Ending coal mining is essential to solving the climate crisis

Speaking with Mary Anne Hitt and the Beyond Coal campaign

Greta Moran


This week is Climate Week, coinciding with the UN Climate Change Summit. On September 25th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its newest report. Every day this week Massive will be publishing articles and interviews with scientists, policy experts, and activists about climate change, all aspects of the new report, and the future of the planet.

Burning coal is one of the biggest sources of human-produced carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and other pollutants. In 2018, coal was responsible for 27% of the US's energy supply, and 60% of China's in 2019. Mary Anne Hitt is the director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, working to reduce coal consumption. She spoke with Greta Moran about retiring coal plants, how her home in Appalachia inspired her to fight for clean air, and the future of climate policy.

Greta Moran: You host a podcast called "No Place Like Home" that really goes into the emotional dimensions of climate change work and offers listeners, at least speaking for myself, a lot of powerful inspiration. Do you feel like hosting this podcast has helped you sort through some of your emotions and broader ways of processing climate change? If so, how?

Mary Anne Hitt: We started the podcast because as a lot of the information out there about climate change was oriented to policy and science. There wasn't much out there to speak to the heart and speak to the very real fears that people are having, either what we know about climate change or feeling overwhelmed by it. We did a season on the emotional and psychological dimensions of climate change. We came up with this idea about a year ago, when, frankly, not that many people were talking about climate anxiety and climate grief. I think we stepped into the current at the beginning of what turned into a wave. Now with the Climate Strike happening, and the young people out there on the streets, I think there's a lot of obsession about climate anxiety — how to keep working on finding solutions when you feel overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. It certainly helped me because I got to talk to all these really inspiring leaders and wise people about this. 

GM: I really like the name of your podcast. My first association was with "The Wizard of Oz." How did you come up with the name? What does this mean in relationship to climate change?

MAH: We actually really wrestled with finding the best name for the show. Our point in the beginning was that we would be your climate girlfriends. That it was a place where you could talk about climate change in a way that felt interesting, and accessible, and actually exciting, instead of depressing and demoralizing. We had a lot of different ideas for the name. We landed on "No Place Like Home" because it really spoke to what is at the heart of this for Anna Jane [Joyner] and myself, which is that we live in West Virginia and Alabama. We live in places that are not often associated with climate leadership. But they are places that are threatened by climate change just like the rest of the planet. 

Seepage in 1963 from a coal ash pond on Cape Fear

Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. / Flickr

GM: Yeah. I really love that. I like that it's something that even a kindergartner could understand, that their home is in jeopardy. 

MAH: You're right, as I think the youth climate leaders all around the work are showing us. That this doesn't have to be so complicated. We have one home. We either fight for it and protect it or we're in a lot of trouble.

GM: Speaking of home, what do you consider your home? How does this place shape your activism?

MAH: Well I consider my home Appalachia. I grew up in East Tennessee in the Smokey Mountains. I now live in West Virginia. I've been in the town where I live now for 10 years. My daughter's an 11th generation West Virginian through my husband's side of the family. The Appalachian region is the place where I feel the most at peace and most at home. I have a great privilege in my job of traveling all over the United States, and occasionally even all over the world, to join with people who are fighting for their home. Whether it's fighting against air pollution, or water pollution, or development, or climate change. I know that my part of the world is special to me and I know that this world is full of special places. But Appalachia is the place that inspired me to do this work from the beginning. 

GM: I was reading the reflection you wrote for Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, in which you really beautifully talk about the relationship between your faith and the work of healing the planet. And a lot of times I hear people talk about faith and science as fundamentally opposed. So could you talk a little bit more about how they work together for you?

MAH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I grew up in the Deep South, and I grew up honestly alienated from faith because one of the tenets of the variety of Christianity that I grew up around was not believing in evolution. And so I really struggle with how a person could accept the faith when you had to deny science. And I just couldn't get on board with that. So I was frankly not really a person of faith for a lot of my young life.

But then as an activist, I really became kind of spiritually exhausted by my work. And I realized that if I didn't find out how to tap into some sort of a deeper part of myself, that I was not going to be able to do this work for the long haul. And so I ended up in a really incredible progressive Presbyterian church in Shepherdstown that I now attend. And through that experience came to see that actually a respect for the natural world was deeply rooted in a lot of our faith traditions, even not everyone chooses to see that it's there. But you can even read the Genesis creation story not as a literal science textbook about the world being created in six days, but as a creation myth: The fundamental message of that story is that this creation is good. And that actually there are a lot of lessons in what I now consider my faith, about how to take a principled stand against an unjust empire. Which is another way of looking at what Jesus was doing. And, you know, the reason that the Civil Rights Movement was rooted in faith was because they taught the teachings of the New Testament as a guide for how to mount nonviolent resistance against an oppressive and unjust empire. And so I think as an activist now, I personally did get a lot of strength from having that rare opportunity to tap into that deeper part of myself. But I also, I think that a lot of lessons about caring for creation, and a lot of lessons about how to resist injustice in a moral way that I find very sustaining.

A power plant with gas erupting from a tower.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay 

GM: Do you find that your faith helps you work through feelings of doubt, ever?

MAH: I guess my experience of my faith is less about what happens when you die. I don't know what happens when you die, or less about thinking about what's going to happen in some other life. And it's more, I think, about trying to tap into the deep wisdom of people who have tried to fight for love and justice in this world. And how to do that work with compassion and wisdom and strength. That's a lot of what I get out of it. But when you're doing work that's not only about trying to challenge power, but also trying to stare directly into the face of what's wrong with our country, it takes a toll on you. It takes an emotional and a spiritual toll on you, and I think for me it is important to have sort of a net to catch me, and to have a support system around me to help me work through those moments of despair and moments of wondering if I should keep going. 

GM: You have a really powerful focus on equality and equitable transitions away from coal. When did it become clear to you that equality is fundamental to the climate movement, and is this also informed by your faith at all?

MAH: Yes, it is informed by my faith. I think one of the great wisdoms you can take out of the New Testament are around how we treat the worst marginalized, how we treat the people who are suffering the most. And so I think when we as a country know that we have got to move beyond coal, if we want to have a half-livable planet to live on, then it is incumbent on us that we not leave people and communities behind as we make that transition. And I live in West Virginia, a state that is being hit very hard by the shift that we're making away from coal, and it's affecting the budgets in our local schools and it's affecting the paychecks for people that I know. We need leadership from Washington and from our state officials who are willing to tackle this problem, rather than just making empty promises. 

Every single person in this country may not realize it, but they have benefited from the sacrifices of people in coal communities, who sacrificed their air, their water, their health, their safety to mine the coal that powered this country. And so I believe this nation owes a debt to people in coal-mining states, and we could repay that. We are the wealthiest nation in the world. We could support those workers and communities in making a transition.

GM: Could you talk a little bit more about the impact of coal on its direct environment, and on the health of coal workers? 

MAH: A decade ago, coal plants in the United States were our single biggest source of carbon pollution, our single biggest source of toxic water pollution, our single biggest source of mercury pollution, which is a neurotoxin that is especially dangerous to babies in the womb, and our single biggest source of sulfur dioxide pollution, which is the air pollution that triggers heart attacks and asthma attacks. So coal has been our very worst climate polluter around the world. It also has this devastating impact for the people who live around the coal mines and the coal-powered power plants. That has been a big part of the reason we've been successful in getting coal plants to retire because while some people are motivated because of the climate attacks of this plant, people are even more motivated to get their local streams, and rivers, and drinking water cleaned up, and to get their air pollution in their community cleaned up, and to have fewer asthma attacks, and heart attacks, and strokes in their community. 

GM: Could you describe one of your most exciting, hopeful moments with Beyond Coal?

MAH: We are about to cross a milestone of having 300 coal plants announced to retire in the United States. We're at 297. And so many of those coal plants retirement announcements were the result of the work of thousands of people over sometimes 10 years. People were fighting for clean air, fighting for clean water, fighting for better climate solutions. And so I have just had this incredible privilege of getting to watch David beat Goliath hundreds of times. And it has really given me faith and abiding confidence in our ability to solve these big problems we're facing. My experience is that there's always a way. 

GM: What is Beyond Coal working on now?

MAH: Well, we have been on a couple things. The big goal is to try to get the United States to 100 percent clean energy power grid by 2030, and so the IPCC was very clear that the developed nations of the world need to transition off of coal by 2030. We are actually on track to do that within the work of the Beyond Coal campaign of all the partners. So first and foremost, we are working to finish the job on coal so that we retire all the coal in the United States by 2030, and we want to also stop the gas rush in the power sector, because there are a lot of fracked gas plants being built to try to take advantage of this market as these coal plants retire. We want renewable energy to be the energy source for the next decade, not gas, not fracked gas. 

GM: Last but not least, who are the thinkers, leaders and activists that most inspire you and encourage you to keep working?

MAH: Well, right now I would say that it's the young people who have brought us to climate strike. As a mom, I have a 9 year old, and last night we were sitting on the couch and we were watching videos of Greta Thunberg speaking. Then this morning on the way to school, she was looking at pictures of the climate strike on social media. Then I took her out of school for an hour and she participated in our local climate strike. I've been working on climate change very intensely for 10 years and I've been working on coal very intensely for 15 years. But I have never seen the kind of urgency and the kind of grass-roots demand for action that I've seen in the past 12 months, and I think the young people deserve all the credit for that, whether it's the Sunrise Movement or Greta Thunberg or the young indigenous peoples that are so inspiring.

And I'm also inspired by women climate leaders because I think climate advocacy and climate science has been very male-dominated over the decades. There are so many incredible, inspiring women leaders that are emerging.