My Grandfather was a Coal Miner

My grandfather was a coal miner. He was also an American immigrant from southern Italy. As a US citizen, he served in the US Army. He was very proud to be able to participate in democracy. My mother remembers her dad putting on his best suit and walking for miles to cast his vote.

Back in his mountain origin of Bocchigliero, he was a contadino; a peasant farmer. Like so many others, he came to America to pursue a dream– a better life for himself and his family. Once he whispered to his young bride, my grandmother, “Filomena, in America the roads are paved with gold.”   scarnato-young-sam-version-2

My grandfather spoke out for better conditions for the men who worked alongside him in the coal mine. As you can imagine, in the absence of modern day laws, laboring in a coal mine in the early-to-mid 20th century wasn’t a pleasant or healthy experience.

During times when I was unhappy in my own job, my thoughts would inevitably go to my grandfather. Although he had died before I was born, his story was memorable. I’d say to myself, “if he could go down into a coal mine everyday, then you can do this.” That definitely put my white-collar employment woes into perspective.

Believing in the American dream, my grandfather knew that the ticket to a better future was to work hard and focus his children on education. You might say he sacrificed himself-as an immigrant with no formal education but a strong work ethic-so that his children could get educated and have a better life. And they did.

Health related disease like black lung and the perils of mining accidents still loom large for coal miners worldwide. Negative externalities for the larger society are also pronounced; increased asthma rates, acid rain, and the perpetual elephant in the room–climate change.

But there is another human dimension that is often overlooked. Propping up a fossil industry in decline, creates a stale state where people are always looking down and under valuing their human potential. Someone looking down will never look up to advance their education and upgrade their employment skills to join a new renewable energy economy.

Let’s give today’s coal miners access to the tools they need to enter the 21st century economy with good paying clean energy jobs. Politicians need to quit using these coal miners as pawns to bolster an industry in it’s last death spiral. The quicker we make efforts to move forward, the sooner the American dream can be realized by all.

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Courtesy of: Visual Capitalist

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350.org Founder, Author Bill McKibben on “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet”

Ahead of Earth Day and Cochabamba, Bolivia’s indigenous summit on climate change along with the anticipated unveiling of a Senate climate bill this coming week, Democracy Now spoke with someone who sounded one of the earliest alarms about global warming. In 1989, Author Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature but his warnings were largely ignored. Below are some excerpts from that interview.

BILL McKIBBEN: On his new book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:  Look, the planet that we live on now is different, and in fundamental ways, from the one that we were born onto. The atmospheres holds about five percent more water vapor than it did forty years ago. That’s an incredible change in one of the basic physical parameters of the planet, and it explains all those deluges and downpours. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic, as it absorbs all that carbon from the atmosphere. NASA said yesterday that we’ve just come through the warmest January, February, March on record, that 2010 is going to be the warmest year that we’ve ever seen.

And we begin to see just in every day in the newspaper the practical effects of all this. Last week it was Rio de Janeiro with absolutely record rainfalls, causing landslides that killed thousands. Today, in the run-up to the summit in Bolivia, in Peru an enormous chunk of glacier fell off a mountainside into a lake, set up a seventy-five-foot-high wave that killed some people and destroyed the one water processing plant in the whole area. These sort of things happen now someplace around the world every single day, because we’ve undermined the basic physical stability of this planet.

On solutions and limits on growth: Well, reversing the trend is hard—impossible, in fact. We’re not going to stop global warming. We can keep it from getting worse than it has to get. For that to happen, Juan, we need things to happen at two levels. One is the governmental, national and global. We need a stiff price on carbon, one that reflects the damage it does in the atmosphere, that will reorient our economy in the direction of renewable energy instead of fossil fuel. But we’re also going to need, because we have a new planet, a new set of habits for inhabiting it successfully.

Our fundamental habit for the last couple of hundred years has been to assume that growth is going to solve every problem that we face. I think now we’ve fundamentally reached the limits to growth that people started talking about fifty years ago. When you melt the Arctic, that’s not a good sign. So we’re going to need, instead, to start focusing on security, on stability, on resilience, on figuring out how to allow communities to thrive, even on a tough planet. And I think that that has a lot to do with decentralization, with scaling down, with spreading out, with building food systems and energy systems that aren’t too big to fail, that are small enough and stable enough to succeed.

On Coal: Coal is the most dangerous substance on the planet, in almost every way—I mean, for the people who have to mine it and for the landscapes where it exists, like across southern Appalachia, for the people who have to breathe the smoke around power plants, mostly in our inner cities, but most fundamentally for the climate. Coal produces more carbon per BTU than anything else you can burn. And as a result, more than anything, it’s what’s driving our climate problem.

We’re not going to have, in the time that we require it, anything that really resembles clean coal. What we need to do is make that transition away from coal, and make it as fast as we can. Job one is putting a really significant price on carbon, so that coal begins to pay for some of the incredible damage that it does to the environment.

On 350.org: Three-fifty is the most important number in the world. NASA scientists have said that any value for carbon in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million is not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth has adapted. That’s strong language, and it’s stronger still, because we’re past it already. We’re at 390 parts per million or so today and rising about two parts per million a year. That’s why the Arctic is melting. It’s why the oceans are acidifying. And it’s why we need a movement around the world to force political action sooner rather than later. We’re running out of time.

For the full interview, click on the video below:

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Additional readings:

Words of Power: Do You Understand the Power of the Pebble People? For Benazir Bhutto on Earth Day, with Help from Alice Walker, Yoko Ono and Bill McKibben

James Hansen on Cap-and-Trade, Tipping Points and Where We Go From Here

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In a recent interview, post- the COP15 Conference, the nation’s top climate scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen discussed his views on cap and trade, tipping points and how we can move forward in the aftermath of Copenhagen.

Hansen also has a new book, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity where he discusses these issues at length.

The entire interview with Amy Goodman is visible at the end of this post. I’ve pulled out some highlights.

Hansen says, “I’m actually quite pleased with what happened at Copenhagen, because now we have basically a blank slate. We have China and the United States talking to each other, and it’s absolutely essential. Those are the two big players that have to come to an agreement. But it has to be an honest agreement, one which addresses the basic problem. And that is that fossil fuels are the cheapest source of energy on the planet. And unless we address that and put a price on the emissions, we can’t solve the problem.”

On Cap and Trade: “Cap and trade, they attempt to put a cap on different sources of carbon dioxide emissions. They say there’s a limit on how much a given industry in a country can emit. But the problem is that the emissions just go someplace else. That’s what happened after Kyoto, and that’s what would happen again, if—as long as fossil fuels are the cheapest energy, they will be burned someplace. You know, the Europeans thought they actually reduced their emissions after Kyoto, but what happened was the products that had been made in their countries began to be made in other countries, which were burning the cheapest form of fossil fuel, so the total emissions actually increased.”

But what you need to do—and many people call that a tax, but in fact the way that it should be done is to give all of the money that’s collected in a fee, that should be across the board on oil, gas and coal, collect that money at the mine or at the port of entry from the fossil fuel companies, and then distribute that to the public on a per capita basis to legal residents of the country. Then the person that does—that has less than average carbon emissions would actually make money from the process, and it would stimulate the economy. It would give the public the funds that they need in order to invest in low-carbon technologies. The next time they buy a vehicle, they should get a low-emission one. They should insulate their homes. Such actions. And those people who do that will come out ahead. That’s—the economists agree that that’s the way you should address the problem, with a price on carbon. Otherwise, the emissions will just continue to go up.”

On Tipping Points: “Well, there are tipping points in the climate system, where we can push the system beyond a point where the dynamics begins to take over. For example, in the case of an ice sheet, once it begins to disintegrate and slide into the ocean, you’ve passed the point where you can stop it. So that’s what we have to avoid.

Another tipping point is in the survival of species. As we begin to put pressure on species and move the climate zone so that some of the species can’t survive because they can only live within certain climate parameters, because species depend upon each other, you can drive an ecosystem such that when some species go extinct, then the entire ecosystem will collapse. So you don’t want to push the system that far.

And these tipping points are not hypothetical. We know from the earth’s history that these have happened in the past, especially when we’ve had large global warmings. We’ve driven more than half the species on the planet to extinction. And then, over hundreds of thousands and millions of years, new species come into being. But for any time scale that we can imagine, we would be leaving a much more desolate planet for our children and grandchildren and future generations. So we don’t want to pass those tipping points.”

On Atmospheric CO2:What we have now is 387 parts per million. But we’re going to have to bring that down to 350 parts per million or less. And that’s still possible, provided we phase out coal emissions over the next few decades. That’s possible. We would also have to prohibit unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and oil shale.”

On Moving Forward: “What needs to happen right now—we have this great opportunity this spring, I would say, to have discussions in the House and Senate about what really needs to be done to solve this problem. And it’s not cap and trade with offsets. We can prove that that’s completely ineffectual. What we have to do is put a price on carbon, and the money that’s collected needs to be given to the public, not used for boondoggles, like Congress is taking—plans to take the money from cap and trade that’s collected in selling the permits to pollute and to use that money for things like clean coal or to give the money back to the polluters. That won’t solve the problem. We have to give the money to the public.”

“There were a couple of encouraging things in Copenhagen. For one thing, Al Gore made a clear statement that a carbon price is a better solution than cap and trade. And John Kerry also indicated that he had an open mind on that question. So that’s why I say the discussions in the next few months are very important, because the way the United States goes is going to determine the way the world goes, I think.”

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