YouTube video

Paul Jay speaks to Jessy Tolkan at the Tides Foundations’ Momentum conference in San Francisco.
They speak about Tolkan’s coalition on climate change fighting Obama to establish a moratorium on
coal mining. Tolkan says that Washington’s push for “clean coal” is not enough because the coal
industry’s and President Obama’s argument that the production of coal can be clean is “an absolute,
100% lie.” She also says that “the science is clear that if we don’t address coal head on, it’s almost
“game over” for the planet.”

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re still in San Francisco at the Momentum Conference held by the Tides Foundation, and we’re talking to Jessy Tolkan, executive director of Energy Action Coalition. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So let’s talk about what’s really happening in terms of energy reform, climate change legislation. And the big battle, really, as many environmental scientists have said, is over coal, and Jim Hansen from NASA has said that the battle is coal. And if you read the recent New York Times article about the battle over coal versus natural gas and alternative energy, coal seems to be winning. And the legislation that seems that’s going to come out of Congress is actually going to enhance the role of coal in the production of electrical energy, not diminish it. So where are we at, and what are you guys going to do about it?

TOLKAN: We’re in a very scary situation when it comes coal. The science is clear that if we don’t address coal head-on, it’s almost game over for the planet in terms of being able to address global climate change.

JAY: The coal industry and President Obama have said, if we can get people to the moon, we can clean coal. They say carbon capture technology’s going to work and clean coal is around the corner.

TOLKAN: That is an absolute, 100 percent lie. And, quite honestly, it’s a little lonely out there being one of the only constituencies in America that’s bold enough to take the only position that actually make sense on coal. The only position that actually makes sense in the eyes of saving the planet from catastrophic global warming is a position where we are fighting for an energy future without coal. So that’s not fighting for clean coal; that is fighting for no coal, for a just transition for workers that currently work in that industry. And what we know is that we can build an energy infrastructure in this country that does not rely on coal.

JAY: Okay. Start with the first question. So what’s the evidence that there’s no clean coal and there needs to be no [coal]? What’s the argument for that?

TOLKAN: We’ve already invested, in this country, billions of dollars in demonstration projects on clean coal that have not proven that we can actually capture the carbon from the coal, not to mention we haven’t figured out issues of storing that carbon. It’s ridiculous, in my mind, and preposterous to be contemplating massive investment in research to achieve clean coal when instead we can reinvest those dollars in building an energy grid that’s based on wind power and solar power and geothermal power. I mean, we have clean, safer alternatives that are ready to go online. Now, reality—.

JAY: But the argument is there needs to be a period of transition to get to that. It could be, they’re saying, as much as 15, 20 years to create that kind of alternative grid. And they’re saying clean coal’s possible and coal’s the right transition stage ’cause there’s so much of it.

TOLKAN: Well, through efficiency measures and through the passage of our renewable energy standard, we don’t have to build another coal plant in America. Right now the smartest, most responsible thing the United States government could do would be to put an immediate moratorium on coal, recognizing we’re not going to make the shift overnight from coal to wind and solar and geothermal. But we don’t need to build another coal plant; we don’t need to chop off the top of another mountain. Now, what makes this so difficult and the politics around this so difficult is we’re working inside a broken political system in which the coal industry has so much power that it essentially owns a large number of the members of Congress that are in a position to be voting on this matter. And so we see legislation that heavily favors the coal industry; we see legislators, who are very smart legislators, who seem to be blinded to the scientific realities of why we can’t invest in coal and who are incredibly short-sighted. I would like those representatives who represent the coal industry to go and talk to some of the representatives in Detroit, the representatives who for years and years fought regulation for higher fuel-efficiency standards, ’cause what they thought they were doing is protecting the auto industry in Detroit and throughout Michigan, and in the end the regulation they fought made their industry noncompetitive. It drove them into bankruptcy. I think the responsible decision to make if you’re a coal-state representative is to realize you have to begin transitioning the economy. And to be a true representative to coal mining families, to coal mining communities, is to think about what is the next industry that takes over in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. What is the opportunity if we build wind farms on the tops of mountains instead of instead of chopping the top of the mountain off?

JAY: Now, we talked earlier, in the first segment, about interviews I’m doing here and letting President Obama off the hook. But President Obama’s saying there’s going to be clean coal.

TOLKAN: And we’re going to tell President Obama that we’re not going to stand for that. And we did that throughout the entire election. And this is an issue where, regardless of anybody’s political advice that coal is a political issue too toxic to touch, that’s not going to be our approach. We intend to hold President Obama’s feet to the fire. We believe that we have an incredible EPA administrator in Lisa Jackson, who shares our commitment to the danger and threat of coal to communities across this country. And this is a nonnegotiable issue for us. And we realize it’s an uphill battle, but it’s important for President Obama and his administration to know that, for us, bold action on climate and energy means dealing with coal in a responsible way, which is phasing coal out, and it’s not buying off the coal industry with the promise and hope of a technology we know doesn’t work.

JAY: So you represent an umbrella group of something like 50 organizations. How many young people?

TOLKAN: Right now we have more than half a million people that are part of our movement across the country. That’s likely to double in the next couple of months. We represent a constituency, the millennial generation, that will be the largest part of the voting population come the 2012 and 2016 election cycle. And this is a fact that I think’s important for every member of Congress and for the president himself to take note of. We’re not a constituency you can ignore.

JAY: Well, what do you do in 2012 if—. They’re on the road, they’re down the road of coal, and unless something dramatic happens, they don’t look like they’re going to turn around. So if 2012 comes and you’ve got a Congress and a president that are heading to the coal mines, what you do in 2012? Do you go out and hit the bricks for Obama and the Democratic party or not?

TOLKAN: I mean, I think it’s really difficult to paint the picture of 2012 right now. We are committed and will be committed day in and day out this fall to continuing to go out and fight for an ambitious agenda that includes a policy that transitions this country to clean and renewable energy. But make no mistake: we are going to stick to our principles, and those principles will be in effect as we go out and we campaign in 2012. We believe that the president in his heart and in his soul knows the direction that this country needs to go in and that we need to be the movement that gives him the political space to go there. [inaudible] to some extent we don’t want to put it all in Obama’s court. We want to provide the political pressure and provide the political space to allow Barack Obama to be the leader we know he can be. We have a campaign called “Get in the Game, Obama”. We think he needs to get in the game a little bit more. We think he’s losing. But we want him to know that we will be his cheering section, we will allow him the political space, but he’s got to step up and lead.

JAY: But he’s actually—he has led on this issue. He’s led by saying, “I think there’s clean coal.” Like, why do you think he’s on your side on this issue?

TOLKAN: There’s something to be said for Barack Obama’s ultimate vision of what needs to happen in this country, and there’s a few things that are a bit contradictory. We can talk about investing in an idea of clean coal. And if it happens, it happens. But right now I think Barack Obama, in his heart of hearts, his support of clean coal is fairly a political type of thing. I don’t actually believe, based on the vision Barack Obama has for this country, that he thinks clean coal is the answer. I think he wants to support policies that allow clean energy to be competitive. I think he wants to build a clean-energy economy and create pathways out of poverty for millions of Americans. And I think, if the political situation is right, we can bring Obama to the right public position on coal. And I refuse to give up on that point. I’ve seen Obama respond to the people, and I think we have the opportunity to do that this fall. I’ll also just say one other thing, which is that young people are so committed to their fight against coal and their fight for a clean and renewable energy future that our fight is not exclusively inside the halls of Congress and Washington, DC, that we’ve been incredibly effective across this country disrupting the permitting process, in some cases chaining ourselves to bulldozers that are about to begin construction of new coal plants in communities across this country. We will escalate this fight. We will be on the frontlines of building a clean-energy economy in communities across this country. And we will stop at no measure to ensure justice for every community in this country.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

TOLKAN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Jessy Tolkan is the Executive Director for the Energy Action Coalition, a group of 50 leading youth organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada that organize on college campuses, high schools, and in local communities. Energy Action Coalition is growing a generation-wide movement to stop global warming, by advocating for green jobs, stopping new coal plants, and making young people's voices heard in the policy debate around global climate change. As state director for the New Voters Project, Tolkan helped register more than 130,000 young voters producing one of the highest youth turnout rates in the country. Tolkan helped plan Power Shift 2007 and 2009, conferences that brought together more than 12,000 youth representing all 50 states, and resulted in the largest single lobby day on Capitol Hill focused on global warming. She also spearheaded Power Vote, a campaign to mobilize 1,000,000 young voters on climate and energy issues. She's been featured in Time, Vanity Fair, and on Hard Ball with Chris Matthews. In 2006 she was named one of the Real Hot 100 Women in America.