Saturday will be a vast day of witness about climate change, from underwater on the dying coral reefs of the Pacific to the summit of melting Mont Blanc. But one of the thousands of actions planned for Connect-the-Dots day will be aimed at educating a single human being — one with power enough to make an immediate difference in the fight against climate change.
Activists in White Rock, British Columbia, will stand on the tracks across which four of Warren Buffett’s Burlington Northern coal trains are scheduled to pass en route to the Pacific, where their cargo will be shipped to China and burned in power plants. The organizers have informed police and Burlington Northern of their plans, and have pledged to be “peaceful, non-violent, and respectful of others. There will be no property destruction. We are striving to be the best citizens we can. We will stand up for what we believe is right and conduct ourselves with dignity.”
And there’s a chance, I think, that their actions might work. Because Buffett is clearly a more interesting man than most of the 1%. In the U.S., he’s called attention to the fact that the rich are undertaxed — the so-called “Buffett Rule” has become a rallying cry against inequality. And he’s also pledged to give most of his vast fortune to Bill Gates’ foundation after his death, arguing that “life has dealt a terrible hand to literally billions of people around the world, and Bill and Melinda are bent on reducing that inequity to the extent they possibly can.”
But though some of us have tried, as far as I know no one has ever been able to talk with him about the connection between Berkshire Hathaway’s business and that “terrible hand” afflicting so many. His Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, acquired just a few years ago when the truth about climate change was entirely clear, moves more coal than anything else. As business reporters noted when he purchased the company in 2009, “BNSF controls the crucial rails linking the massive domestic reserves of the Powder River Basin, the Northern Great Plains, the Western Interior Basin and the Illinois Basin east to the main industrial centers of the Midwest and west to the major electricity demand centers in southern California.” Activists have managed to stop the growth of coal-fired power in the U.S., so now the big money lies in exporting the stuff to China — that’s why there are plans for six big coal ports on the Pacific, to complement the smaller terminals where Buffett’s trains currently unload.
Cheap coal from North America flooding into China has a real impact — as the University of Montana’s Thomas Powers concluded last year, the data shows it results in “more coal consumption in Asia and undermines China’s progress towards more efficient power generation and usage. Decisions the Northwest makes now will impact Chinese energy habits for the next half-century.” Warren Buffett isn’t an evil man — by all accounts just the opposite. And these aren’t death trains; they’re very much just business as usual. But business as usual is the problem, and if Warren Buffett refused to carry that cargo the world would be a cooler place.
Around the planet Saturday, people will be witness to the effect climate change has already had on their lives — in Thailand monks will gather at one of the temples wrecked by December’s epic flooding, and in Texas they’ll remember last year’s record drought; in Pakistan there will be street theater in the regions where 20 million had to leave their flooded homes, and in La Paz Bolivians will rally to remind us how melting glaciers threaten their drinking water. It’s crucial that we connect these tragedies — that we see the patterns emerge so we can make wiser policy in the future.
But in an unequal world some people are more crucial than others. Thanks to brave activists on a lonely stretch of Canadian track, Warren Buffett will get the chance to face squarely the role he might play in solving our worst problem, not with future philanthropy but with present-day courage. I know it’s a long shot, but the record clearly shows this is a good guy. I’m guessing he’s up to the challenge.