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How lessons from the "Coal Campaign" could benefit the climate movement

The Monroe Power Plant on a foggy, grey day in 2011.  The photo is of a blue and white industrial building behind large black pipes that are carried over an industrial crossover bridge.  Power lines and trees without leaves can be seen, but the photo does not include the large smoke stacks .
Paul Sancya
The DTE coal-fired power plant in Monroe, pictured here in 2011, is the third dirtiest power plant in the United States according to EPA and U.S. Energy Information Administration data. DTE Energy announced plans to retire the Monroe Power Plant by 2040.

A grassroots campaign started two decades ago successfully challenged the coal industry. One professor said it could provide a model for climate activists.

Chuck Epp spoke at Western Michigan University last week. For the past five years, the professor from the School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas has been researching what’s come to be known as the Coal Campaign, a grassroots effort by lay people and eventually, seasoned activists and experts who worked together to block all but 36 of 232 proposed new coal plants in the U.S. since 2001.

“It's a remarkable story of people power in local areas, standing up to a big industry, and saying 'we'd like to protect our health, we'd like to protect our wildlife, we'd like to protect our farmland in these areas, and do something else.'”

Epp said the key to any conversation on climate change is to keep it local. The Coal Campaign managed to unite groups from around the country with different local concerns — from ranchers mobilizing in Texas over grazing lands contaminated by coal ash waste ponds, to anglers in Michigan concerned about mercury levels in Great Lakes fish. Local movements drew the attention of national environmental organizations who offered legal, technical and financial support.

“What this campaign succeeded at was connecting those broader issues of climate change to local issues that mattered to people here and now," Epp said.

Epp said the coal campaign worked because it emphasized job growth along with local issues and concerns.

“There are literally more jobs in renewable energy industries, for people in the United States, for people in local areas in a place like Michigan, then there are from the traditional sources of energy coal in particular," he said.

As leaders from about 90 countries converge on Egypt this week for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Epp said the Coal Campaign hasn’t stopped. Today, the campaign is working to close all U.S. coal plants and replace them entirely with clean energy. Much of the work is spearheaded by Beyond Coal, which is part of the Sierra Club. According to its website, 363 coal-fired plants have been retired or have announced retirement plans. There are 167 active plants, including two in Michigan: the Monroe Power Plant outside Detroit and TES Filer City Station near Manistee.

“Moving the needle on this question requires a vision of what is possible and positive in climate change policy, as opposed to what is just negative and bad,” Epp said.

“Their message then, and now, was also something very positive. We have alternatives in renewable sources of energy that provide more jobs, that provide healthier air, healthier water. That provide a positive future for your community and for the country."

Leona Larson (Gould-McElhone) was a complaint investigator with the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department when she started her media career producing and co-hosting Consumer Conversation with Esther Shapiro for WXYT-Radio in Detroit while freelancing at The Detroit News and other local newspapers. Leona joined WDIV-TV in Detroit as a special projects' producer and later, as an investigative producer. She spent several years teaching journalism for the School of Communications at Western Michigan University. Leona prefers to use her middle name on air because it's shorter and easier to pronounce.