by Paul Messersmith-Glavin
In a previous essay (Capital and Climate Catastrophe, November, 2012), I outlined how capitalism is responsible for the current climate crisis and how it is not capable of solving it. Here I talk about the local effects of climate change, the effort to export coal through the Pacific Northwest, and about bringing an anti-capitalist perspective to organizing against climate catastrophe.
More Rain, But Less Water
Over the last century, the average annual temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with increases in some areas up to 4 degrees. Changes in forest cover, stream flows, and snowpack are already occurring in our region and will continue. The average annual temperature is expected to increase up to 10 degrees by the time today’s infants enter old age. The winters here are likely to get wetter and the summers drier. Insultingly, people living in the Pacific Northwest are being asked to help further facilitate these devastating changes to our environment by allowing coal trains to export coal to Asia to accelerate global warming.
Much of the region’s water supply is stored in snowpack in the mountains. Snowpack melts in the late spring and summer, running into streams and rivers throughout the year, providing drinking water, a healthy environment for fish, and water for agriculture, and driving energy production through dams. Higher winter temperatures will cause more precipitation to fall as rain, rather than snow. The decreased snowpack, estimated to decline by 40% in only the next 30 years, would increase the incidence of drought in increasingly drier, hotter summers. Increased rain (rather than snow) at higher elevations in the winter would also increase the probability of winter flooding. Overall we’ll experience less availability of drinkable water.
Decreasing water availability would strain existing social relations, as people compete to use dwindling supplies for agricultural irrigation, hydropower, municipal drinking water, industrial uses, and the protection of endangered and threatened animal species. Seventy percent of electric power in the Northwest is supplied by hydropower. At the same time that rising temperatures will increase the demands for air conditioning and refrigeration, decreased summer water supplies will limit hydroelectricity. Salmon, already threatened, will become increasingly vulnerable, with at least a third of their habitat destroyed by century’s end.
Additionally, the impact on the region’s forests will be immense. We can expect increased damage due to proliferating insect attacks from the mountain pine beetle and others, slowed tree growth, and a bloom of forest fires.1
This will all be exasperated by the increased population demands, as people from regions even worse off come to the Pacific Northwest. In the next fifty years, the Portland metro area could grow to as many as 4 – 6 million, from the current level of just under a million. Increasing numbers of ‘climate refugees’ in the region will likely lead to more authoritarian police enforcement. Police play a role of ensuring race and class divisions, often through brutality and murder. This will likely increase with more desperate people.
On the coasts, ocean acidification accompanying climate change is already impacting oyster and other sea life populations and will continue to affect all marine life, as coastal erosion and sea levels increase.
North Portland is most vulnerable to flooding, as the Columbia River floods natural areas such as the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, the airport, and potentially up to two miles of North Portland in the decades and centuries to come.2
As much as climate change will affect the ecological integrity of our region, it will continue to be much more devastating to people living in parts of the world not responsible for producing greenhouse gases. The largely white, European people of the so-called global North dominate and exploit the people of the South. It is primarily poor people of color, not contributing to global warming, who will endure its most devastating effects. It is mostly they who will continue to suffer and die. That’s the racist nature of climate change.
Capitalist Coal Trains
One of the major causes of climate change is burning coal. Due to the cheap availability of natural gas and the increasing reliance on hydraulic fracturing extraction, or “fracking” coal use in the US has been on the decline. In response, coal companies are seeking to export coal to Asia. China now burns more coal than the US, Europe, and Japan combined.3
China is currently building roughly two power plants every week and, following vast coal plant construction the last decade, plans to build 363 more. India is planning 455 new plants. 4 Worldwide, 1,200 new coal plants are planned, and the greenhouse gas emissions of those plants will be the equivalent of adding another China to the planet, currently the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases.
Coal is intrinsic to contemporary capitalism, assisting in its initial development and continuing to support its existence. It is essential to capitalist profit, providing a cheap form of energy to fuel production. There’s a lot of money to be made from coal. For instance, the price of coal is about $10.55 a ton in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming. By the time it hits the export market in Asia, that same ton of coal can be sold for $60 or more.5
The devastation burning coal will cause also affects public health; Physicians for Social Responsibility released a statement saying that coal affects all major body organs and contributes to 4 of the leading 5 causes of death in the US: heart disease, cancer, stroke, and lower respiratory disease. 6
Several coal companies have targeted the Pacific Northwest as their passageway to continued profits. The coal export plans are comparable to the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved by the Obama administration, will bring dirty tar sands oil through the heart of the country. There are currently five ports slated for potential coal exports.
The coal is being dug in the Powder River Basin, and will take two possible routes west. One route winds south out of Powder River, through Wyoming and Idaho and to coastal and inland ports like the Port of St. Helens in Oregon and Longview in Washington. A second northern route leaves Powder River and terminates at Cherry Point in Washington.
The coal would be transported by mile-long trains or by barge through the Columbia River Gorge, and some would pass through Portland, on the way to India, China and other locations in Asia. This would represent 150 million tons or more of coal a year, enough to fill 10,000 trains. There are two ports in Washington: Cherry Point and Longview; and three in Oregon: Port of Morrow, Port of St. Helens, and Coos Bay. The Coos Bay option recently suffered a major setback.7
To put the size of this in perspective, currently trains unloaded 80 million tons of freight in Oregon and Washington annually; at full capacity the six export projects would add more than twice that. Trains would travel across the Columbia rail bridge, cut through a canyon in Portland to the Willamette River bridge, then head north up US 30 through Northwest Portland Linnton neighborhood, Scappoose, St. Helens, and Columbia City. Thirty-seven of forty public crossings are street level, with two high schools, housing, senior centers, stores, and emergency services scattered on either side of the tracks. Terminals in Longview, Port Westward at St. Helens, and the likely dead proposal for Coos Bay are possible routes coal trains would take through the city. The Port of Morrow proposal would see barges loaded in Boardman, then coming through Portland to be loaded on ocean-going ships in St. Helens. The primary companies behind this are Ambre Energy, Arch Coal, SSA Marine, and Peabody Coal, notorious for its ill treatment of Native Dine and Hopi in the Four Corners region.8 The Portland Business Alliance and some unions support these projects. The Yakima Nation, the Lummi Nation, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and a wide coalition of grassroots activist groups, concerned citizens, and various city councils oppose them.
In addition, there are proposals for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in Coos Bay and Astoria; tar sands oil and gas terminals in Kitimat, BC; oil export (potentially tar sands) in Greys Harbor, WA; and an existing oil export terminal in Clastkanie/St. Helens that exports Baaken shale oil to the refinery near Bellingham.9 These constitute an additional six terminals in addition to the five. Most of these have been proposed in the last couple years, again showing the emergence of the Northwest as a major front in the climate movement.
Rising Up Angry!
In Portland, a group of organizers initiated by Portland Rising Tide, the Parasol Climate Collective, and members of the Hella 503 Collective are organizing grassroots confrontation. The summer project involves door-to-door canvassing in poor and working class areas likely to be affected by both the destabilizing effects of climate change and the presence of coal trains moving through their neighborhoods. The campaign will involve talking with folks about their concerns, doing educational events, helping to organize study groups, and training and engaging in direct action.
The goals for this work include broadening the understanding that the climate crisis is not in the future but is happening now in our communities; spreading the acceptance of mass illegality as necessary and effective to bring about change; developing mutual aid and community resiliency to complement direct action work; broadening the current focus on opposition to coal trains to a systematic analysis of the workings and responsibility of capitalism for the crisis; and building a replicable model that can be used in other parts of Portland and around the country. Also, international solidarity will be an important element, seeking to reach out to people in Asia working against burning the coal being shipped from the US.10 This effort will seek to develop relations between indigenous activists affected by the coal shipments and climate change, Longshoreman, community members, and others.
This work seeks to develop not only a movement against the coal trains but a broader movement against burning coal and fossil fuels generally, and for reorganizing our entire society. It hopes to develop an anti-capitalist movement for direct democracy. The organizing against coal trains is an entranceway into a larger critique of contemporary social relations, a way to point out the many problems with capitalism, and an argument for organizing society along directly democratic lines. It offers us the opportunity to present our visions for a fundamentally different society, one in which humans do not dominate and exploit other humans, nor attempt to dominate nature. It offers us an excellent opportunity to present a vision for a different type of society, an ecological society in which the people affected by political decisions are the ones making them. It will take an insurrection against the state, capital, and patriarchy to bring about an end to climate catastrophe. This is just the beginning, and we do not have much time.
If you are interested in getting involved in canvassing and organizing about these issues, write to: email@example.com
Paul Messersmith-Glavin is part of the Parasol Climate Collective, the Hella 503 Collective, and the Institute for Anarchist Studies.
1 All of this information is available on-line here: US EPA, Climate Change: Northwest Impacts and Adaptation: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/impacts-adaptation/northwest.html
6 Physicians for Social Responsibility: http://www.psr.org/chapters/oregon/news/physicians-respond-to.html