Game Time

Alexandria, VA -- Why replace coal? Everything around us this morning on the Potomac River shrieks the logic. The turbocharged 96 degree furnace -- even before we put this swampy climate on steroids, diplomats in Washington, D.C. earned hardship pay. The hard-edged, looming smokestacks of the Gen On coal plant here, with its string of clean-air violations. The certain knowledge that in the river below us lurks toxic mercury, belched from Gen On's stacks and now accumulating in the fish and other life that has returned to a partially restored, but still at risk, Potomac.

But still, the announcement today that the Sierra Club has entered into a partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies to replace one-third of the nation's coal-fired power in less than a decade (and substitute clean energy for the rest by 2030) taps into a long American struggle with the coal industry. Mother Jones and John L. Lewis fought King Coal in the first half of the 20th century. Author Harry Caudill and U.S. Representative Ken Hechler (still getting arrested only a year ago) were the resonant voices of the last half of the last century -- testifying about how America's biologically most generous region had been devastated by black, grimy greed.

Now, in the past decade, a new anti-coal movement has sprung up around America -- not only in Appalachia but also on the coal-dusted mesas of Navajo country. It has snaked around the long-wall devastation of Southern Illinois, among the dispossessed ranchers of Wyoming and Montana, and through the blighted back yards of Chicago, Milwaukee, and a dozen other cities where toxic relics that might have made sense a century ago have been kept on life-support by utility lobbyists and coal-cozened politicians and regulators.

Largely flying under the media radar, this Beyond Coal movement struck a ferocious blow for a modern, clean, safe America. Of the 180 or so new coal belchers that Dick Cheney tried to hard-wire into America's future, 153 have been blocked or abandoned, Only 22 escaped and are being built. The rest are in permit-process limbo.

Prior to this movement, coal had never faced organized, networked, national opposition. Now it has been set back on its heels, but not uprooted. We still have 500 filthy coal-fired power plants around America, emitting more than half of the airborne health menace that kills our children, and a third of the pollutants that disrupt the climate. Coal was strong enough, almost single handedly, to defeat every effort in the previous Congress to pass progressive legislation on energy or climate. Coal writes the talking points for the Tea Party.

But as of today, the coal lobby knows that it faces an opposition that is not only organized, not only networked, not only national -- but also empowered. The upfront commitment of $50 million by Bloomberg Philanthropies, and an ongoing energy and partnership with one of America's most formidable innovators, will put the Club's Beyond Coal Campaign on an entirely different playing field. The Bloomberg Philanthropies gift will scale up the movement to replace coal -- the work of the Sierra Club and of our allies -- manyfold.

Yes, coal will fight back. It may not shed its arrogance and smugness overnight, but it is sure to become a fiercer adversary than any we have faced before. The victories of the past five years will look easy by comparison. That's why we cannot afford a single moment of complacency, a second of self-indulgence, a soupcon of short-sightedness, or a waking moment of egotism. We are called upon to be almost inhumanly visionary. This is the battle of our century. We need to win.