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

Activists have imposed a de-facto moratorium on new coal—and beat the Obama EPA to the punch.

The River Rouge plant on the banks of the Detroit River emits enough pollution to cause 44 deaths each year. Photo by Daniel Shea

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.

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The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.