Here’s a piece I wrote for the Sunday “Viewpoints” section of the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance-Star. It appeared on August 23rd and was picked up by the McClatchy wire service, so it turned up in a few other places as well, the most gratifying to me being the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, at pretty much ground zero in the fight against Big Coal. This is the draft I originally submitted, with links to provide some background. The draft wasn’t much changed in the editing room. They gave it the pithy title, “Averting Catastrophe: A Tale of Censorship, Civil Disobedience, Greed, and Willful Ignorance.” (As Jim Hansen explains near the end of this piece, he actually prefers the phrase — and the philosophy — of civil resistance to civil disobedience, and he takes this from Gandhi, whom he has been reading lately.)
Our planet’s preeminent climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen of NASA, faces the very real threat of spending a year in jail. He and thirty others were arrested in June (see this too), during an act of civil resistance at an elementary school in West Virginia where children learn their lessons at the defenseless edge of the 2,000-acre mountaintop-removal mine on Coal River Mountain, owned by Richmond-based Massey Energy. The school “stands as the prime example of just how far this country has gone to support its addiction to coal, and just how far Massey Energy will go to support its profit margin,” wrote the resisters on the day of the arrests. “The West Virginia Supreme Court has joined Governor Manchin in turning their backs on these children, subjecting them to expanded operations within 300 feet of the school … . According to Massey’s own documents, [the expanded] operations will add over three tons of coal dust to the air the children breathe every school year during their most formative years.”
Hansen’s prospects for a fair trial don’t look good. For Big Coal, and Massey in particular, have undue influence in West Virginia courts. The state supreme court has twice overturned a $50 million jury verdict against Massey, and in each case the deciding vote was cast by a judge with an alarmingly close relationship to the company’s CEO, Don Blankenship. After the first vote, photographs surfaced of justice Elliott Maynard dining with Blankenship on the French Riviera and in Monaco. When the court reconsidered the case, justice Brent Benjamin, who tipped the scales the second time, failed to recuse himself even though Blankenship had spent over $3 million on television advertisements for his election campaign. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled this a violation of the Constitution. The case will be reconsidered again.
The schoolchildren, their parents, and their neighbors near the mine on Coal River Mountain face other dangers from this most destructive form of coal mining: a 2.8 billion-gallon sludge dam stands 400 yards upstream from the school, and Massey has an egregious history of water pollution. In 2000, a break in a dam at a Massey mine in Kentucky released 250 million gallons of coal slurry and killed wildlife as far as sixty miles downstream. Last year the company agreed to pay $20 million to settle a lawsuit by the Environmental Protection Agency over more than 4,600 documented cases of illegal dumping into Appalachian waterways.
But it was not only concern for local citizens and ecosystems that took Jim Hansen to West Virginia. For almost three decades, he has been warning of a threat that stands to kill many times the human population of all Appalachia and eliminate perhaps half the other species on Earth: human-induced climate change. Coal represents the single largest component of that threat and the one that could push the planet across the threshold where catastrophic change cascades out of our control. Amazingly, Jim first warned about coal in 1981, when he and some colleagues published a landmark paper in Science that marks the beginning of his still unbroken string of accurate predictions. It is chilling to read the paper today, not only for its prescience, but also because it raises the same difficult issues we now face, which today loom three decades larger, for we’ve done nothing to address them but talk. The scientists pointed out that if humans were to burn all the available oil and natural gas on the planet, we would probably increase the atmospheric abundance of carbon dioxide by less than half the preindustrial amount: to a dangerous, but perhaps not catastrophic level. They added, however, that there is enough coal to double the pre-industrial amount at least. The informed scientific community agrees almost unanimously that this spells catastrophe. The paper suggested, therefore, that the “key fuel choice is between coal and alternatives that do not increase atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Massey Energy has applied for permits to remove more than ten square miles of a ridge on Coal River Mountain that would make a fine location for a wind farm. As the ridge is destroyed, this renewable opportunity disappears with it. Such are the choices we have made for the past twenty-eight years in the face of increasingly undeniable evidence that they will change the face of our planet and burn large holes in the web of life.
Politicians have rarely been comfortable with Jim Hansen’s words. When the 1981 paper led to the first story about global warming ever to appear on the front-page of the New York Times, the Reagan administration cut Jim’s budget and warned other scientists that they would lose funding if they based their work on his computerized climate model. All three Republican administrations since 1981 have censored him, and while Democrats haven’t been quite as bare-knuckled, he and Al Gore enjoyed frosty relations for more than ten years, for example, after Gore, as vice president, pressured him to make the science seem stronger and more dire than it was at the time. (Today’s science shows, incidentally, that Gore was mostly right.)
Now Jim has parted ways with the Obama administration by calling for a ban on mountaintop removal mining and on new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and store the carbon dioxide they emit. He objects strongly, moreover, to the American Clean Energy and Security Act, sponsored by congressmen Waxman and Markey, pointing out that it contains so many concessions to Big Coal and other special interests that its effect on future climates will be nil: it is just more talk.
We should listen when a man of Jim’s impeccable integrity, who has been right for thirty years, is willing to lay his freedom on the line. He knows that we are perilously — perhaps hopelessly — close to the edge. Is coal so important that we will compromise the lives of our children and grandchildren for it? And is this how our democracy should work?