You can donate to relief efforts for the victims of Haiyan here.
But Harvard University President Drew Faust has rejected the idea, without responding to student requests for a public forum on the issue. In doing so, she turned her back on the institution’s mission: truth.
The fossil fuel industry, supported in some part by the Harvard endowment, has stooped to a particular form of political manipulation that poses a direct, existential threat to the purposes of academia. They fund and disseminate climate disinformation and corrupt our democracy in order to undermine political will for solutions. They have, with an alarming degree of success, prevented our institutions from acting on the basis of what our brains know about the dire, objective reality of our circumstances on the planet. They are at war with the truth.
By investing its assets in fossil fuels, Harvard is feeding a conscious and cynical strategy to separate human agency from knowledge and reason. The direct target of this strategy is the essential good that Harvard exists to serve: the unique human capacity for rational action based on intellectual discovery.
President Faust argues that divestment would have no practical effect. Harvard’s share of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies is too small to matter, she calculates.
This analysis sells Harvard short. Calibrating the potential impact of divestment based on Harvard’s share of the capitalization of coal and oil companies is a bit like judging Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil rights based on the physical proportion of the segregated facilities in the South that she occupied when she sat in the front of the bus. At stake here is truth – the institution’s purpose – and our capacity to act upon it. If Harvard won’t stand up for that, who will? And if Harvard did stand up for that, how big a blow would that strike for truth?
Faust worries that divestment would be inappropriately political. But investing in fossil fuels is every bit as political as choosing not to. By shunning divestment, Harvard is not just missing an opportunity to shed light; it is financing darkness.
The illumination that Harvard could offer now by divesting would be clear and penetrating. The controversy surrounding the issue adds the wattage needed to make a dent in the prevailing darkness. If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, its more conventional academic contributions to climate solutions will gain a sense of integrity and hope that would surely increase their effectiveness.
What the world needs from academia right now is no more or less than what’s emblazoned on Harvard’s crimson shield, the institution’s motto and purpose: “Veritas” – truth – and the courage to take a stand for it.
Above, I focus on a specific reason why academic institutions in particular should divest from fossil fuels – because such investments directly undermine truth, their mission.
But President Faust’s statement rejecting divestment reads like a compendium of popular misconceptions and evasions about divestment in particular and climate action in general. Faust has offered sort of a non-deniers’ manifesto for shirking climate responsibility, so a thorough response would be something of a handbook for the opposite… if I get time.
In the meantime, and in case I never get to it, Jeff Spross has an economical debunker: Harvard’s Four Reasons For Not Divesting From Fossil Fuels, And Why They’re All Wrong.
Joe Romm follows up with a specific response to one of Faust’s most insidious arguments – the idea that divestment is hypocritical because we consume fossil fuels. This particular mode of tail-chasing is a maddeningly potent deterrent to climate action. I hope to focus on it soon. Says Joe: The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels
For a wonderfully thorough fiduciary case for divestment, from former Reagan SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, see: “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries”
And whatever else you do, don’t just sit there, DIVEST: “Extracting Fossil Fuels from your Portfolio: A Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment.”
It wasn’t finished.
That’s why Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn had not, until yesterday, released the results of an economic study on coal train impacts in Seattle.
But King Coal jerked the puppet strings, and the story turned into a petty political horse-race game, instead of a good public airing of the real economic issues. Now that the study’s out, we can focus on what it actually says….and what it doesn’t. As usual, Sightline’s Eric de Place has got the goods on this.
Even with a very limited scope, the study finds significant net economic harm, including declining property values, increased congestion, and adverse impacts on public health. The study leaves out a great many impacts, including the difficult-to-quantify hit to our civic brand — the competitive edge we’ve honed from our high quality of life, clean energy, and innovative culture.
(A New York Times story this week trivialized this as an “image” problem. We should take exception: building a great, healthy place to live where environmental quality and economic vitality go hand in hand isn’t just our label; it’s our contents, our identity – the “sustainable prosperity” that the Seattle Chamber of Commerce touts as the foundation of its economic vision.)
It also mentions but does not quantify the impact of increased emissions of carbon pollution. Let’s take a stab at that:
The only specific economic modeling done to quantify the impact of Powder River Basin coal export on total carbon emissions found that, for every 140 million tons of coal exported, net consumption would increase by approximately 98 million tons. The Gateway proposal north of Bellingham would ship up to 48 million tons annually, so of that 98 MT increase, about 33 MT would be shipped through Seattle. When burned, that much PRB coal would produce roughly 60 million tons of CO2. The EPAs current estimate of the social cost of CO2 (using the 2020 value and a 3% discount rate) is about $46/ton. So the annual climate impact bill would run north of $2.7 B,b,billion.
Of course, that cost would fall on everyone, globally, not just Seattleites. Should we prorate it for Seattle’s share of the global population? No. On account of the Golden Rule.
But hey, there are economic benefits too! Take the $5-6 million that the Gateway project developer says would flow largely to Seattle-based firms for legal and public relations work (and nevermind that they’ve already spent at least that much, and that it flows whether the project is permitted or not.) Think of the cornucopia of good things in store for Seattle when they drop that money:
- Some of our best communications professionals will be gainfully employed spinning the heroic yarns that will be required to persuade the Emerald City that hauling coal is good for us. Turning the story about the economic study into a gotcha game on Mayor McGinn is a prime example of the kind of diversions, evasions, and general shenanigans we can expect.
- Brilliant local minds will bring home more bacon by denying the climate consequences of coal export, feeding the ecosystem of climate denial and making it ever-more-difficult to step up to our responsibility for solutions.
- Our legal eagles will be well fed, protecting King Coal’s profits by arguing for the narrowest possible scope of environmental review, and ensuring that under no circumstances will climate impacts be considered.
Yes, all of that counts as economic benefit in the study.
Rev. Kathleen Patton of Longview, quoting Mark 8:36, poses this economic question about coal export “…What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”
As you might expect, this impact was beyond the scope of the study.
I’m testifying at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing today entitled: “Climate change; It’s happening now.” I’ll be calling for responsible limits on climate pollution, a fair price for dumping carbon in the atmosphere, and an end to federal support for new, long-term capital investments that lock in dangerous climate disruption (The Keystone Principle.) My written statement is here.
Last month, I testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about coal exports. Seated next to me was a witness representing the National Association of Manufacturers, who objected to the notion that federal environmental analysis of proposed coal export facilities might include consideration of the climate impacts of burning the coal.
He worried that such an evaluation would create a slippery slope, leading to climate impact tests for other products, including corn and toys.
A little bit of common sense should suffice here. The export of corn and toys is not one of the leading preventable causes of catastrophic global climate disruption. The introduction of large amounts of cheap, subsidized, American coal into the world’s fastest growing economies is. So we might want to look at that. As the President said in a landmark of understatement, referring to the climate impacts of Keystone XL, “It’s relevant.”
But the concern raised by the NAM witness is, in at least one respect, legitimate. Because we have no meaningful national climate policy, we are left to ask and answer these kinds of questions on ad hoc basis, leading to outcomes that are surely less efficient and effective than we could achieve with a thoughtful, comprehensive policy. The issue of where and how to ensure accountability for the costs of climate pollution is indeed a very important consideration for climate policy design. But in June of 2013 – 25 years after Jim Hansen first confirmed to Congress that climate change was a real threat requiring decisive and immediate action — we were not having a hearing on climate policy design in the House of Representatives. We were having a hearing on how to expedite coal export.
At that same hearing, the Army Corp of Engineers announced that it would not consider climate impacts in its environmental review of proposed export terminals. This stands in direct contradiction to the principle the President established when he said the Keystone XL pipeline is not in the national interest if it contributes significantly to increased climate pollution.
Ironically, on that same day, the commander of the Corps called for new, stronger standards for levee design and flood protection to cope with climate disruption.
Yup, we can count on the Corps to request larger budgets for responding to climate impacts (as, sadly, they should) but not, apparently, to analyze those impacts in the context of decisions which might prevent them. We are being set up for tons of “cure” at public expense, because we lack the responsible federal climate policies that would provide an ounce of prevention.
Hey, at least today the Senate is having a hearing on the subject!
Talk swirls about some kind of “deal” for the Keystone XL Pipeline. I don’t see it.
Political “realists” say Congress is incapable of passing a serious climate policy, period. That assessment becomes more valid every time the “realists” echo it, so I’m not going there. (I was expelled from their ranks long ago.) But a construction permit for a pipeline is nowhere near enough leverage to remove the obstacles to national climate policy. As a political matter, the President’s opponents want to have the Keystone fight more than they want to win it.
And it hardly seems necessary or wise to “trade” Keystone XL for regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. We already won the latter in the Supreme Court and the President as much as announced his intention to move forward in the State of the Union address. Sure, there’s a range of ultimate outcomes on the CO2 rules; but by the time we know how hard the Administration will really push for strong CO2 regs, this year’s Keystone decision will be long gone. If it’s supposed to strike some kind of political “balance,” it’s only on paper – the real political (economic) constituencies for the pipeline and power plant emissions are different.
Moreover, there’s a principle at stake (the Keystone Principle). It’s neither scientifically defensible nor morally acceptable to continue using scarce capital and time to invest in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure. Regulating climate pollution from power plants is a vital step forward, and potentially a very big one. But in no world where we actually step up to the climate challenge does it justify a big, irreversible step in the wrong direction, like Keystone. There’s no symmetry, no justice there – just political games, and losing ones at that.
I was proud to join a big group of Heinz and Goldman prize-winners – including a bunch of personal heroes – in making the case to Secretary of State Kerry this week. We wrote:
May 8, 2013
The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State
Dear Mr. Secretary,
As recipients of Heinz Awards for our work in environment, energy, and public policy, and the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, we write to you with an urgent appeal to affirm America’s commitment to climate solutions by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
We are deeply honored and humbled to have been recognized for our achievements. But we are acutely aware that despite your best efforts and ours, the climate crisis is now upon us. After a year of unprecedented weather extremes and disruption, this is no longer only about impacts in the future. It’s about social, economic, environmental, and moral consequences, now.
We do not lack for viable solutions. Public and private leaders in America are demonstrating that energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation choices, and a range of other strategies are practical and economic. We are using them to build healthier communities and stronger local economies. We can say this with confidence: sustainable, broadly-shared economic opportunity is possible as we make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and efficient energy systems.
But we cannot make the transition overnight. It will take many decades of patient commitment and investment to complete it. And while “winning” a safe climate future is a long game, we can lose it very quickly — within President Obama’s second term. Continued investment in capital-intensive, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like Keystone XL will “lock in” emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. This is the hard bottom line of the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that without an immediate shift in energy infrastructure investment, humanity would “lose forever” the chance to avert climate catastrophe.
Critics of the effort to stop the pipeline suggest that this is not “the right way” to deal with climate. It is certainly not sufficient, and it would arguably be unnecessary if we had a responsible national and global climate policies. You fought for such policy as a Senator, and we desperately need one. But stopping the pipeline is necessary to ensure that the problem remains solvable — that we don’t become irrevocably committed to emission trajectories that guarantee failure before we mobilize for success.
There is a strain of fatalism among some opinion leaders regarding Keystone (characteristic of prevailing attitudes toward climate generally): “Canada will develop the tar sands no matter what we do.” “We’ll get the oil from somewhere, so it might as well be North America.” “They’ll just find another route.” These objections are neither analytically defensible nor morally responsible. We can’t do everything to address climate disruption, but as the world’s biggest economy and the largest historic emitter, we can and should do a great deal. As a nation with unparalleled capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship, we can do even more. Facilitating accelerated investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is flatly inconsistent with this responsibility, and with the diplomatic effort to build our standing as an international leader and facilitator of global cooperation to tackle the climate challenge.
Keystone XL is a big, literal, conspicuous example of exactly what we must not do if we are genuinely committed to climate solutions. It is a fundamental element — a “keystone” if you will — of the industry’s plan to expand production of this carbon-intensive fuel from 2 million barrels per day to 6 million bpd by 2030. And as significant as its direct consequences are, Keystone XL is much more than a pipeline. It is a test of whether we will indeed, as the President said in his inaugural address, “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
The human consequences of unchecked climate disruption are almost unimaginably grave. We cannot continue to ignore — or, worse, aggravate — these consequences by considering decisions like Keystone outside of this moral context. Approving the permit would amount to affirming moral evasion, at exactly the moment that you and the President have argued so passionately for moral engagement.
We believe in the power and promise of climate solutions. We know they work; we know they are economically viable; and we know we can implement them. We believe it’s time to look our kids and grandkids — the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters — in the eye and say, “We will do what must be done to protect you. We will make this better.”
But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse. That’s why we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
With hope and determination to build a healthy future, and the deepest respect for your leadership,
KC Golden, Policy Director Climate Solutions, 2012 Heinz Award in the Public Policy Category
Lois Gibbs, Executive Director Center for Health, Environment & Justice 1990 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
John Luther Adams, Composer 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Jane Akre, Independent News Group, LLC 2001 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science University of Washington, Department of Biology 2009 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Ralph Cavanagh, Energy Program Co-Director Natural Resources Defense Council 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Terrence J. Collins, PhD, Hon FRSNZ Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Director, Institute for Green Science Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Chemistry 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Anne H. Ehrlich, Senior Research Scientist Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Thomas FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. 2008 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Jerry F. Franklin, University of Washington, College of Forest Resources 2005 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer 2009 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2012 Wallenberg Medal Winner
James Hansen, Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2001 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Richard J Jackson, MD, MPH, Hon. AIA Former Director, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Professor & Chair, Environmental Health Science UCLA Fielding School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Hilton Kelley, Executive Director & Founder Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. NPA Regional Health Equity Council: Chairman R-6 National Partnership for Action (NPA) to End Health Disparities Member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member 2009-2011 2011 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner
Joanie Kleypas, Marine Scientist 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Elizabeth Kolbert, Journalist 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Peggy M. Shepard, Executive Director WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. 2004 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor on Environmental Health and Human Habitation Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard University, School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category
Coal export is kind of like the swimming pool game “Marco Polo”: if you open your eyes, it ruins the whole game.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead emerged as a stalwart defender of the eyes-closed rule last week, urging the White House Council on Environmental Quality to avoid any consideration of climate impacts in federal evaluation of coal exports.
He called assessing greenhouse gas impacts of coal export a “novel use of NEPA as a political opinion piece on global climate change.”
The National Environmental Policy Act is primarily a guide to procedure for environmental analysis, rather than a set of substantive requirements. Its most basic function is to provide decision-makers with a thorough assessment of environmental impacts: Whatever you’re going to do, says NEPA, do it in the daylight.
No, says Governor Mead. Coal export requires darkness. Open assessment of climate impacts would be “novel”, “political.” Using the nation’s pre-eminent environmental disclosure law to analyze the effects of the nation’s biggest fossil fuel development proposal on the nation’s biggest environmental problem would “undermine the fundamental fairness of the process.”
It’s a stunning admission, when you think about it: Governor Mead is all but conceding that coal export cannot withstand an honest evaluation of its biggest impact. It puts the lie to the coal industry’s unsupportable claims that coal export will have no effect on the amount of coal burned in Asia (see distraction 2., in “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, part 4: Field guide to distractions”.)
In a letter to CEQ, Governors Kitzhaber and Inslee called for full disclosure: ”We believe the decisions to continue and expand coal leasing from federal lands and authorize the export of that coal are likely to lead to long-term investments in coal generation in Asia, with air quality and climate impacts in the United States that dwarf almost any other action the federal government could take in the foreseeable future,” they wrote.
And that’s exactly why Governor Mead won’t have any analysis of those impacts. A full, thorough, honest review of the costs and benefits of coal export proposals will sink them. So opponents fight on for light, while Governor Mead champions the only circumstance in which coal export has a chance: utter climate darkness.
To deflect attention from these show-stoppers, coal export proponents change the subject. They propagate arguments to have arguments – to pose, debate, rehash – so as to keep us distracted from forming clear-eyed ethical judgments about coal export.
So you shouldn’t read this post. Really, don’t bother.
….But some of us aren’t disciplined enough to ignore these arguments. We can’t help ourselves; we need to noodle through them. You are one of us if you’ve read this far. So, I offer this annotated, illustrated field guide to 6 of the most popular coal export rationalizations. But remember: it doesn’t matter, because it’s wrong and it’s not us.
1. “If the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point isn’t built, the trains would come anyway and offload in British Columbia.”
This argument is brutal in its fatalism. It basically boils down to: “Well, yes, it sucks, but there’s nothing you can do about it. So, communities from Billings to Bellingham: Lump it.” The argument is, thankfully, wrong, but it’s remarkably persistent - almost as persistent as Eric de Place at Sightline, who just keeps slapping it down. His posts are the go-to resource on the subject. Bottom line: No more terminal capacity, no more coal export.
2. “Coal export wouldn’t increase net emissions; if we don’t ship it, Asia will just use other coal.” Vic Svec, VP of investor relations for Peabody Coal, went so far as to tell National Geographic: “It’s safe to say that not one more pound of coal will be used in Asia because of this terminal.” This argument defies the basic principles of economics. Asia won’t buy the coal unless it’s cheaper than the alternatives, and if it’s cheaper, they’ll burn more. There wouldn’t be compensating emission reductions in the U.S., because coal is already in steep decline here (mostly because it can’t meet clean air standards and gas is cheap). That, in fact, is why the industry is so desperate to beat an export path through our front yard. See and hear:
- Dr. Thomas Power: The Greenhouse Gas Impact of Exporting Coal from the West Coast
- A Battle Over the Future of the Coal on To the Point
- The harder they come: a rough guide to the climate impact of coal export.
3. “Powder River Basin coal is cleaner than the coal that China would otherwise use.”
“Clean” and “coal” never belong in the same sentence. Yes, PRB coal is lower in sulfur, but that’s another reason why they would use more of it. We all deserve clean air, but no one deserves the catastrophic climate consequences of encouraging fast-growing economies to stake their energy future on coal. (If you think carbon capture and sequestration is the answer, then you don’t want to export coal now because it will lock in more coal infrastructure that lacks CCS capability.) See:
- Purple Orca: Our coal is cleaner
- Sightline’s Coal Export FAQ
- Coal export violates Rule 1 for winning the climate game: Don’t lose (see Note 2 on CCS)
Coal export means a few jobs for some, but it’s a terrible jobs strategy for Washington. If ships leaving America loaded with coal pass ships coming from Asia carrying solar panels and wind turbines and flat-screen TVs, who’s getting the jobs? See:
- Dan Kammen: Coal’s no way to make the job market hop
- The Impact of the Development of the Gateway Pacific Terminal on the Whatcom County Economy
- By undermining our values and brand, coal export will cost more jobs than it creates. See: Parts 1 and 3.
This is sort of a microcosm of the whole climate conundrum: If everyone’s responsible, is anyone? I haven’t seen much written on this yet. OK, you talked me into it; I’ll post more on this later. Initial thoughts:
- Before we get into the legal debate, let’s start with common sense. In both sheer magnitude and direct causal relationship, coal export is, as Governor Inslee recently said, “the largest decision we will be making as a state from a carbon pollution standpoint, ….nothing comes even close to it.” It’s one of the top threats globally among projects that would make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. Are we really afraid that the slippery slope of analyzing climate impacts is more dangerous than the slippery slope of ignoring them, while aggressively exacerbating them, as the climate crisis deepens?
- The Keystone Principle is a useful screen here. Shipping wheat may cause some emissions; but it does not materially increase long-term capital infrastructure decisions that lock in dangerous climate disruption. Coal export does.
- The same people who insist that climate impacts must remain outside the scope of the environmental review also argue that there are no climate impacts (see 1. above). Hmmm.
Where exactly do you draw the line? The courts will sort out the legal answer. But there’s a right answer: “Here. Now. Before it’s too late.”
This is the saddest of the diversionary arguments, because it is so exasperatingly true. Having devoted my professional life to those “right” ways of responding to the climate crisis, it’s a poignant reminder of how far we haven’t come yet. And it’s a particularly bitter pill when administered by people who purchase political outcomes to prevent those solutions from happening.
But it’s still a distraction. This isn’t a hypothetical choice between rejecting coal export and adopting an effective global climate treaty. It’s a real, fateful choice between facilitating coal export and…not. Stopping coal export certainly won’t deliver the climate solutions we need. But if we don’t stop coal export (and other major new infrastructure investments that lock-in catastrophic emission levels), then all those solutions will be too little, too late.
I join those who wish we had made responsible policy choices that might have prevented this whole damned fight, and invite them to help us make those choices going forward. But that’s not an answer to the coal export question. We are where we are, and we’ve got an up or down decision to make.
We all need to be part of the climate solution, because we’re all part of the problem. But condoning a massive expansion of global coal commerce – inviting it into our communities, spending public money to facilitate it, squandering our brand on it – would be more than playing a part. It’d be auditioning to star in King Coal’s climate-destroying puppet show.
At the end of part 1 of this post, I proposed that after part 4, ”we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like.“ Be it therefore resolved…
Who are we, anyway? We had better decide. Because accepting the coal industry’s plan to turn the Northwest into a mainline for delivering lethal doses of coal into the global energy system would answer the question. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the answer we’d consciously choose.
In Part 2 of this post, I argued that coal export is wrong, because it would materially contribute to fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable (the Keystone Principle). But it’s not just generally wrong. It’s wrong in specific ways that make it particularly objectionable to us, here, now. Coal export would violate our identity, partly because it’s so (did I mention this?) wrong, but also because it’s so, so,….retrograde.
We’re working toward broadly-shared, sustainable prosperity; coal concentrates and removes wealth, leaving poverty and destruction in its wake. We’re about a high quality of life; coal systematically degrades quality of life. The Northwest honors its past and looks forward to a brighter future. The coal industry tears up the past and burns up the future. We have staked our reputation and our economy on innovative technology, clean energy, healthy communities, and renewable natural resources. Coal is the opposite of all that.
Thanks to our abundant renewable resources and sustained investment in energy efficiency, Washington is now in position to become the first coal-free state in the U.S.. Seattle City Light divested from coal in 2000 and completely zeroed out its carbon footprint in 2005. Washington and Oregon achieved agreements last year to phase out our coal plants and we’re moving toward retiring the plants in the Mountain West that serve our energy demand.
So how ironic, how tragic would it be for the Northwest to pull a violent 180 and become North America’s biggest coal depot? It doesn’t just negate our energy strategy. It’s an affront to our vision, our values, our identity as people and communities. Beyond the quantifiable impacts – climate disruption, ocean acidification, air pollution, noise, congestion, public safety, water contamination, etc. – there’s a deeper sense that coal export would be a turnabout, a one-way ticket away from our best future.
That sense comes into sharper and louder focus with each new voice rising in opposition from Northwest communities – and they are legion. Hear them out:
Julie Trimingham of Communitywise Bellingham memorably said to NPR, “It’s almost inconceivable that there would be a plan afoot to change this part of the world to a coal export facility. It seems ironic or cruel, or misguided at best.”
Edmonds City Council member Strom Peterson wrote, “Our futures are brighter and our communities are stronger because we are building vibrant local economies – great places where people want to live, work, shop, and play. Coal export is the direct opposite of that vision.”
Sustainability is a core value, an organizing principle, and a prosperity driver for communities like Bellingham. But what about Longview, a hard-working community known for heavy industry, gritty port operations, and raw log exports? You might think coal export would work for them. But they’ve got something better in mind. Here’s the vision statement from the Cowlitz County Economic Development Plan, “The Turning Point”:
“Cowlitz County will transition from a natural resource dependent economy, embrace higher value projects, and raise its profile within a broader regional market.”
Coal export would bury that vision. Reverend Kathleen Patton, rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church worries, “If Longview winds up becoming a coal-export facility, I really do wonder if that’s the last 135 jobs this town will see. Who else would be attracted to come here? I don’t see how we can justify saying a few jobs here makes it all worthwhile when we’re jeopardizing the health of not just the planet but even the people who are supposedly going to benefit from this export facility.”
Defending the region’s identity against the coal onslaught might seem like a luxury if you don’t have a job. But the Northwest’s commitment to quality of life and sustainable prosperity isn’t just a cultural amenity. It’s one of our most important economic assets, our competitive edge. Our existing job base and our ability to sustain and attract good jobs going forward depend on it.
As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:
“Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource.” And it’s not just fisheries. It’s all the jobs and benefits that flow from the fact that this is just one hell of a fine place to be in so many ways that coal export would defile.
The tribes get the last word; no one speaks with more authority to the power of our regional identity. In a powerful, prophetic ceremony last fall, the Lummi Nation burned a blank check at Cherry Point, a proposed coal export site. Even King Coal doesn’t have enough money to compensate them for losing their culture, their home.
“No deals, thank you,” said Fran James, 88, a revered tribal elder called as a witness to the ceremony. “All of our elders have always told us: ‘Take care of this place.’”
The Northwest will be safe from coal export when we stand as firm and proud for our regional identity as Lummi Councilman Jay Julius: “The Lummi Nation will not step out of the way. We will protect with our every breath the ancient lifeway on these waters and honor our ancestors buried at Cherry Point.”
Click here for Part 1 of this series, “Live onstage in the great Northwest: King Coal’s tragic puppet show”
Click here for Part 2, “King Coal’s tragic puppet show, Part 2 – Coal export is wrong”
When last we left our intrepid heroes, the great Northwest had woken up to find itself cast in the wrong movie, sort of like Owen Wilson playing Richard Nixon (see Part 1). If we’re disoriented, it’s no wonder – what, with all the crap flying around trying to convince us that turning Cascadia into a conveyor belt for coal is the best idea since Boeing. So let’s cut some of it.
Coal export from the Northwest would increase coal consumption and carbon emissions, not just displace other coal. The coal trains won’t “come anyway” and continue on to terminals in B.C. if the Cherry Point project isn’t built. Examining the climate impacts of coal export will not threaten airplane manufacturing or wheat exports, for Pete’s sake. (In part 4 of this post, we further deconstruct the most popular rationalizations for coal export.)
But as analytically weak as these arguments are, the coal industry wins just by having them. They serve the essential purpose of diverting our attention from the first, most fundamental reason why we should reject coal export: It’s wrong.
Even if you could demonstrate that it would have zero effect on net coal consumption (and again, you can’t), coal export is materially participating in and profiting from an enterprise that sows death and destruction around the world. Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy. Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought. In January, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean. This is what climate disruption looks like. And coal causes it.
If we keep pouring capital investment into fossil fuel infrastructure for just a few more years, we will be locked into emission trajectories that make catastrophic disruption inevitable. Arguments to the effect of “if we don’t do it, someone else will” just don’t hold moral water when “it” leads to unimaginably grave human consequences. It’s not right, no matter what anyone else does.
So far, the discussion of coal export has mostly occurred outside this moral context. But closing our eyes to the consequences doesn’t make them go away. On the contrary, ethical evasion is the essential host condition in which injustices metastasize into historic moral crimes.
“We are not responsible.”
The whole edifice constructed for the express purpose of blocking climate action is built on this single, unconscionable stance. With each new definitive finding of culpability, fossil fuel interests devise a new dodge. The bottom line is always the same: It ain’t me, babe.
First, it wasn’t happening. Then it was happening but it wasn’t human-caused. (Damn those sun spots.) Then it was human-caused but there’s nothing we can do because China and India’s emissions will swamp us anyway. And now we might as well shovel their coal because otherwise they’ll just burn someone else’s. If we don’t ship it, the trains will just “pass us by” and offload elsewhere. If we consider climate impacts now, where do we draw the line? Resistance is futile. Responsibility is no one’s.
So coal export proponents are part of a rich tradition of moral circumvention, offering a familiar litany of shirks and jives to deflect responsibility for climate consequences. Without relieving them of their accountability for this mess, you can understand how coal export enablers would default to a position of climate adolescence. Their failure to accept responsibility for climate disruption is, after all, the prevailing condition of American society. Denial is an ecosystem. When the President of the United States says in the same speech that we owe it to our kids to tackle climate disruption and we need an “all of the above” energy strategy, it’s hard to know which end is up.
But now, here, we have to deal with it. Morally and mathematically, the gig is up. If we aim to make it better, there’s just no more room for big capital investments that make it irretrievably worse. Going forward with coal export amounts to looking our kids in the eye and saying “we are resigned to a future of unrelenting climate disasters for you, so it’s okay to make a few bucks now by facilitating that future.” (Here is how they might respond.) That may not be anyone’s intent. But it would be the result.
How can we draw this moral line against coal export (or anywhere), when we exacerbate climate disruption every time we drive a car or eat an imported banana? By invoking the Keystone Principle: As we begin the long, slow journey to climate solutions, we must immediately cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “lock in” dangerous emission levels.
It will take decades to decarbonize our transportation and energy systems. We can do it over time, patiently and incrementally, building stronger economies and healthier communities as we go. But we cannot make big new capital investments now that irrevocably commit us to catastrophic climate failure. Driving to the store or eating a banana is not such an investment. Coal export is.
You could it see it coming a mile away.
King Coal rumbled into town with carloads of money, but they needed local cover. Opportunistic PR and legal firms welcomed the business. Sure, it carried some environmental freight, but it was okay because they appeared to be erring on the side of jobs – the only coin of the political realm at the time.
Then comes the reckoning: Sightline Institute follows the money, exposing the hypocrisy of consultants using their green reputations to hawk Coal. The Seattle Times does a big front page expose. David Roberts at Grist takes the gloves all the way off. The smackdown goes viral. The consultants get their due.
Betrayal. Greenwashing. Jobs vs. the environment. Battle lines are drawn, sides chosen. An epic battle looms. There is dramatic fulfillment in this, a sense that we’ve fallen into a familiar narrative structure. That’s what we do to make sense of the world: find an archetypal story, fit reality to it, and then play our roles.
But before we act out this whole long, sad, bloody spectacle, let me just say: it doesn’t have to be this way. We shouldn’t be having this fight in this community. We’ve been hoodwinked into becoming characters in somebody else’s story. The real villain here is the desperate and dangerous coal industry.
We’re tackling the climate challenge and creating jobs by building our clean energy economy and reducing domestic coal consumption. It’s great for us and the rest of the planet, but it’s an existential threat to the U.S. coal industry. So King Coal is hell-bent on reaching new markets. They’re willing to mow down anything in their way, including us – the folks who are on our way to building the nation’s first coal-free energy system.
For them, that irony is delicious. For us, it’s beyond tragic.
Since the coal industry can’t publicly represent themselves, they’ve built front groups, greased palms, and hired local talent so they don’t have to show their faces. Not surprisingly, we coal export opponents connect the dots and call out the complicity. The consultants got too close to the villain, and got the stink all over them. I applaud Sightline for exposing this and demanding accountability. But the whole damned coal-sponsored drama is toxic. Dividing and devastating communities has always been the coal industry’s M.O..
We can’t let them do it here. The great Pacific Northwest is not a global coal depot, a pusher for fossil fuel addiction, a logistics hub for climate devastation. We’re the last place on Earth that should settle for a tired old retread of the false choice between jobs and the environment. Coal export is fundamentally inconsistent with our vision and values. It’s not just a slap in the face to “green” groups. It’s a moral disaster and an affront to our identity as a community.
We have come too far together. We’ve done too much to make our region a proving ground for a better way forward, a way that doesn’t end in catastrophic climate disruption. We don’t have to play out this false and fruitless drama like puppets on a stage built by and for King Coal.
I know this appeal to our common identity may sound hollow if you don’t have a job and the coal industry has promised you one. But our identity isn’t just a green cultural amenity. It’s the meaning of our past and the driver for our future. It propels our economy. It’s what makes this such a uniquely desirable and productive place. If we squander our freight capacity, our waterways, our health, our quality of life, and our regional brand on coal export, the loss of jobs and opportunity will dwarf the blip of construction jobs building coal depots. As Pete Knutson, owner of Loki Fish Company, said in his testimony at the Seattle coal export hearing:
”Anyone who claims that this massive coal project is about jobs had better learn to subtract. We have 15,000 fishery jobs in Puget Sound; now our marine livelihoods are at stake. A job is not necessarily a livelihood. We’re weighing jobs based on the one-time exploitation of a fossil fuel versus livelihoods based on a sustainable resource. We have a moral obligation to reject this proposal.”
When this whole drama is over, I believe we will affirm our regional identity – our core, shared commitment to sustainable, broadly-shared health and prosperity – and conclude that coal trafficking is the opposite of that. What’s so crazy and sad is that people who share those values are now commercially obligated to argue that a massive expansion of global coal commerce is the right thing for us, the right thing to do as the climate crisis deepens. No matter how much money King Coal throws at them, they will fail. But in the meantime, what a tragic, unnecessary setback for our community…what a godawful mess.
Yes, they got themselves into it. And maybe the die is now cast. But before we concede that – before anyone in our community further commits themselves to repeat the demonstrably false and irresponsible rationalizations for coal export – I’m hoping some of them might be willing to think this through again. Because the longer we play out King Coal’s sad puppet show, the worse it gets for our community.
This will take a little doing, because the layers of rationalization around coal export are so thick. And this post is already too long.
So in part 2 of this post, we look at the most compelling reason to reject coal export – the one that should make further discussion unnecessary: Because it’s wrong.
In part 3, we further explore why coal export is an economically and culturally devastating affront to our identity as a region and a community. It’s just not us.
In part 4, we: a) catalogue some of the ways in which coal export proponents try to evade responsibility for climate and other impacts; b) demonstrate that they are false, and then c) propose that we should stop having those arguments because they divert our attention from what’s really important: it’s wrong and it’s not us.
And then we’ll just rise up together, swat this insult to our shared values aside, and get on with our destiny as the region best qualified to show the world what sustainable prosperity looks like. OK?