-talking land agents from back east swept through the area, coaxing mountain people into selling the rights to the ground beneath them for cheap. One of Mullins’ ancestors received 12 rifles and 13 hogs—one apiece for each of his children, plus a hog for himself—in exchange for the rights to land that has since produced billions of dollars worth of coal.

“I probably ended up mining a lot of that coal,” says Mullins, a broad-shouldered, bearded 38-year-old with an easy smile.

There were other ironies to savor too. Mullins was a fifth-generation coal miner. But growing up in the 1990s, his father and uncles—all of them miners—begged him not to get into coal mining.

“No one wanted to see you in the mines,” he says. “And they were all union miners too—had it good for a long time.” Those protections were gone by the time Mullins was growing up. The US government’s ongoing assault on organized labor through the 1980s and 1990s meant that the mammoth energy conglomerates that dominated the coal industry were free to open non-union mines with increasing impunity. But mining was still just as rough—replete with injuries, accidents, and black lung deaths.

During the coal bust in the 1990s, Mullins’ dad was laid off from Bethlehem Steel’s mines. Mullins recalls living off the green beans his family had diligently canned during the good times, and watching his parents grow desperate. Go to college, they urged him. Mining offered no future.

Mullins planned on following their advice. But he, like so many of his friends, family, and neighbors, soon found that the industry that has wreaked havoc on the economy of central Appalachia—comprised of southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and eastern Kentucky—was also nearly impossible to escape.

Was 2017 the year that the tide finally turned against fossil fuel projects?

By Suzanne Dhaliwal - Open Democracy, December 21, 2017

Last week AXA announced its sell off of €700m of tar sands investments from its balance sheets, covering 25 tar sands companies and 3 major pipelines projects. Thomas Buberl, the company’s chief executive, called the projects “not sustainable and therefore also not insurable.”

This was a significant win for activists like the UK Tar Sands Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network, who have been calling on financial institutions to end investments in the tar sands projects and pipelines since 2009, and who have most recently taken their campaigning efforts to the insurance industry.

The AXA decision comes just weeks after BNP Paribas broke the news that it will no longer finance new shale or tar sands projects, nor work with companies that mainly focus on those resources. Last Friday, Norway’s largest life insurer, KLP announced that it would exclude from its portfolio any firms that derive 30 percent or more of revenues from the extraction of tar sands. In the same week the World Bank announced it would cease financing upstream oil and gas after 2019.

It’s welcome news. Based on the financial risks, climate impacts and indigenous rights violations, we have seen a significant shift in financial institutions backing fossil fuels. The Bank of England now recognizes the monetary risks associated with climate change and is advising the central banks and governments to get out of highly polluting fuels due to the pending carbon bubble and the bad business associated with ‘extreme’ energy extraction. As a result BP, Shell, Exxon and others have pulled out of major tar sands projects and pipelines.

And now the insurance industry is beginning to act more meaningfully. As early as the 1970s, the insurance industry acknowledged the risk of climate change and the need for the sector to take meaningful action. Insurers have already seen the costs of climate related catastrophes and extreme weather events skyrocket, compelling them to be among some of the first movers divesting from coal and also develop policies to stop the underwriting of new fossil fuel projects. But they have massive holdings in fossil fuels. And so they need public pressure to push them to divest.

So despite last week’s news, we must be careful not to pop those champagne corks too fast. Significant action and commitment has yet to be seen by Asian and American insurers. Moreover, regenerative steps need to be taken to ensure that the communities whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels benefit from the transition to the clean energy economy. Simply put, who will be responsible for the massive clean-ups of stranded projects and direct the green energy transition?

How should communities cope with the end of coal? Advice from the frontlines

By Amelia Urry - Grist, December 12, 2017

The Mon Valley in western Pennsylvania was once at the center of an industrial revolution that put the United States on the map, but you might have trouble picking out some of its towns on that map now.

“These communities have been neglected by everybody,” says Veronica Coptis, the executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice and a longtime resident of Greene County. She grew up among the emptied-out towns that first sprung up beside the steel factories and coal mines that once lined the Monongahela River for miles.

Now those steel plants are gone, and many of the mines have closed. The coal mines still in operation are largely mechanized, operated by an ever-dwindling number of non-unionized laborers. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in Greene and Washington Counties, works to protect the rights of people living in mining towns, filing legal challenges and advocating for better policy from the state government.

The work does not make Coptis popular with all of her neighbors.

“My rule of thumb is that I will have any conversation with anyone, but I will not be yelled at,” Coptis tells me. She spends a lot of her time having hard conversations with coal miners who distrust environmental activists on principle, until they realize she is a local fighting for the future of her home.

“Almost all of our staff live in the community, and most of our board of directors and our volunteers” Coptis says. “Our organization is really rooted here.”

Coptis became an activist after the lake in her local Ryerson Station State Park — popular as a local boating and fishing retreat — was drained in 2005 to make way for coal mining. The recreation supported by the lake was one of the only economic activities not linked to mining in the area, and its disappearance left Greene County in even more precarious straits than before.

Coal generation makes up about a third of the United States’ power supply — a share that has been shrinking thanks to a boom in natural gas, among other factors. As the end of coal looks more and more inevitable, so does the need for “just transitions.” That is, the engineering of fair economic and environmental conditions for communities who have historically relied on fossil fuel extraction.

This is what Coptis’ work comes down to: an effort to build a better future for people whose lives have always been entwined with the fortunes of the coal industry.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can read our cover story on Germany’s just transition here: Life After Coal.

Members speak out to protect climate, clean energy jobs

By staff - Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, December 11, 2017

In the final week of November, KFTC members Russell Oliver, Stanley Sturgill, Henry Jackson, Teri Blanton, Roger Ohlman, Mary Dan Easley and Mary Love converged in Charleston, West Virginia – alongside hundreds of other concerned people – to testify to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against the agency’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

“Now that we have cleaner, safer and cheaper ways to generate energy, the only question should be: how can we create more of those new jobs right here and right now in Appalachia? I know this because not only have I lived it, I’m still trying my best to keep living it,” said Stanley Sturgill of Harlan County, a retired coal miner and KFTC member.

Sturgill and others urged the EPA not to eliminate the Clean Power Plan rule. Issued in 2014, the plan is an Obama administration regulation that calls on states to develop plans for modestly reducing their carbon pollution. Most would do that through energy efficiency programs, development of solar and wind power, and reducing the amount of coal burned. States have lots of flexibility on how they choose to meet the standard.

Kentucky’s utilities would be required to reduce their carbon dioxide pollution by 31 percent by 2030 from the baseline of 2012 – something that will mostly be achieved anyway through coal plant retirements that have already happened or have been recently announced.

But, to meet or exceed the standard, the state also needs to adopt some new policies and strategies to reduce energy consumption and get more from renewable energy.

Instead, the EPA is proposing to do away with the rule, which has never actually been implemented due to court challenges. What’s more, the EPA’s proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan has not followed the in-depth public engagement process that went into creating the plan.

KFTC member Mary Love pointed this out in her testimony to the EPA.

Time to Pull the Plugs

By Andreas Malm - ROARMag, December 2017

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’

By Dan Bacher - CounterPunch, November 17, 2017

Governor Jerry Brown doesn’t always deal with critics of his controversial environmental policies well — and that was the case again on Saturday, November 11, when he spoke at the UN Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Californians, including indigenous water protectors and those on the frontlines of climate change, disrupted California Governor Jerry Brown’s speech at the “American’s Pledge” event at the UN climate talks to confront his strong support of fossil fuels in his state.

The banner-carrying protesters yelled, “Keep it in the ground” and other chants, referring to the governor’s strong support of fracking, both offshore and on land in California, and cap-and-trade policies that could prove catastrophic to the Huni Kui People of Acre, Brazil and other indigenous communities around the globe.

“I wish we have could have no pollution, but we have to have our automobiles,” said Brown as the activists began disrupting his talk.

“In the ground, I agree with you,” Brown said. “In the ground. Let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here.”

“This is very California. Thanks for bringing the diversity of dissent here,” the visibly disturbed Brown continued.

A video of Brown’s reaction to the protest is available here.

This is not the first time that Brown has employed harsh words to blast his opponents. On July 25 of this year, Brown blasted critics of his oil industry-written cap-and-trade bill, AB 398, for practicing “forms of political terrorism that are conspiring to undermine the American system of governance” in an interview with David Greene of NPR (National Public Radio).

Governor Brown, portrayed as “a green governor,” “climate hero,” and “resistance to Trump” by the mainstream media and corporate “environmental” NGOs, has come to the climate talks to promote California as a global model of “climate leadership” at a time when increasing number of Californians are fed up with his pro-Big Oil and pro-Big Ag environmental policies

Special Report: Revolt at Trump’s Pro-Coal, Pro-Nuclear & Pro-Gas Panel Rocks U.N. Climate Summit

By Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, November 14, 2017

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting live from the U.N. climate summit here in Bonn, Germany. Close to 200 countries are gathered. The U.S. says that it is pulling out of the climate accord. Well, on Monday night, activists and Democratic lawmakers staged a full-fledged revolt as the Trump administration made its official debut at this year’s COP at a forum pushing coal, gas and nuclear power. The presentation was entitled “The Role of Cleaner and More Efficient Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power in Climate Mitigation.” It included speakers from coal company Peabody Energy, the nuclear engineering firm NuScale Power and a gas exporter. The panel was the only official appearance by the U.S. delegation during this year’s U.N. climate summit.

Well, Democracy Now! was there Monday night as the U.S. delegation made its official debut. It didn’t go too well. At least, it didn’t begin well, with a White House consultant telling Democracy Now! we could not film him.

Trump's Insistence on Coal Revival Finds Pushback Even In Coal Country

By Julia Conley - Comon Dreams, October 30, 2017

President Donald Trump pledged to end the "war on coal" by slashing regulations and putting coal miners "back to work." New research, however delivers a rebuke to the moves, indicating that they're harming the very mining communities he's professing to help—and that Americans in "coal country" are far more willing to adapt to new sources of employment.

"I'm beginning to see some real enthusiasm, particularly among young people in small communities in West Virginia, to begin looking for something beyond coal," said one West Virginian who was interviewed by three researchers at Indiana University for the study.

The team interviewed residents of two coal mining towns in the state in July 2016, as then-candidate Donald Trump was making repeated campaign promises to put coal miners back to work by fighting regulations put in place by the Obama administration.

In their resulting report, to be printed in the March 2018 edition of Energy Research and Social Science, the researchers said they found that the federal government would better serve former coal mining communities by investing in professional development programs, education, and healthcare services rather than pushing for deregulation of the coal industry.

One respondent who participated in the researchers' focus groups said, "Coal is probably not coming back, or if it is, it's not what it once was, so I'm going to learn as [many] new and exciting things as I can. I want to get a degree, so I'm more hire-able later on."

Meanwhile, Trump has heralded his rollback of Obama-era rules that limited pollution from coal-fired power plants, assuring supporters that regulations were the cause of the coal sector's 71 percent employment drop since 1985. The researchers found that as many Trump critics have stressed, it's unlikely "that these policy changes will drastically affect the country's current energy transition."

The loss of coal jobs has resulted far more from greater demand for less expensive, cleaner energy production methods like solar and wind power, than from environmental regulations, the study notes.

While Trump has frequently visited Appalachia to tell citizens he will bring their jobs back and retain the deeply-embedded culture of coal mining that exists in the region, the authors of the study found "substantial evidence that Appalachian coal communities are working to shed the culture of coal and develop new opportunities and an evolving conception of identity based on these opportunities," said researcher Sanya Carley.

"I think longer term, it is an opportunity, despite all the pain that people feel to finally diversify our economy, to be healthier, and diversify how we create energy ourselves, to be a kind of a healthier, more vibrant place," one study respondent said of the shift to new sources of energy.

The authors of the study urge the Trump administration to join former coal towns in finding new opportunities for economic development, education, and professional growth for citizens.

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