Written by Sydney Browning, Fossil Free Fellow at NC WARN

I, like many of the other Fossil Free Fellows, have been fighting for divestment at my school for the past several months.  I had been so focused on the harmful mining practices of coal, oil and natural gas companies that I hadn’t taken the time to stop and think about where all these fossil fuels would be going after they were extracted from the earth. It’s a difficult connection to make between the electricity used at my family’s home and the nearby Duke Energy plant in Asheville, NC which poisons the local water supply while providing energy for thousands of families like my own. As difficult as this connection is to make, it’s an important one that I’ve made daily since I began my fellowship.

Along with my childhood friend and fellow divestment activist, this summer I have been working in my home state of North Carolina with an environmental justice organization called NC WARN, a group who has been involved in EJ fights since the 1980s. The current fight is around Duke Energy, one of the world’s biggest contributors to greenhouse gasses. The fight is focused on Duke’s recent utility rate hikes. Based in North Carolina, Duke has an energy monopoly in my state. In other areas of the country, where Duke Energy doesn’t have a monopoly, they’re forced to keep their rates low and invest in renewable energy.  In North Carolina, however, they’re proposing rate hikes for local costumers in order to build more coal and nuclear energy plants and to expand their use of natural gas.

Here’s the best part, the energy generated from these dirty and polluting plants isn’t going back to the ratepayers, instead, the energy is going to low-cost, high-energy use data centers for companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple and others. On top of all of this, Duke Energy is using rate-rigging to raise household and small business rates by 14% while only raising corporations’ rates by 3%, forcing the people who can least afford it to pay more for their energy.

In the shadow of these rate hikes, NC WARN and other groups have sued Duke Energy.  There have been public hearings (I’ve spoken at one) and an evidentiary hearing.  The Utilities Commission is protecting Duke Energy, since Duke Energy is one of the largest donors to politicians in the state, giving to the Democrats, Republicans, and groups like ALEC.  Our recently elected governor, Pat McCrory or as I call him “he who must not be named”, was a Duke Energy employee for twenty-eight years. As Governor, he’s tasked with appointing three people to the Utilities Commission. Is anyone else seeing a connection between Duke Energy and the people who run North Carolina?

These rate hikes are not only perpetuating climate change, they are forcing working class communities to pay for it.  Duke Energy is putting the health, environmental and financial safety of North Carolina citizens at risk- and these are risks we just cannot afford.

Over the past weeks, I’ve gone to several public hearings and heard people from across the state give testimony as to why these rate hikes are not in the people’s interests.  My work has been mostly to connect all of these issues and weave in new ones, like the introduction of fracking for natural gas. The conclusion that I’ve come to is that we, as a movement, have to connect the dots.  I’ve heard people explain exactly why Duke Energy is contributing to climate change and then I’ve heard people speaking out because they can’t afford their energy bill. What I love about NC WARN’s approach is that they are connecting the dots.  Fighting Duke isn’t just about climate change, it’s about the health issues caused by new dirty power plants, it’s about the fact that they’re raising rates on costumers who can’t afford them, and it’s about corporate money funding politicians. The beautiful thing about this fight against Duke Energy is hearing how everyone’s stories are connected and are being woven together to create an undeniable narrative that Duke Energy’s rate hikes are harming the people of North Carolina’s environment, health, and pocketbooks.

During our week of training in Albuquerque, we talked a lot about meeting people where they’re at in terms of climate issues.  That’s advice that I’ve used every day during my fellowship. I’ve had to meeting people where they’re at with respect to why they’re fighting these rate hikes.

When I say that we are connecting the dots, I do not mean that the environmental movement is an overarching movement that encompasses all other struggles. Instead, I mean that there’s a network of movements and the environmental movement is just one branch.  It’s connected to other branches, more than even we have explored, but it’s only one branch among many.

Browning Meme 1