Coal Trains and Climate Protest: It’s Spring in New England

Coal Trains and Climate Protest: It’s Spring in New England

Coal Trains and Climate Protest: It’s Spring in New England

What connects anti-war demonstrations in Russia with climate activists in the US? An opposition to fossil capital.


The coal trains are rolling through New England again. You can see them as you stand on a street corner in Worcester, Mass., or any number of towns along their route, headed to the last coal-fired power plant in the region—Merrimack Station, on the banks of the Merrimack River in Bow, N.H.

Yes, coal trains are rolling through New England, in the year 2022, three decades after the first scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—and in a region that no longer has any use for the stuff—even as the world’s climate scientists issue ever more definitive and alarming evidence of accelerating climate catastrophe.

Coal is still rolling for no better reason than that there is profit in it.

And the only reason there is profit—in a region where fracked gas dominates the electricity-generation market—is a corrupt, Kafkaesque regulatory system, called ISO-New England, dominated by fossil fuel interests, that pays the plant’s hedge fund owners, Granite Shore Power, to keep the coal burning. And there is profit because the leadership of the New England states lacks the political and moral courage to confront those interests with the urgency and seriousness required to rapidly accelerate the transition off coal, oil, and gas.

This, in microcosm, is the state of the climate emergency in the year 2022.

Making Activists Into Criminals

Last week, in a court room in Concord, N.H., five people stood trial for attempting to prevent one of those coal trains from delivering its 80-car, 10,000-ton payload to the power plant in Bow on December 8, 2019, by physically getting in its way on a railroad bridge across the Merrimack River. (I reported for The Nation on that nonviolent direct action, and the ongoing grassroots campaign of which it was part—and in which, full disclosure, I am involved.) Four of the five defendants, after making the case that they had acted safely and conscientiously to prevent a far greater harm, were convicted by a jury of criminal trespassing. They will be sentenced in May. There’s not space here to tell the human story of their actions, their motivations, and their trial in any adequate way. But let’s consider the fact that four peaceful and compassionate people (as I can vouch), acting for the safety of all, now have criminal records. This, too, in microcosm, is the story of our situation.

As it turns out, there are apparently ways to interfere with a coal train without getting in front of it. According to eyewitnesses, a recent shipment of coal to New Hampshire was delayed several hours by the mere presence of protesters near the tracks in Westford, Mass.. Local law enforcement officers broke up the protest in the predawn dark before it could start. It appears that police departments in Massachusetts are working overtime in coordination with the railroad company, Pan Am Railways, and/or Granite Shore Power, to suppress peaceful dissent in the communities through which the coal passes on its way to be burned. Our tax dollars at work.

There are increasing numbers of people in New England for whom this entire state of affairs is quite simply intolerable. Our state authorities, from governors and legislators and attorneys general on down to local police, stand by and watch as corporations and lobbyists recklessly accelerate the destruction of a livable climate—that is, if these authorities are not already promoting and actively furthering that destruction themselves. (We may not have Joe “Coal Baron” Manchin in Massachusetts, but we do have Charlie Baker, friend of gas lobbyists.)

If our governments won’t stand up to these forces and try to stop them, then ordinary citizens, acting as the conscience of their communities, will. We won’t succeed overnight. We may not succeed at all. But we will try. As a preacher in East Texas once told me, it’s “a long-haul kind of calling.”

All of the Above, Again

There’s been a lot of talk in recent weeks, some of it serious, about the connections between fossil fuels, climate, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In particular, it has been noted that Democrats pivoted in the blink of an eye from a position of historically ambitious climate action to a replay of the Obama-Biden administration’s “all of the above” energy policy—the Democratic variation on “drill, baby, drill!” Meanwhile, the climate movement makes powerless noises. This is what despair looks like.

But I’m long past despair (the only way out, I can tell you, is through), and so are a lot of other people who are working tirelessly to end the burning of fossil fuels in the regions where we live. The work takes many forms, and the vast majority of them will lead no one to jail. That’s how it should be. And yet there remains a portion of the work that does require the willingness to confront power directly and physically, often outside of the law—the kind of work without which few, if any, radical social movements ever succeed. And, yes, climate justice—for the poor, the racially marginalized, the young, the vulnerable—is still a radical demand.

The sight of ordinary Russians risking everything to protest Putin’s war—at least 15,000 of them arrested and willing to face dire consequences—is inspiring beyond words. They’re also a reminder that, even in the face of impossible odds, there are still people who are willing to bear witness, at great personal risk, to keep the flame of resistance alive. And our situations, while vastly different in obvious ways, may not be quite as different as they seem at first. We are up against a global, quasi-totalitarian, political and economic system that has no regard for human rights and human life, or any other form of life on earth—a system that treats entire populations as superfluous (to use one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite terms). Putin’s regime is one of its major power centers, as is the United States government and the corporate boards of the fossil fuel industry and the banks and hedge funds that invest and profit from it—fossil capital, to use Andreas Malm’s phrase.

Our odds of success against this nihilistic carbon-industrial regime may not be any better than those of the Russian protesters. And yet the actions of the few, such as the defendants in Concord, N.H., last week, remain as necessary as ever. They are necessary to keep the flame of our humanity burning in these dark times. And if our democracy should fall—if it hasn’t already—to a Putin-inspired fossil fascism as the crisis intensifies, then more and more activists (and not only activists) will have to decide if a habitable planet and any hope of social justice are worth the risk of a jail sentence, or a career—or even a life.

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