Tom Friedman has a very interesting piece in the March 16 edition of the New York Times that reports the back story of the announcement last month that TXU would not build eight high-polluting coal plants in Texas. Turns out that the new owners of the utility were concerned about the public relations fallout from the battle they’d been engaged in with grassroots groups in Texas, and national environmental organizations, particularly Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The campaign against the plants involved the public’s growing knowledge of the costs of climate change, as well as the influence of the Internet and social media to inform and motivate the opposition. Friedman reports that some heavy duty Wall Street financiers also were involved. In the new era of public interest advocacy, the convergence of money, communications, research, and public opinion has the power to move major corporations concerned about their place in a global world.
Here in Michigan, we found similar publilc interest success three years ago when a Texas energy developer arrived in Manistee proposing to build a big coal-fired power plant. Residents put together a profoundly convincing case about the environmental and economic costs to the city and the region if the plant was approved. They also discovered that the developer could largely avoid paying municipal taxes, thus saddling Manistee with all of the costs associated with the plant, including rebuilding roads and providing police, fire, and emergency medical services. That evidence and more was disseminated over the Internet, fostering a very lively email conversation, and ultimately drawing over 1,000 people to three public hearings, after which the city ultimately turned the plant down.
In 2007 a new mainstream thought has entered the conversation about coal-fired plants in Michigan. Not a single new one ought to be built in the state, ever. The same thought has crossed the national intellectual radar lately. Amanda Griscom of Gristmagazine reported last week that James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s top climate scientists threw down the gauntlet. “There should be a moratorium on building any more coal-fired power plants,” Hansen told the National Press Club.
The evidence is powerful for developing cleaner and more economically productive energy sources, like solar and wind. The costs of coal are clear. And enough people know the basic parameters of the debate to make a ban on new coal plants plausible. Facts well-disseminated to an interested constituency has completely altered the balance of influence on the usefulness of coal as a fuel for generating electricity. And it’s happened Mode Shift fast.