Every one of us in the Western world has contributed to climate change. â€“ Bill McKibben, American environmentalist, author, and journalist
Recently, I organized a couple of events with the goal of showing people how their choices and actions can make a real difference in the effort to end our dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. I hosted a movie about the Koch brothers at the Auburn library. Less than a week later, I went to Les Gove Park with a petition to the CEO of our regional power company urging them to stop using coal and to move us decisively in the direction of clean energy.
Charles and David Koch are heavily invested in fossil fuels. They own 1.1 million acres of land in Alberta, land that could be exploited for the extraction of tar sands bitumen, the dirtiest fossil fuel known. The Koch brothers would profit enormously from the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and through such front groups as Americans for Prosperity, they spread lies and propaganda across the American heartland, promising lower gasoline prices and more jobs from this environmentally destructive project. The truth is, of course, that the jobs created would be few and temporary and the pipeline would pump more foreign oil onto the world market with the possibility of an upward effect on Midwestern gasoline prices where there is already a glut of domestic Bakken crude.
I am involved with the NoKXL Pledge of Resistance, a group dedicated to opposing the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The pipeline has been delayed again and again over the last 5 years by the concerted efforts of groups like ours employing tactics ranging from email petitions to civil disobedience. Today the KXL pipeline has no legal route through either Nebraska (where the route has been challenged in a lawsuit) or South Dakota (where the permit has expired due to delays). These successful efforts show how regular people working together can oppose and win against extremes of wealth and entrenched political power.
Here in the Northwest, we face increasing train traffic as fossil fuel companies try to get land-locked deposits of coal and oil to markets in Asia. Burning coal anywhere in the world releases carbon into the atmosphere, carbon that was captured and placed into long-term storage millennia ago by natural processes. Rapidly undoing the work that took nature millions of years in just a few decades has resulted in a completely unprecedented and unnatural spike in global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that traps the energy of the sun, warming the oceans, and changing the pattern of our climate so that now sudden and violent storms are becoming the norm. Storms and floods in one part of the world translate to intense heat and drought in others. Both extremes threaten agriculture, putting the global food supply at risk, at the same time human population is growing at an unsustainable rate.
Some of the damage and suffering caused by anthropogenic climate change cannot be prevented. But we can make changes in our daily lives that will make a difference and turn us as a society onto more sustainable paths. Itâ€™s that sense of urgency that got me out of my house to host these gatherings. I must have spoken to a couple of hundred people in just the past couple of weeks. Many are not ready for the change, but others are, and I take hope from that willingness to see that up to now, we in the Northwest have been lucky to escape the worst depredations of the climate crisis, but that does not lessen our responsibility to be a part of the solution, and to begin making our voices heard in the global effort to bring about an end to the era of unlimited burning of fossil fuels.
So what can we do? First, stop buying products made by Koch Industries. Vote with your dollars and your feet. If your bank funds mountain-top removal coal mining, take your money to a local credit union. If your investment company sells funds including stocks from companies like Exxon and Monsanto, find another broker who sells a greener, socially responsible fund. If your university or church has investments, urge them to divest from fossil fuels. Buy a more fuel efficient car, insulate and weatherize your home, plant a tree (plant ten trees!) and above all, when you have the opportunity to make a public comment on civic projects to build infrastructure for fossil fuel exports, make your voice heard loud and clear: No Coal Trains and No Exploding Oil Trains should be allowed passage through the Great Northwest.
While at the park on the 4th of July, gathering signatures for the Sierra Club petition, I saw older, uninterested passersby, parents with teens or young adult kids, move past our booth as quickly as possible. But it was the young people with them who hung back, saying, “Sure, I’ll sign” or “Tell me more.” That young people get this, more than anything else, gives me hope for the future. Sometimes the older folks would look at me askance and say, â€œI donâ€™t buy all this liberal crap. Iâ€™m a conservative.â€ Well, Iâ€™d say, â€œSO AM I. I think we have a really great planet here, and since there aren’t any other nice planets in this general vicinity, I’d really like to keep THIS ONE in good operating order, thank you very much. Now that’s what I call conserving your resources!â€
I did meet a smart young man who took issue with our petition to get Puget Sound Energy to stop buying power from coal-fired plants in Montana. He denied that climate change was even happening, much less that it is caused by humans. He claimed that solar and wind are not able to supply our power needs, and that we have to keep using fossil fuels because the industry employs so many people. We showed him evidence that investing money in building solar arrays or wind farms creates more jobs than investing similar amounts of money into extracting fossil fuels. We talked about the fact that companies externalize the costs of cleaning up pollution and treating human illnesses directly caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. I explained to him that the US has a policy of underselling coal leases on public lands, creating a hidden subsidy to coal companies, paid for by the American taxpayer, without their knowledge or consent, and that when the cost of coal includes fair prices for leasing public lands AND the cost to repair damage to the environment and public health, coal won’t be economically competitive with renewable forms of energy. On top of that, wind and solar ARE ready and able to supply the planetâ€™s needs. Germany has seen days where as much as 75% of its power comes from solar generation. We can, too.
I donâ€™t think I convinced the young man; but maybe I opened a crack of light into the dark bubble he’s living in. For the sake of his kids, I hope so.
–Originally published in the Auburn Reporter, July 25, 2014