Last night, Saint Matthew’s Catholic Church in Charlotte graciously hosted a panel discussion on “Communities and Coal.” We were lucky to hear from panelists from communities impacted by coal in Appalachia and the Pacific Northwest, as well as from experts on the health consequences of climate change and the growing impacts of coal on communities in India.
Todd Zimmer of RAN introduced the panel by noting that the audience included community members from Charlotte as well as student leaders of the campus fossil fuel divestment movement from Western Washington, Brown, Harvard, and Davidson. Todd remarked that although Bank of America has stated its intention to be a leader on climate and clean energy, its track record as the number one funder of the coal industry is in direct conflict with this ambition. The bank’s lending and financing decisions involving the coal industry that are made at the bank’s headquarters in Uptown Charlotte impose immense costs for communities in the U.S. and around the world.
The first guest speaker, Ashish Fernandes of Greenpeace spoke about the dangers of India’s coal industry to rural communities, the environment, and to investors exposed to risky energy infrastructure in the country. Contrary to the myth that a coal boom in India is inevitable due to the country’s energy needs, most new coal plants and mines face huge community opposition across India. In the last three years alone, courts have sent back at least four different power plants to drawing board. India produces 65 percent of its electricity from coal, and produces 90% of its coal from open pit mines, which endanger over a million hectares of forest, and threaten the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities in the country’s coal belt. Fortunately, wind is now cheaper than new coal plants in India and solar will reach grid parity with coal in under four years. However, the enduring influence of India’s coal lobby risks locking the country into coal dependence.
Next, Barbara Gottlieb, the director of health and advocacy for Physicians for Social Responsibility spoke to the global impacts of climate change on health. She began by highlighting that climate change is no longer a theoretical problem: It is happening now, and it is happening to us. Furthermore, she emphasized that climate change is not just an environmental issue. The British medical journal The Lancet called climate change “the health challenge of the 21st Century.” Barbara noted that climate change is associated with more frequent and more intense storms, extreme heat waves, and drought, all of which pose acute risks to human health. She concluded by stressing that there is a way forward for Bank of America and the financial sector: Shifting their financing to clean, renewable energy.
Next, Bonnie McKinley from Portland, Oregon spoke to her experiences working with Power Past Coal and Rising Tide North America to fight plans to export coal from Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin through ports on the Pacific Northwest. Currently, Arch Coal, Peabody Energy, Kinder Morgan, and other companies have introduced plans to build export infrastructure to ship Powder River Basin coal to be burned in India, China, and elsewhere in Asia. These proposed coal export terminals would bring up to 70 coal trains per day (each up to a mile-and-a-half long) through residential neighborhoods, leaving a trail of heavy metal-laden coal dust and putting communities at risk for derailments. Bonnie concluded on a hopeful note, remarking that a proposed railway for coal exports would never be built because, in the words of activist Vanessa Braided Hair, “Arch Coal understands money. What Arch Coal doesn’t understand is community. They don’t understand history. They don’t understand the Cheyenne people whose ancestors fought and died for the land that they are proposing to destroy. They don’t understand the fierceness with which the people, both Indian and non-Indian, in southeastern Montana love the land.” Bonnie also had a message for her baby boomer peers, urging them to take action to protect their communities and the climate: “Please get out and work for our special planet.”
Finally, Kathy Selvage from Wise County, Virgina spoke about her decade-long experience fighting the impacts of mountaintop removal mining in her community and throughout Appalachia. She began by calling for the bank to “return to the integrity I knew decades ago” as an employee of a predecessor bank, Wise County National. Kathy spoke of her mother, who “would go outside and read the bible on front porch, then raise eyes to ponder what she had just read. When she raised her eyes, she saw a beautiful mountain across from her.” But after Glen Morgan Properties destroyed the mountain as part of one of their mountaintop removal mines, when her mother raised her eyes, “she saw the devastation of god’s creation.” The devastation wrought by the coal company that destroyed her community inspired Kathy to become active in the fight against mountaintop removal.
Kathy concluded by urging the audience to think about the interconnections between climate change, mountaintop removal, and other environmental issues. Faced with growing evidence of environmental threats hurting our communities and the environment, she reminded us that “we can no longer afford to stand still like we’re not a part of this planet.”