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How a Grassroots Rebellion Won the Nation's Biggest Climate Victory

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page, Politics and Democracy page.
By most accounts, the summer of 2010-when climate legislation died its slow, agonizing death on Capitol Hill-was not a happy time for environmentalists. So why was Mary Anne Hitt feeling buoyant, even hopeful? Part of the reason, no doubt, were the endorphins of first-time parenthood. Baby Hazel, born in April 2010, was fair like her mother and curly haired like her father. She was also an 11th-generation West Virginian, which perhaps explained her mom's other preoccupation: stopping mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia. Hitt had spent the better part of a decade in Boone, North Carolina, running an organization called Appalachian Voices that sought to end mountaintop removal.

Wading through her backlog of emails after she returned from maternity leave, Hitt was struck by how "defeated and despondent" her fellow environmentalists sounded. She understood why, of course: "We'd just spent a great deal of money, time, and energy trying to pass a climate bill," an effort that had cost mainstream green groups more than $100 million.

But Hitt's emails were telling other stories, too-stories that were not getting her Beltway colleagues' attention. Across the country grassroots activists were defeating plans to build coal-fired power plants, the source of a quarter of America's greenhouse gas emissions. The movement's center of gravity was in the South and Midwest, "places like Oklahoma and South Dakota, not the usual liberal bastions where you'd expect environmental victories," she recalls. (The defeat of the Shady Point II plant in Oklahoma was particularly sweet, coming in the home state of DC's leading climate denier, Sen. James Inhofe.)

Hitt knew about these victories because she had helped bring them about. In 2008 she had left Appalachian Voices and taken a job as deputy director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which aimed to defeat every proposed coal plant, anywhere in the country. "I realized the Sierra Club was winning," she explains, "and I wanted to win."


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