Speaking for the Hitler Youth...

Washington needs to get ready for Meg Imholt.

According to Glenn Beck, she's part of a modern day "Hitler Youth" of young climate activists. According to Luke Popovich, the chief spokesman for the National Mining Association, as a clean energy advocate, she's one of the anti-coal "jihadists" he routinely denounces for their efforts to move America to a clean energy future.

So why is Meg so scary?

Meg is a senior at American University, the head of her college's environmental club, EcoSense, and an intern at Greenpeace. When she's not volunteering at the National Zoo, she organizes panel discussions on the environment with visiting experts and faculty, and meets with professors to urge them to reduce their use of paper by making greater use of online resources. She's worked tirelessly since her freshman year to build a strong climate movement on her campus, persuading her administration, for instance, to adopt many clean energy measures.

And on March 2, she and about 10,000 youth climate activists from across the country are coming to the U.S. Capitol for what some are predicting could be the biggest lobby day ever, as part of the Powershift conference. They're going to be asking Congress to take immediate and powerful action to solve the climate crisis and provide green jobs.

Immediately afterwards, many of those young people (as well as many adults) are going to launch a peaceful act of civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant, which heats and cools the Capitol and runs partly on coal, the biggest single U.S. source of global warming pollution. The event, "Capitol Climate Action Day," will be the biggest day of civil disobedience on climate issues in the history of the United States.

Clean coal? A house destroyed by a toxic coal ash spill in Harriman, TN. Photo: Greenpeace/Wade Payne

Why are these earnest young activists and organizers the target of such bile?

In part, it's because the coal industry and its supporters in the right wing echo machine fear what Meg and her fellow activists represent: the beginning of the end of coal. Already, anti-coal activists like Meg, along with growing financial concerns about coal's viability in a carbon-priced world, have contributed to the rejection or withdrawal of 83 power plant proposals.

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering tight limits on global warming pollution at coal plants. Congress and the administration seem to be moving towards climate legislation that would make coal less competitive. And this month, a new study based on Department of Energy statistics showed that wind industry already employs more people than coal mining, undermining Big Coal's claims that it's a major engine of the economy.

In the face of all these developments, Big Coal is starting to sound a bit desperate. The coal industry used to be the model of a confident, carefree polluter. The other polluters looked up to it. Here was an industry that cut short the lives of at least 24,000 Americans every year as a result of lung cancers, heart attacks, and respiratory diseases caused by coal pollution, literally blew up hundreds of beautiful mountains in Appalachia through mountain-top removal of coal, caused one in six American babies to have elevated levels of mercury in their blood and yet maintained a relatively unsullied reputation.

Coal was aloof, popular, and rich. Until recently, Big Coal's Beltway advertising didn't generally refer to the claims against it. According to the coal industry, coal was "reliable, affordable, and increasingly clean" and it powered useful - and green! - public services like the Metro.
These days, coal has clearly lost its mojo. Big Coal's ads in the DC Metro system might as well be Scratch n' Sniff since they smell so bad of fear. They lurch wildly between lame attempts at hipness and subtle hints of their coming extinction.

Just weeks after two coal plants in the South released more than a billion gallons of highly toxic coal ash into the Tennessee River watershed, Peabody Energy, one of the nation's biggest coal companies, placed national ads featuring a lump of coal with '80's style sunglasses on it under the headline "Clean Coal. Cool." Cool, perhaps, in a Joe Camel sort of way, but hard to sell "clean" when a billion tons of your arsenic-laden waste are floating down one of America's great waterways.

In fact, I got more of sense of the real possibility of a coal-free future from the glossy insert the Southern Company placed in Sunday newspapers this week than from any of the dozens of reports about the enormous potential of clean energy from government, business, and environmental groups. The ad featured an androgynous yuppie merrily contemplating an emerald-hued Jello square quivering in his/her outstretched hand. I think it was supposed to represent coal that had been "greened," but to me, it looked more like a blob of radioactive dessert.

More telling than the weird graphics, though, was the message: "Powered by Common Sense. Common Sense Says Don't Eliminate What You Can Make Cleaner."

Big Coal has been forced to contemplate - in its own ads no less - its impending demise. "Elimination"? That's not the Big Coal that got its plans for 1300 new U.S. coal plants inserted into Dick Cheney's energy plan.

The fact that coal is losing its glow while the economy is in decline would conventionally be surprising: during recessions, it can be politically difficult to move against any industry, no matter its sins, especially one that provides electricity that powers large parts of the American economy.

But policy makers seem to be starting to realize that for all of Big Coal's rhetoric about their importance to the economy, the reality is quite the opposite: coal kills jobs. Investments in energy efficiency create more than twice the number of jobs as investments in coal, according to the latest numbers from Professor Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier at the University of Massachusetts. Every dollar sunk into a coal plant, even if it's spent making it marginally cleaner, is a job creation dollar almost half wasted.

In addition, all those lung cancers, heart disease, and asthma attacks caused by coal pollution burden the economy with $167 billion in additional health care costs, according to the Clean Air Task Force. That doesn't even consider the impacts of climate change, which to the UK government's Stern Review projected will cause a 5-20 percent drag on global GDP by the end of the century because of increased extreme weather, sea level rise, and other impacts.

So really there's not much for a beleaguered coal executive to do - except go after Meg. And there's not much for us to do...except take action.

Glenn Hurowitz is the Media Director of Greenpeace.