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December 05, 2011

The Sierra Club in Durban: Day Eight


At a COP, it's easy to get wrapped up in the policy and the negotiations, and lose sight of who's really affected by climate change, pollution, and energy access. But if you take the time to talk to people –- not just the people you came with or the people working on your issues, but the people who are here to advocate for their communities –- a whole new world opens up.

Today was the first day the Sierra Club booth was up in the exhibition hall. After only a few hours in, we had met people from around the world fighting to protect their communities from coal projects -- just like we do in the U.S. 

We met a man from Thailand who said that his country kicked out coal but now faces new "clean" plants as part of a development strategy. He was eager to learn the truth about carbon capture and storage, "clean" coal, and ways to fight them.

We met a women's activist from Limpopo, South Africa who works with the Venda. She told us about their struggle to stop a coal mine. Developers have resorted to threatening community members that oppose the project.

And we met a man from Indonesia who works on forest issues in a country heavily impacted by coal mining.

Later in the day we hosted an open forum discussion at the People's Space to connect activists from around the world and weigh the similarities and differences in our work. Soumya Dutta and Chaitanya Kumar explained that in India, people have died fighting coal-fired power plants and families have gone on hunger strikes. Bobby Peek told us how South Africa is building the world's third and fourth largest coal plants with the World Bank's largest loan to Africa -- foreign industry will see the profit, not the people building these plants. Nezir Sinani, who is fighting a proposed coal plant in Kosovo, said that after opposition stiffened over the Medupi coal-fired power plant, the World Bank became hesitant, but caved to U.S. pressure anyway. Lastly, Lori Goodman talked about the 30 percent of people on the Navajo reservation that don't have access to electricity, despite the fact that there are two dirty plants on the reservation -- and operate under less strict rules -- send their power elsewhere to golf courses and swimming pools.

But there were bright spots, too. Several proposals by Big Coal in India were stopped due to grassroots pressure. The Navajo reservation also stopped a new plant. As we discussed these success stories and why they worked, we were able to tease out winning strategies. One strategy is aligning labor and environmentalists to demand clean-energy jobs.

The effectiveness of our shared fight was truly apparent later in the evening during the "World of Coal" side event, which featured a panel from the coal industry. The front row was almost entirely taken up by Sierra Club delegates wearing yellow SSC "Beyond Coal" t-shirts. All but one of the questions submitted to the panel questioned the role of the coal industry in the modern world. Even the coal industry panelists acknowledged that coal as it is doesn't really belong in a clean-energy future. 

-- Nicole Ghio/photo by Josh Lopez


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