A grassroots people powered movement has transformed how electricity is made in the US, away from the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, coal, toward renewable energy, shares this week’s Climate Curious expert, Mary Anne Hitt, Senior Director at Climate Imperative.

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The Big Idea

Sometimes — okay, maybe, a lot — it can feel like we’re stuck in the middle of the Don’t Look Up plot. A David and Goliath tale in which the climate avengers have no hope. 

So it’s important to celebrate the wins. That’s the story of the Beyond Coal campaign. 

“This is a grassroots people-powered movement that transformed how we make electricity in the United States, away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy. And we just keep going and growing and making more and more progress.”

Real life superhero, Mary Anne Hitt, Senior Director at Climate Imperative, tells us how it was done.

The Beyond Coal campaign

A decade ago in the United States, half of all electricity was coming from coal. It was the biggest contributor to climate change, and all sorts of very dangerous air and water pollution. 

But over the course of a decade, an incredible grassroots movement succeeded in securing the retirement of two thirds of the coal plants in the US. 

That means that currently, out of 530 coal plants that we had a decade ago, 358 are retired or slated to retire. 

So only 172 left. 

Now, coal makes up less than 20% of all electricity in the UK. In fact, the US now gets more of its electricity from renewable sources than coal. “It has been the lion’s share of the greenhouse gas reductions in the United States,” says Mary Anne. 

Major win!

How does it feel?

Seeing David beat Goliath over and over again gave Mary Anne “a huge appreciation for how much is possible and how much we actually can change the world.”

What is coal and where does it come from?

Millions of years ago, Earth was covered in trees and plants (ah, those halcyon days!)

These plants died in swamps around riverbanks and were covered with soil and mud. 

As the years passed, the weight of the ground along with the Earth’s heat, converted these dead plants into what we know as coal.

Let’s rewind 10 years.

When the campaign started, it felt like they were trying to move a mountain. In fact, that’s actually what brought Mary Anne — who is from Appalachia — into the movement, because the coal industry was blowing them up. 

A lot of these coal plants were also making people sick, giving kids asthma in the neighbourhoods, and releasing toxic coal ash into the water.

When one day the latest coal-fired plant was approved, Mary Anne decided enough was enough. 

“We started working to just try to stop this one new coal plant because we thought if they build this, then they’re going to have all the more reason to keep going. And it turned out it was one of 200 new coal fired power plants that were proposed in the US in this era.”

Mary Anne Hitt

So she joined together with people from across the country to connect and learn from each other. 

“We stopped 200 coal plants in the United States, and had they been built. Obviously then we would have been locked into this most polluting energy source for another 50 years, and there would have been no space for clean energy, the world would be a very different place.” 

Mary Anne Hitt

Doing this, they learned a few things:

  1. How to win
  2. How decisions get made

“People thought we were crazy. Barack Obama was running for president and the heart of his platform was supporting clean coal. This was a marketing phrase from the coal industry that people were using all the time. People said if you transitioned anything, the lights would go out, and people’s electricity bills would go up. It was seen as just a wild, impossible thing to try to attempt.”

Mary Anne Hitt

Sound familiar? It’s the exact same narrative big oil and gas companies are peddling now. 

“It’s a similar playbook of the gas industry, the oil industry, the coal industry, which is to dominate the market, but also dominate the politics and then make people very fearful of the alternatives,” says Mary Anne. 

But the places where climate change is already wreaking havoc, renewable energy is coming in to save the day, not fossil fuels. Just listen to our episode with Justine Locke to find out how solar farms are helping Hurricane Alley. 

By this point — given the pressing need for the world to move away from fossil fuels — you might be expecting the UK government to say that Russian oil will be replaced with renewables, that they might think twice before investing in more fossil fuels. 

Surprise! It’s more investment in fossil fuels instead. 

“The long term energy security solution is renewable energy, because you don’t have to buy the sun and the wind from Vladimir Putin.”

Mary Anne Hitt

And the cherry on the cake? Renewables are cheaper! 

But oil and gas companies will not be happy with that. So prepare your shit shields, Mary Anne advises, and be prepared for a gigantic onslaught of greenwashing, fear mongering bollocks. 

“I really think we should prepare ourselves to see a lot more of their confusing PR and dirty tricks and interference with politics. But the trends are in the face on the side of clean energy, the economics, the politics, and the public will now err on the side of clean energy.”

Mary Anne Hitt

Shifting mindsets from underdog to… overdog?

According to Mary Anne, the momentum has shifted to the renewable side. So how do we capitalise on that? “Because this is the key decade,” she says. 

“We will always be an underdog when it comes to the money of the fossil fuel industry. They will always be able to blanket the world with commercials and fill up the coffers of politicians’ campaign funds and we’ll always be an underdog or for a long time, at least financially. But I think, again, the economics, the technology, and the public are all on our side now. So we have to do as much as we can with that momentum and just keep going.”

Mary Anne Hitt

So what does it take to shut down a coal plant?

One of the things about the Beyond Coal campaign that was a transformational insight was that the decisions that are made about how electricity is generated in the United States were not all made in Washington, or the White House or in Congress. They were being made in states.

As advocates, the Beyond Coal team had to learn how to go into those places and make the kind of arguments that those decision makers were going to hear which were about keeping the lights on and keeping energy bills low. So they learned how to make the argument that clean energy was actually the way to keep the lights on and keep energy bills low. 

But they were up against these huge electric utilities and so we were very much the underdog. But they soon learned how to make good arguments. 

The other thing that they did was at the national level, where there were all of these huge loopholes for coal pollution. 

When President Obama came into office, there were no standards for coal plants’ greenhouse gases. They were putting 100% of it in the air. There were no federal standards for coal ash (like the ash in your fireplace) which is full of toxic heavy metals. And it was the second biggest volume of solid waste in the United States after municipal garbage. This was literally getting dumped into holes in the ground. 

Beyond Coal took these loopholes and pushed to either close them or shrink them.

Once these coal plants had to actually deal with their pollution, then they thought, ‘Oh, well, do we want to spend a bunch of money on this coal plant to get it up to date? Or do we just want to retire it and look at other options?’

In a nutshell, it was a glorious cocktail of federal and state pressure that did it. 

Four ingredients for a successful campaign for you budding activists: 

  1. Figure out what you’re trying to change

It might sound obvious but the first step is to get really granular on what the change you’re trying to make is. Get into the details. 

  1. Find out where the decisions are being made.

We might assume that decisions are made at the highest levels, but not all decisions are made there. 

  1. Make it too expensive to continue business as usual. 

Sometimes when we are campaigning on something that we feel very deeply about, our arguments might be moral or ethical. But sometimes you’ve got to speak to a spade in spade ie. talk money to big oil. 

  1. Get the public mobilised 

Floods, fires and heatwaves are happening on people’s doorsteps. So getting them onside is all about helping them connect the dots and pointing to a better future with clean energy, green jobs and economic opportunities. 

Maybe you’re thinking by this point about Van Gogh-gate and wondering whether that was an effective direct action or whether step 3 might have been more effective. 

But it’s not an either or situation. In any movement, you need a bit of both. 

As host Maryam Pasha says, we need a ‘both and’ mentality because “it’s so much more valuable if you can see the role that people have to play. Some people have to be the loud people or the people who glue themselves to things. And some people have to be the ones that are thinking strategically and having the conversations.”

There have been huge wins in the US, but what about globally?

Coal supplies over one-third of global electricity generation. So it’s still a huge problem.

But one of the exciting things that happened around 2016-17, Mary Anne says, is that other countries started creating their own Beyond Coal campaigns. Europe, Sierra Leone, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and more all have their own Beyond Coal campaigns. 

This means there’s a whole global network of advocates from every continent that are all working to move away from coal to clean energy. 

At COP26 last year in Glasgow, Alok Sharma, the UK president for COP26, told the world that he wanted COP26 to be “the COP where we consign coal power to history.”

“I was sitting in the room in Glasgow with Bruce Nilles, who I ran the beyond coal campaign with for 10 years, seeing those words on the screen of uniting the world to consign call to history. And I was blown away. That in a decade, the work that we and so many other people had done, had shifted the debate, and shifted the terms and shifted everyone’s mindset so much that now it was just not a matter of whether we’re going to consign coal to history, but when and how fast.”

Mary Anne Hitt

“Now,” Mary Anne says, “there is truly a global shared understanding that we have to get away from coal as fast as we can, and that we need to replace it with clean And that’s just a testament to advocates and advocacy, and tenacious determination over many, many years.”

So what’s next?

The main thing, and you’ve probably heard it before, is that we are running out of time. 

So we need to scale this and go even faster. Because we don’t just need to kick our addiction to coal. We need to get off all fossil fuels. 

“I’m really thinking about how to take the lessons that we learned, and then learn things from other folks and other movements and exponentially speed up that progress,” says Mary Anne. 

But the important thing is that it’s possible. 

“Sometimes I think one of the biggest barriers to us tackling the climate crisis is our own lack of imagination, and not actually believing that we can do this… I really believe that we are the architects of our future. And it’s not the fossil fuel industry that is going to write the next chapter of our future. It’s us.”

Mary Anne Hitt

Until next time — stay curious!

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