University News

Teach-in highlights effects of dirty coal

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2012

A panel of environmental experts and activists addressed students at Brown Divest Coal’s teach-in last night to discuss the environmental, social and political effects of the world’s dependence on coal.
The teach-in is part of Brown Divest Coal’s campaign to convince the University not to invest in the coal industry. Earlier this month, the group presented a letter to President Christina Paxson, asking the University to divest specifically from what the letter called the “filthy fifteen,” the 15 highest-polluting coal companies in the nation. The list of companies includes American Electric Power, Ameren and Edison International.
“Climate change is the issue of our generation, and it trickles down to every aspect of human life,” said Kristy Choi ’15, a member of the group.
Timothy Herbert, professor of geological sciences and chair of the department, began the event by offering a scientific perspective, discussing how both computer models and geological history show a long precedent of natural fluctuations in the earth’s climate. He debunked the myth that the climate has remained stable over the last hundreds of thousands of years but stressed that humans have contributed greatly to the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“The consequences of what we do today and what our parents did before us cannot be turned off like a switch,” Herbert said. There is no “silver bullet” technology that will reduce coal dependence, but “to make the choice to base our economy on the dirtiest and cheapest source of fuel is a very bad way to go,” he said.
Reducing dependence on coal also must take into account international factors, said Dawn King, visiting assistant professor in environmental studies. Divesting from dirty coal companies will not cause them to stop production, but rather to sell to countries other than the United States. Sixty-nine percent of China’s electric energy comes from coal, and China recently surpassed the U.S. in the amount of green gases produced.
Stephanie Malin, a postdoctoral fellow in environmental studies, addressed the social and environmental justice issues of coal production. Coal extraction methods like mountain topping and longwall mining can destroy homes or place unfair burdens on natural resource dependent communities that often lack sovereignty, she said.
People who live near coal mining areas and coal-fire power plants experience high rates of cancer, respiratory problems and asthma from particulate matter and even premature spine deterioration due to methylmercury exposure, she said.
Activist Dustin Steele, who is the grandson of a West Virginia coal miner and a member of the group Radical Action for Mountain Peoples’ Survival, added a personal perspective on the detrimental effects of coal production on the health and livelihoods of Appalachian coal-mining communities. He emphasized that the issue is one that disproportionately affects the poor, adding that Brown has the moral responsibility to take ownership of its actions as a privileged institution.
“This is a human issue, this is an ethics issue, this is a human rights issue, and that can’t be stressed enough,” he said.
Members of Brown Divest Coal closed the event with a brief question and answer session and a discussion of past successes in persuading the University to divest from companies that practiced unethical behavior.
Divest Coal has received 1,500 signatures on a petition the group drafted at the beginning of the semester urging the University to revoke its investments in the coal industry.
The University’s financial records are closed to the public, so Divest Coal members do not know how much money is currently invested in coal and fossil fuel burning companies, group member Emily Kirkland ’13 told The Herald in early October.
Beppie Huidekoper, vice president for finance and administration, also told The Herald in early October that she was uncertain if the University invests in any of the companies from which Brown Divest Coal is seeking divestment.