Meet A Climate Change Fighter

The work is not about new technologies or even costs, it's about changing the political landscape, says Dave Rogers, who is working to close coal plants in the South and throughout the U.S.

Welcome to Solutions September, a series where we talk to real people working for real change to help our environment. In a world with so much going on, it’s hard to know how to help. We’re asking people in many different sectors what inspired them to get involved in the fight to save our planet and how we can all take our anger and turn it into action.

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Today, we’re talking with Dave Rogers, the Southeast deputy regional campaign director of Beyond Coal.

The Beyond Coal Campaign is part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to not only protect every person's right to the outdoors, but also to promote affordable clean energy that safeguards the health of communities, protects wildlife, and preserves our remaining wild places. The campaign aims to close all the coal plants in the U.S. and help communities and cities transition to clean energy.

Our drinking water is deeply impacted by the coal industry. Coal mines can contaminate nearby rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Every year, hundreds of millions of tons of coal ash (learn more about it in this recent interview) and other waste products produced by coal-fired power plants in the U.S. can escape into nearby waterways and contaminate drinking water. Not to mention that all coal plants rely on water.

Q: How did you become involved with this work?

Dave: I got in to energy work, originally through working with the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), starting back in 2004. I've been working on environmental issues for a long time, and increasingly climate and energy became more important to me to the point where the main thing I wanted to focus on was addressing the climate crisis.

I worked as a director for Environment North Carolina and then moved to a job with the Sierra Club. I took the job largely out of respect for the Beyond Coal Campaign in terms of their effectiveness and their ability to get meaningful results that will help move us in the direction we need to go to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

My job is a good learning opportunity. I learn about the power sector and energy industry every single day, which is something that keeps me inspired and motivated, but it's really all about having the biggest impact on climate change. I've got a twin 3.5-year-olds. I’m tired most of the time but they really changed my perspective and helped me think about the world we are going to leave for them.

Q: Tell us more about the Beyond Coal Campaign.

Dave: The frame of “beyond coal” is a little bit outdated. We kept the brand because it's well-known and kind of popular, but the work is much more expansive than the early days of when it was founded. Beyond Coal came into existence at a time when there was more than 200 coal plants (around 2010), and there were more than 200 new coal plants being proposed around the country. It was created in recognition that if those were all built it would basically be the end of an opportunity to avoid some really horrible impacts on climate change.

Beyond Coal got to work fighting to stop those plants from being built and moved on to tackling the existing coal slate. Through new technologies, the increasing cost of burning coal to produce electricity, and fierce advocacy from Beyond Coal and our allies all across the country, we have been able to make some headway. There's not a single coal plant currently being proposed in the United States right now, for example. Plus, half of the existing coal fleet has been retired.

I think most people would agree that the question is not if the coal fleet will retire, but when it will retire. There's still plenty of work to do on that front, especially in North Carolina. The South is one of the main places where coal still plays a significant role. There's a lot of work to do on that. But at the same time, we are working to fight the gas industry. How do we stop the rush to gas that we're experiencing in the country? Not only do we need to retire the entire coal fleet by 2030, but we really need to stop adding any additional new gas plans to the system by today, to be perfectly honest.

We are also working on promoting electrification of buildings and transportation. How do we make sure that cars that people are buying, school buses, and transit buses all run on increasingly cleaner-burning electricity versus oil. How do we build our buildings and electrify our buildings in a way that removes fossil fuels out of them? We had a big gas explosion in Durham, North Carolina, about two years ago. I live about a mile and half from there, and I felt it. So the scope of the work has widened as it becomes necessary to move more quickly.

Q: What do you say to folks who say change is not happening fast enough?

Dave: I would say: they are right; it isn't happening fast enough. I think the science says we need to completely eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, and then how we get there matters too. We can't just wait until 2045, that's not practical but there's a finite amount of carbon molecules that we can pump into the air so we need to be moving that way as quickly as possible. So I would agree with anyone who says it's not happening fast enough.

I would say the good news with that, if you're looking for something optimistic and solutions-oriented, would be that it is not a technological barrier anymore. It's not even really a cost barrier. Ultimately, it's really a political problem.

We have the technology to completely eliminate fossil fuels from the electricity sector. Wind and solar are the cheapest ways to produce energy now. We have those technological tools available for us. The issue is whether we have the political will to make the decision to force the incumbent industries and incumbent interests to transition.  

The reason we are not transitioning right now is because the coal industry, the oil and gas industry, the utilities sector are actively fighting against the transition and pushing out resources that would actually be cheaper for their customers.

I have hope because you can't necessarily count on technology advancing to meet the needs, but we don't need that to happen. It's largely about changing the political environment, and I'd say we're seeing that right now.

Federal legislation and politicians are acknowledging and promoting 100-percent clean energy by 2035. No one was proposing that eight years ago. I think we’re seeing it with utilities too. Duke and Southern Company have net-zero commitments. Now, those commitments aren't necessarily driving the decision making in the near term, which is a problem, but utilities have acknowledged it.

We're starting to see examples in other places of utilities that take a real, honest look at what’s in the best interest of their customers. And to be honest, what’s in the best interest of their investors too, is to actually make this transition more quickly. Another example is NIPSCO, a utility in northeast Indiana. They were resistant to retiring their coal fleet, and then they actually priced out to see what it would cost to replace it with any other resources, and they came back and noted to regulators that they can retire the entire coal fleet and their system by 2028, and it will actually save their customers $400 million. They're going to replace it all with clean energy—wind and solar.

The hope is that as we continue to push, and we do have to push utilities and decision-makers to move more quickly, that as momentum builds up, the pace will continue to increase. We've seen that in terms of deployment. Every year is generally the best year for renewables. Now, we are really starting to scale-up in meaningful ways, not fast enough, but I do have hope that because we've already seen the pace increase that it will continue to do so, and eventually get to the scale we need to be at.

Q: When it comes to environmental issues in general, what do you feel is the right balance between individual action and working for policy change?

Dave: I would say taking individual actions that you feel empowered to do and that you have the means to do, take those actions. If you have the ability to make the house you own more energy efficient and you have the ability to buy an electric car, by all means do that.

I would put the vast majority of impact on political change, because ultimately that's where the problem lies. None of us have the ability to choose an electric power provider. If you own your house and you have good sunlight, you can put solar panels on your house. But if you're a renter, you live in the shade, you don't have any other options than buying your electricity, the only other way to influence those decisions is to get regulators, legislators, and other decision-makers to change their behavior.

These changes need to be community decisions, because we need to make this transition in a way that works for everyone. The solution can't be those of us who can afford it, remove ourselves from the electricity grid, for example, and then it's just left to the people who can’t afford it, which is not very equitable. The burden of the transition should not fall on the people who have historically born the burden of all the pollution. A number of these coal plants have been built in low-income communities and communities of color.

We're not in this position because a bunch of individuals were making bad personal choices. We’re in this position because fossil fuel interests have rigged the system to benefit their businesses and their business models. Ultimately, we've got to be willing to take on the coal industry, the oil and gas industry, etc., and the only real way to do that is through political change.

I wish I didn't have to own a car, but I live in a place in North Carolina where public transit just isn’t a viable system. The only way to change that is to force our decision-makers to make better decisions.

Q: What else can regular people do to influence these larger issues?

Dave: I think the biggest thing people can do outside of voting and paying attention to these issues is help build collective will. Engage with your friends, family members, and neighbors—whether that's to educate them around climate and the fact that climate change is happening now. Building this type of collective action is the best way to build power that's going to move decision-makers.

I also think people should think of voting as the first part of the process, not the end of it. Be in touch with your legislators, even if you know they may vote the right way because of where you live. I think they don't necessarily know what issues to prioritize so, I would encourage people who care about climate change and the environment to make sure that's on the top of the list of their elected officials.

I would also encourage people to get engaged at the local level, as a lot of decisions at your city or county-level are made by a handful of people, and people don't always pay attention. You can have a lot of influence just by showing up to meetings if you have that capacity.

The other thing I would say is just be creative about other places to influence decisions. It doesn't always have to be elected officials. Build community around pressuring Duke Energy, or whoever is your local utility provider. In Asheville, North Carolina, one of the big reasons that the coal plant there was retired was because the city of Asheville came together and really demanded it. I think that's evidence that it doesn't just have to be state legislatures or people in Congress, you can build a local collective power and actually influence corporations.  

Want to add your thoughts to the conversation? Tell us more in the comments below!