Coal is responsible for a significant amount of the carbon we produce in Massachusetts. The organization CARMA calculates that more than ten per cent of the CO2 emissions in our commonwealth comes from just two coal-fired power stations, Brayton Point and Salem Harbor.
Here in Western Massachusetts, the coal-burning Mount Tom power station generates more than one million tons of CO2 annually according to CARMA. On December 28, I e-mailed Mount Tom's parent company, Energy Capital Partners, asking for their own estimate of yearly CO2 output. No word back yet.
Reducing our carbon emissions means forcing the private power companies to act, and experience suggests that they will not act unless we make them. We are racing toward a climate catastrophe and we have to force the power industry to take its foot off the pedal.
We must make the industry abandon coal, and do it now. Without question, this is a radical step and I would not suggest it unless I believed that we could do it. We can do it. I have seen it done, as I explain below.
First, however, a caveat. Don't get me wrong: Coal is an amazing substance, and the South Wales I grew up in would have been a very different place without the coal industry. But there is no getting around the fact that coal is (to be blunt) dirty. My maternal grandfather was a coal miner, and he died when I was five. According to my mother it was the coal dust in his lungs that did him in. Mind you, my dad used to say, smoking a pack of Woodbines a day didn't help.
Back when my grandfather was a miner Britain's mines were still in private hands, and the bosses would exploit the men shamelessly. There was no point in the unions looking to Conservative or Liberal governments for help. So from 1900 onward the union movement built its own political party, the Labour Party and, after the party's landslide in the general election of 1945, a Labour government took the mines into public ownership.
As a public entity, the coal industry became a symbol of organized labor's triumph, and thanks to their powerful union the men who worked in the mines finally got decent wages for their back-breaking work. When I was a boy, they were the "aristocracy of the working class."
Then, in the early 1990s (after the calamitous miners' strike of 1984-5) the British government decided to close the mines. According to the government, digging -- and subsidizing -- coal was just not economically feasible any more. Efficiency was their stated goal.
But there was a widespread suspicion that the real goal was to cripple the miners union. As the union with the ability to turn off the lights, the miners had been able to negotiate themselves a series of pay raises in the 1970s, and in 1974 their strike helped bring down Edward Heath's Conservative government. Ten years later, Margaret Thatcher's government faced down the miners and broke their union.
In the wake of the '84-'85 strike that had left the union fatally wounded, the pit closures looked like a coup de grace. I was outraged (I hadn't heard of global warming at the time) and joined thousands of people in London for a massive demonstration against the pit closures. Despite the public outcry, the plan went ahead and the coal mines closed.
The lesson? If politicians can quit coal to break labor unions or save money, they can quit coal to fight global warming. All it takes is political willpower. And, like the electricity that lights our homes, political willpower is a human-made force. People have to generate it.
To a large extent the presidential election and the economic downturn have pushed the climate out of the headlines. But even while the joy over Obama's victory dissipates and the recession becomes a grim part of daily life, the climate continues to change and the polar ice carries on melting. Our responsibility to do what we can to tackle global warming has not gone away. Quitting coal is an important step that we have to take in meeting that responsibility.