The numbers alone say a lot: In early 2007 a U.S. Department of Energy document reported that 151 new coal-burning power plants—the most egregious single source of greenhouse gas emissions—were scheduled for construction. By late 2009, at least 109 of them had been shelved amid a surge of popular outrage.
Ted Nace’s Climate Hope tells the story behind this momentous reversal. “Of course, the anti-coal movement could not claim to be the only reason these plants had been stopped,” he writes. “Typically it was a combination: bad economics plus a good shove by activists. But the progress was undeniable.”
From “I love mountains” advocates in West Virginia, to Navajo activists in the Southwest, to high plains environmentalists in Wyoming and Montana whom Nace dubs “Cowboys Against Coal,” committed citizens were able to “raise the negatives” of coal-plant construction through lobbying, direct action, and environmental protection lawsuits. At the same time, these coal opponents highlighted the economic viability of alternative energy.
Once geographically isolated, these campaigners have connected in recent years through e-mail listserves and web pages such as Nace’s own invaluable Coal Swarm site.
In large part, Climate Hope is a memoir of how Nace became a node at the center of this movement. The sole staffer of a group called Green Delaware writes to Nace, “This is hard work, with low pay and lots of frustrations along the way. I can’t stress enough the encouragement factor as a main value,” of the “No New Coal Plants” listserve that both men had helped to nurture.
Early victories in stopping coal plants—when Minnesota campaigners, for example, halted a proposed project using community organizing and deft economic research—added fortitude to efforts in other parts of the country. “Wherever activists fighting a coal project in one place are able to get regulators or banks to commit to a certain set of restrictions... the campaigns against other projects make those conditions the new baseline that must be met or beat,” Rainforest Action Network’s Matt Leonard tells Nace. “Successes in blocking coal plants are piggybacking from one to the next.”
Alongside his own story, Nace makes a strategic argument: “Want to stop global warming? Forget oil and gas. Stop coal.” He cites statistics indicating that, “to offset the carbon dioxide produced by a single coal plant, 850,000 SUV drivers would have to switch to Priuses.” But as important to Nace is the idea that, amid all the abstraction in the climate change debate, closing coal plants represents a concrete and achievable goal.
Many others evidently concur. An appendix to the book provides a detailed list of the escalating series of direct actions around coal that have taken place in the past few years. The catalogue of civil disobedience, printed in a tiny font, covers 30 pages. Some of us might not believe that the struggle over global climate change will end with the fight against coal. But confronted with this impressive litany, all must agree: It is a fine beginning.
Mark Engler wrote this review for, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. is a senior analyst with and author of (Nation Books, 2008).