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“Coal Poisons Everything It Touches”

Coal, climate, and the future of the Earth
“Coal Poisons Everything It Touches”
Paul Anderson

If there were an Olympics for environmental crime, the current proposal to export 100 million tons of coal to Asia every year would be a leading contender. Here's the plan: strip-mine coal in Wyoming and Montana, put it on trains for more than a thousand miles to Oregon and Washington, then ship it to Asia to be burned for energy. According to the International Energy Agency, coal is the world's largest source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas—now responsible for 45 percent of CO2 emissions. Burning coal for electricity is like drinking turpentine to quench your thirst, but this is the insane plan that state and national regulatory agencies are currently evaluating.

Instead of treating coal as the major issue that it is, the official corporate school curriculum has done its part to make students ignorant about coal. Textbooks mostly avoid the stuff. When it does make a rare appearance, coal is presented as a symbol of the bad old days, when small children toiled in mines. Prentice Hall's United States History includes only one mention of coal, on page 1,108, in a confused and brief passage about “the decline in American coal mining.” In fact, although its use has gone down recently because of cheap natural gas, there is twice as much coal mined in the United States today as there was 40 years ago. We burn about a billion tons a year, almost 20 pounds a day for every adult and child in the country. No doubt, Prentice Hall meant that there are fewer coal mining jobs in the country—which is true: about half the coal mining jobs there were 40 years ago, thanks to mechanized, union-busting, environment-wrecking strip mining.

According to a study by Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit think tank, the annual carbon emissions from the coal exported from just two of the proposed three Northwest export terminals—in Longview and Bellingham, Washington—would exceed emissions from the dirty oil that would be carried by the proposed (and hotly contested) Keystone XL Pipeline from the tar sands in Canada. In brief: Coal exports are a really big deal.

I recently developed a “mixer” role play on the global impact of the proposed coal exports and taught it with Rethinking Schools editorial associate Adam Sanchez in a unit on climate change with one of his 9th-grade global studies classes at Madison High School. Madison is a public school of about 1,000 students in Portland, Oregon. Adam's class matches pretty accurately the overall demographics at Madison: roughly 40 percent white, 20 percent African American, 20 percent Latina/o, and 15 percent Asian American/Pacific Islander; about 70 percent free or reduced lunch.

Before we began the mixer activity, I held up a baggie of Powder River Basin coal and asked students to jot down some things that they knew about coal. I was amused that the most common association was with Thomas the Train toy wooden railroad cars. I confess that I spend many afternoons with my grandson, Xavier, on the living room rug playing with coal-powered engines like Thomas, Gordon, Percy, and Mighty Mac. I've wondered about the propaganda association between childhood play and Thomas the Train, and here it was, right in front of me. In fact, thanks to Thomas and friends, students were surprised to learn that coal is no longer burned to power trains. Not so surprisingly, no 9th-grade student reported studying about coal in school.

Because I wanted to establish that coal is important, I shared with them statistics about the huge role that coal plays in fueling the climate crisis—which students had been studying with Adam and me for a couple of weeks. I concluded with a quote from James Hansen, former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and perhaps the world's foremost climate scientist, who calls coal “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on the planet” because of its enormous contribution to global warming.

Adam and I distributed a map showing the proposed route from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana that would bring more than 100 million tons of coal a year through the Columbia River Gorge, between Oregon and Washington. Of the three proposed projects, the two biggest are the ones in Longview and Bellingham, but the one furthest along in the permit process is a plan from the Australian company Ambre Energy to bring the coal by rail to Boardman in eastern Oregon, and then barge it down the Columbia River to Clatskanie, Oregon, where it would be put on ships for export to Asia. I didn't want to spend a lot of time lecturing, but I briefly shared a number of facts to emphasize that, love coal or hate it, if all three plans are approved, as many as 30 trains, each more than a mile long and carrying nothing but coal, would come through the gorge every single day—each pulled and pushed by four diesel engines.

The Coal Export Mixer

As we began the mixer, I explained to students that we were going to do an activity in which each of them would play the part of an individual whose life is connected to these potential coal exports—all actual people from around the world. (See sample role, end of this article.) In writing the roles, I tried whenever possible to draw exact language from the individuals I included. Some are in favor of coal exports, like Greg Boyce, CEO of Peabody Energy, the world's largest privately held coal company; Matthew Rose of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad, which makes more than 25 percent of its revenue from hauling coal; and Liu Guoyue, president of Huaneng Power International, which owns power companies in 18 Chinese provinces and is eager for Powder River coal. Others stand to lose, like Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, an organizer with Columbia Riverkeeper in Hood River, Oregon, concerned about both water quality and climate change; and Manowara Uddin, originally from Bhola Island in Bangladesh, where the Padma River empties into the Bay of Bengal. Uddin was forced to migrate to a slum in Dhaka, thanks to the coal-powered climate chaos that every year produces more and more destructive storms.

We distributed a different role to each student, and asked everyone to read these more than once and to try to “become” this individual. We suggested that they underline parts that seemed most important in determining their character's attitude about coal exports, then turn their roles over and list the three or four most important things about their character on the reverse side. We told them that when they circulated in the classroom meeting each other, we hoped that they would not read from their role, but would, as much as possible, know by heart the most important details about their individual. As students read and took notes, we distributed blank name-tags for them to write their “new names.” When students were ready, we distributed sheets with the questions that would guide their conversations with one another—e.g., “Find someone who stands to gain from coal exports to China and Asia. Who is the person? How will he or she benefit if coal exports from the United States are approved?” And “Find someone who is taking action to try to stop the coal exports. Who is the person? What motivates this individual's work against coal exports?”

Before we asked students to get up, mingle, and find other individuals who could help answer one of the eight questions on the Coal Export Mixer Questions worksheet, we reminded them to speak in the “I” voice, attempting to become the individual they were assigned, and told them that an easy way to begin their conversations was simply to ask what connection the other person had to coal or coal exports.

We used to call this kind of activity a tea party until the far right hijacked the term. Mixer, scavenger hunt, block party, barbecue, or tea party—whatever name they go by, these “get up and talk to each other in role” activities are almost always lively and efficient ways to learn lots of information, as well as to appreciate an issue's multiple perspectives and diverse impact.

After the frenetic 40 minutes or so of students circulating in the classroom talking to one another as executives, fisher people, ranchers, and activists, we asked students to turn over their mixer worksheets and write about what they noticed: patterns they recognized, new things they learned, people they met whose stories shocked them, or questions raised by the activity.

Some focused on what they'd learned: “I didn't know that fish could get mercury poisoning.” “It surprised me that a cattle rancher in Australia and a cattle rancher from the United States could be going through the same thing and global warming is affecting both of them.” “I learned that many, many people are affected by coal exports. I thought it was a small amount of people, but clearly I was wrong.” “So many people are going to be affected by a few companies that are just looking for wealth.” And Anna wrote succinctly and accurately: “I learned that coal poisons everything it touches.”

“Why Don't People Take Action?”

Two questions recurred in students' writing: one about people's supposed passivity, the other wondering why this is happening. Elena asked: “Why don't people take action if it is affecting them harshly?” Many took aim at the coal companies, posing questions with typical teenage simplicity and directness. For example, Maria demanded: “Why haven't they stopped mining it if it has such a bad effect? . . . Why are we mining for more coal if it's the biggest contributor to global warming?” It's a question of such stark obviousness that it's one we should raise at every opportunity. And Anna offered this troubling question that came up regularly in our broader climate change unit: “How can adults doom our generation?”

Frankly, I was puzzled and dismayed by the “Why aren't people taking action?” questions. So many of the coal export roles did feature individuals who were taking action: Gail Small of the Northern Cheyenne, whose people had defied energy companies for generations; Andrea Rogers, mayor of Mosier, Oregon, whose city council went on record against the potential coal trains, and who continues to speak out publicly; Henry Smiskin, tribal council chair of the Yakama Nation, who submitted a brilliant and comprehensive critique of the coal exports grounded in treaty fishing rights (Smiskin wrote to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: “They tell us these destructive plans are part of the march of progress. But their plans for progress have left a wake of destruction that has nearly eradicated our indigenous culture”); Lowell Chandler of Missoula, Montana, an activist with the Blue Skies Campaign, which works to block coal through his community, using a range of tactics, including civil disobedience; and Xin Hao, the waterkeeper of the Qiantang River in Hangzhou, China, who works with other waterkeepers throughout the world to protect the integrity of rivers.

However, students had focused not on these individuals' activism, which perhaps was too thinly described in the roles I'd written, and more on people's denunciations of the potential or actual impact of coal. As Marisol noted, “Why aren't they doing anything to stop it? Complaining won't do anything.”

I've made efforts to address this in the coal export mixer's most recent iteration, but, as I say, I was startled by students' comments. It was a reminder that young people are accustomed to bad news about the environment. And, no doubt, the news is bad—worse than most of us realize—but that is not the full story. Imaginative activism for climate sanity and clean energy is global, and the coal mixer activity is an ideal vehicle to introduce students to these hopeful nodes of defiance. But subtlety in these roles was not a virtue.

A Critical Eye on Pro-Coal Ads

Adam and I wanted to give students an opportunity to put their new knowledge to use evaluating a pro-coal export advertisement that appeared on the op-ed page of a recent Sunday Oregonian, Oregon's most-read newspaper. The ad for this particular export proposal, Ambre Energy's Morrow Pacific Project, is headlined “A coal project that fits with Oregon's values.” I have to hand it to them: It's clever—a blatant appeal to what could, with some justification, be considered Oregonians' “green chauvinism.” Apparently, all the other states can have the dust and fumes shoved down their throats, but Ambre promises “to meet Oregon's high standards” and do business “the Oregon way.”

We distributed a copy of the ad to each student. (See Resources.) I began by encouraging students to critically read the ad. Adam and I encouraged students to treat reading as a conversation or perhaps an argument with the advertisement—written as an open letter from Clark A. Moseley, the CEO of the Morrow Pacific Project. We told them to mark up the ad, underline sections, write in the margins, circle problematic ideas, and—especially—to stay alert to the ad's “silences” about aspects of coal exports that they learned in the mixer. When they finished marking up the ad, we asked them to turn it over and to write about which aspects of the ad seemed reasonable and which seemed wrong or incomplete.

Students took to heart our encouragement to read rebelliously. In fact, some students decided to “decorate” CEO Moseley's photo on the ad. Decorations or not, all students found important things to comment on about the ad. Almost everyone noted that Ambre's plans to export coal would lead to jobs—although, earlier in class, we also discussed the vast discrepancy between the 1,000 “ongoing operation jobs” promised in Ambre's ad and the Oregonian's estimate of 50 “permanent jobs.” Andrea acknowledged simply that, “Creating jobs will help Oregon's economy.” Adam and I could have done more to encourage students to reflect on ways that coal exports might hurt jobs—indirectly through climate change, or directly through a doubling of barge traffic on the Columbia River, endangering salmon fisheries and recreational uses of the river. And lots of students also credited Ambre with at least some awareness of the dangers of coal dust and the company's promises to cover the barges to “minimize or eliminate dust.” Students acknowledged that this was a worthy gesture, even if they were skeptical. Marisol wrote: “I like that he thinks he can eliminate the coal dust.”

The obvious silence in the ad was the impact of coal on the climate. As Elena shouted in bold dark ink on her ad: “Global Warming!!!” On the reverse of the ad, Elena wrote that the coal “is still gonna get burnt and still affect us.” Others wrote: “What happens in Asia?” “But they will still be using the coal.” “Missing the fact about global warming.”

Students got that Ambre was engaged in a shell game, drawing our attention to the company's plans to deal with the danger of dust, all the while ignoring the much greater danger of what happens when those many millions of tons of coal arrive at their intended destination and are burned. Anna expressed contempt at Ambre's appeal to Oregonians' pride: “It is blatantly obvious that they are trying to tickle us into becoming more open to their plot.”

The activity's success reminded me how eager students are to read carefully and critically when they begin with background knowledge and are offered encouragement to question, to challenge.

Dirty Business

Adam and I wanted to close out our brief look at coal and the climate with a film that could help “story” coal's impact in visual terms. Despite an assortment of classroom-friendly films that deal with coal and mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia (see “Coal at the Movies,” spring 2011), there is no film I'm aware of that looks at coal mining in the Powder River Basin, the source of coal exports to Asia and where more coal is mined than anywhere else in the United States—or one that focuses especially on coal's impact on the climate.

We settled, with some ambivalence, on Dirty Business. The film's strength is that, of all the coal films we're aware of, it takes the most expansive look—examining the devastating impact of mountaintop removal coal mining; discussing the connection between coal and climate change; spending time in China, the world's largest coal consumer; and evaluating supposed alternatives, from carbon sequestration to energy recycling to wind power. Journalist Jeff Goodell's narrative is compelling, and the film —we used the shorter, 60-minute DVD version—held students' attention.

However, we came face-to-face with Dirty Business' limitations in students' written comments on the film and in our class discussion. If the problem is dirty business, as the film suggests, then the solution must be clean business. The alternatives featured in the film are mostly technical, initiated by innovative entrepreneurs. The subtext: We'll find our way out of this mess created by dirty coal by allowing the genius of the capitalist market to discover that profit and ecological responsibility go hand in hand.

In written and class comments, students tended to focus on the technological fixes, not on what we need to do, the organizing needed to change course. Eduardo wrote, “There are a lot of better alternatives like the wind turbines. Those seem like a great idea.” No doubt, it's essential for students to recognize that, from an energy feasibility standpoint, one does not need to burn coal to keep the lights on. The film's strength is highlighting conservation measures and non-coal alternatives. But we didn't want students to think of alternatives just in technical terms—solely as different sources of energy.

Grassroots activism is also an alternative, and organizing against the spread of coal has made a huge difference. Because of the anti-coal agitation in the Northwest, Ambre Energy recently announced that it was delaying its permit request for its train-to-barge-to-ship coal export scheme, complaining that permitting agencies were not treating coal as just another commodity. And that's true. Thanks to numerous community meetings and demonstrations, impassioned testimony at hearings attended by hundreds of people, and thousands of letters sent to newspapers, legislators, and regulators, Ambre's coal was not being treated as if it were any old commodity whose owner was simply seeking passage to new customers. And, thanks to anti-coal activism, three of the original six coal export proposals have already been scrapped.

Nor did we want students to believe that there could be an easy alliance between climate crisis solutions and the capitalist market. The stakes are too huge to leave the fate of the Earth to the mercy of the profit motive. The current carbon reserves of coal, oil, and gas companies are five times the amount that—if burned—would push the climate past a two degrees Celsius increase, according to Bill McKibben's Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math.” Humanity has little hope of a livable future on Earth unless we challenge the right of private capital to pursue wealth as it sees fit. These stores of fossil fuels are worth an estimated $27 trillion. And corporate executives are falling all over themselves to search out even more coal, oil, and gas. As the activist author/journalist Naomi Klein has written, “With the fossil fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model. It's what they do.”

There is absolutely nothing in Dirty Business that extols the fossil fuel industry, but the film does not offer an eyes-open critique of capitalism or celebrate grassroots activism. For our class, it was a curricular choice with mixed results.

We were finished with our focus on coal, but not the climate. In later activities, we continued to probe the roots of the crisis and imagine hopeful responses—especially through a “trial” role play to determine responsibility for global warming; an online research activity in which students encountered activist organizations focused on climate issues and evaluated their strategies and tactics; a “teach a friend” assignment to help them begin to share their knowledge with others; and a final “making a difference” letter-writing project. All of these aimed to encourage students to begin to see themselves as changemakers.

At the very least, I am confident that students will never again think about coal as the benevolent little hunks of rock that fuel Thomas the Train. In fact, in her letter to an alternative newsweekly, Maria concluded: “Think about it, I mean it's nice to have Thomas and his friends come by, but is it worth risking our environment, health, and home?”  

Sample Role

Marianne Adlington
Cattle rancher
Barham, New South Wales
Southeast Australia

My world has dried up. Global warming. Climate change. Whatever you call it, it's destroyed my way of life. My husband, Malcolm, and I used to have 500 dairy cattle. Now we have only 70 left. We have nothing to feed them. Because of the worst drought in Australia's history, we are living in a desert. And we can't afford to buy grain, so slowly our cattle are starving. I can't stand lying in bed every night and hearing the cattle bellow from hunger.

Malcolm and I are 52 years old, and for 36 years—since we were just 16 years old—we've been in the dairy business. It's all we know. Malcolm told me the other night, “I have absolutely nothing to go on for.” He was crying. Farmers around here have moved away. Some have even committed suicide. And, frankly, I'm worried about Malcolm.

Nature didn't cause the climate to change. People did—spewing too much carbon dioxide (a “greenhouse gas”) into the atmosphere. Of all the fuels, coal damages the climate the most, and Australia continues to burn coal and even export it to Asia. One Australian company, Ambre Energy, even wants to dig up more U.S. coal in a place called the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, and export it to Asia—which will make the climate even hotter and drier. These people are murderers, plain and simple. Why not just hand my husband a shotgun and tell him to go blow his head off?

Fortunately, groups in Australia like Quit Coal are trying to put a stop to burning coal for energy—and to ban coal exports. It may be too late to help my husband and me, but it's time to stop the coal criminals.  


The following pdfs can be accessed from the online and digital versions of this article: