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'From The Ashes' Documents Rise And Fall Of Coal In America


When President Trump promised to step out of the Paris climate accord earlier this month, dozens of mayors and a handful of governors promised to step in. Officials like the mayor of Los Angeles and the governor of New York pledged to keep cutting emissions to meet the goals laid out in the Paris deal. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is coordinating that effort, and he's pledged $15 million from his own foundation to cover some of the money that the U.N. will lose when the U.S. pulls out of the deal. His foundation also helped fund a new documentary about coal in America. "From The Ashes" airs this Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.

I talked to Michael Bloomberg earlier this week, along with Sidney Beaumont. He's the producer of "From The Ashes." And I started by asking Bloomberg about coal and politics, and why President Trump pointed to coal workers as one reason to pull out of the Paris climate agreement.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Well, I just can't answer that. You have to ask the president. I can just tell you the facts. There are roughly 50,000 people that work in coal with - 15,000 are miners. And what's happened over the years is that coal has become much more automated. And so the number of people that work in the coal industry keeps going down. And that started long before we even focused on the environmental impact of coal. So the real answer here is that technology is destroying jobs in coal, and we as a society have to find ways to retrain people to go and have jobs in industries that need them.

MCEVERS: And for people who don't know, what is coal's role in climate change? We know that coal-fired power plants give off greenhouse gases, but just help us understand it.

BLOOMBERG: Sidney, you want to...

SIDNEY BEAUMONT: Our film focuses on climate change. And we speak to a number of people who are experts, climate scientists and other policy folks in this area. And they point to coal as being one of the largest, most important elements in contributing to climate change.

BLOOMBERG: Kelly, let me add to that. This is Mike Bloomberg.


BLOOMBERG: Plenty of other things that put stuff into the air, but coal is so pervasive and so significant a percentage of it in America. By closing half of the coal-fired power plants we've reduced greenhouse gases by roughly 20 percent in this country. We're going to meet our French COP21 goals. We're halfway there already, and we still have eight years to go.

MCEVERS: And, Sidney, I want to talk about the film a little bit. You spend time with families who work in the coal industry, who are going to be devastated by the collapse of this industry. I want to hear a clip from one of those families, Cecil and Regina Lily (ph) from West Virginia. Let's listen to them.


CECIL LILY: You have kids, and you go to work one day and they say, well, you don't work here no more. And you've got to go home and face your family and say to them that you don't have the job no more.

REGINA LILY: You know, we're not alone in this boat. There's so many more people. I'm hurt over it because I see people suffering and I know what they're doing. And I know how they're - what they're going through.

MCEVERS: So, you know, we know that coal's a major contributor to climate change, but these are real people whose lives are being affected.

BLOOMBERG: Kelly, Kelly, let me say that there are people in every industry where this is true and that your heart has to go out to them. And we have to not just sit around and wring our hands. We have to find ways to train them for the jobs of the future. Sidney?

BEAUMONT: We visited Cecil and Regina Lily. And these are folks who, in their families, for generations, have actually mined coal and been part of the industry. And we can sympathize with their plight, absolutely. But even they themselves and others who have been sort of victims or the butt of this downfall are critical of this industry because it's actually terribly impacting them, their lives, their communities, their water and their air.

MCEVERS: Can mayors and governors really pick up the slack here? Earlier this year President Trump ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to unwind President Obama's Clean Power Plan. That would have closed hundreds of coal-fired power plants.

BLOOMBERG: They can do something, but basically it's been done by corporations and individuals. Local governments can do something, state governments less and federal governments almost nothing.

MCEVERS: If the feds really don't have that big of a role, then should it not have been such a big deal that, you know, the U.S. pulled out of Paris?

BLOOMBERG: It sends a terrible message. It's an embarrassment. But also, if somebody on the other side of the world pollutes, you breathe their air. This stuff goes all around the globe. And so we all have a vested interest in having others stop polluting. Anybody that does helps us, and anybody that doesn't hurt us. But it does to everybody.

MCEVERS: Michael Bloomberg is the former mayor of New York City, and Sidney Beaumont is the producer of the new documentary "From The Ashes." You can see it this Sunday on the National Geographic Channel. Thanks to both of you.

BLOOMBERG: You're welcome. Thank you.

BEAUMONT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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