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Grassroots Activism Is the Key to Transitioning America From Coal to Clean Energy

July 22, 2015

News_coal_power_plant_for_PhilanTopicWhen business reporters, industry leaders, and analysts claim "market forces" on Wall Street are behind coal's decline, they're getting it only half right. The most powerful forces driving this transition are the national network of grassroots activists and growing coalition of more than one hundred allied organizations working for a clean-energy future. All across the nation, empowered communities are defending their right to clean air, clean water, and a strong economy.

Over the past decade, health advocates, environmentalists, and community leaders have broken coal's hold on electricity production in the United States by organizing local grassroots campaigns backed by strategic litigation. After watching generations of families suffer the health impacts of coal burning, people all over the nation are taking to the streets to stand up to Big Coal. In fact, this movement recently celebrated a huge milestone when we announced the retirement of the two hundredth U.S. coal plant since 2010.

Two of the people fighting back are Wally and Clint McRae, a father and son who have fought for thirty years to protect their Montana cattle ranch from a proposed coal train that would cut right through their land. The McRaes have been active for decades in their local community, but with the support of Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, they were able to bring their message to a national stage.

Beyond Coal works to organize the people most impacted by coal and amplify their personal narratives, building a national campaign fueled by the power of local stories. With the support of committed donors, the campaign has mobilized thousands of people like Wally and Clint and secured the closing of 191 coal plants and 549 coal boilers over the past decade.

This is a great start, and with donor support, we can do even more.

In the absence of meaningful national leadership from our elected officials, philanthropies are looking to grassroots models of change. Supporters such as Bloomberg Philanthropies are committed to our campaign because it represents people like Wally and Clint McRae. Rather than wait for elected officials and corporate leaders to act, Beyond Coal has demonstrated that we can realize significant returns on philanthropic investments in the climate fight by empowering local activists. It has helped build and shape diverse coalitions of nurses, teachers, parents, and faith leaders who are sick and tired of the asthma attacks and heart disease that coal plants inflict on their communities and brought local leaders together with experienced organizers, media professionals, and lawyers who know how to pressure indifferent polluters to clean up their acts.

Our strategy has been used, replicated, and customized from county to county and state to state, helping to save the lives of thousands of people affected by air pollution. You can see it gaining momentum in places like Indiana, where local activists recently won a nine-year battle to stop the proposed Leucadia coal gasification plant, a facility that would have dumped more coal pollution on an area already considered an "energy sacrifice zone" due to its unacceptably high levels of pollution. You can see it in the victory against Indianapolis Power and Light, which late last year announced it would stop burning coal at its Harding Street plant by 2016 in response to pressure from more than fifty churches, neighborhood associations, student groups, and other civic organizations. Those activists were able to force the utility to take action without a single lawsuit or intervention from federal or state agencies.

Such tactics are not restricted to coal plants; residents of coastal cities and towns are working to block Big Coal's export plans as well. Indeed, opposition to local coal export terminals has been so strong that The Atlantic credited environmentalists' pull with state legislatures for the development of a virtual coal blockade in the Pacific Northwest, where a desperate coal industry has attempted to offset falling domestic demand with foreign exports. Wally and Clint McRae have been deeply involved in that fight, too, testifying at hearings as far away as Washington State.

Our campaign has made its presence felt in fossil fuel-friendly Louisiana, where climate change activists came out in droves to pressure their leaders and courts to revoke a key permit granted to a proposed coal export terminal. The groundswell of public support for a shift from coal has grown so loud that even the Environmental Protection Agency is heeding calls to hold coal plant operators responsible for their pollution. Clean-air protections like the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard — which the U.S. Supreme Court overturned in a recent 5-to-4 decision — and the Clean Power Plan and SSM (startup, shutdown, and malfunction) have left many coal plant owners facing a choice between huge upgrade costs to protect public health or retiring their plants.

Our network of local activists has accomplished incredible things over the past decade — but there is still much work to be done. Beyond Coal aims to lock in half of America's coal plants for retirement and replace them with clean energy by 2017. Beyond that, we have an even more ambitious goal: transitioning the U.S. to 100 percent clean energy sources by 2030. And we aim to achieve that goal by doubling down on what has made us successful: persistence and the power of local activists. We know it's possible because we've already done it. In Austin, Texas, local activists recently won a commitment from their local utility to get 80 percent of their energy from carbon-free sources by 2023. With that agreement in place, we believe Texas's fastest-growing city is well positioned to meet our goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2030.

Bruce_nilles_for_PhilanTopic_125Though significant credit is due President Obama and the EPA for listening to the voices of families, health practitioners, and climate advocates, grassroots activists began and will continue to lead these efforts. People all over the world have been inspired by folks like the McRaes to act in their own interest and the interest of their communities. Local activists are driving unprecedented progress toward a clean-energy future in the U.S. With the help of philanthropic, private, and public-sector partners and the support of elected officials, we can, and will, do more.

Bruce Nilles is senior director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

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