New Documentary Challenges the Rhetoric of the So-Called War on Coal

New Documentary Challenges the Rhetoric of the So-Called War on Coal

Exactly one week after Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, a new film from director Michael Bonfiglio premiered at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C.’s headquarters. From the Ashes closely examines the repercussions—environmental, health, economic—of something the Trump administration has not only denied, but has gone to great lengths to ignore.

Gary Knell, president and CEO of National Geographic, welcomed the crowd on June 8 by praising From the Ashes as a film about a “future solution, and how to get there.” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also spoke to the audience about her city’s commitment to going green, mentioning her administration's “Climate Ready DC” plan and the proposed creation of a “green bank,” which would finance the expansion of renewable energy while lowering energy costs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating jobs.

From the Ashes delves into the perceived conflict between environmentalism and economics, acknowledging that coal has been an economic backbone for many rural, middle-class-aspiring parts of the country. Bonfiglio gives screen time to many of those who work or knew someone who has worked in coal, who would suffer from the attrition of coal jobs in their communities.

However, Bonfiglio essentially rejects the cry of there being a “war on coal” by highlighting a number of strategies and programs in multiple states to train dislocated coal workers. The film also discusses how the implementation of these programs as well as robust organizing have together helped some towns avoid the abyss of joblessness. Not once does From the Ashes imply that the shift from coal to clean energy will be easy, but Bonfiglio argues that a post-coal 21st century is at least possible.

In less than an hour and a half, From the Ashes shows how the high stakes of coal production and climate change are not only a problem for the future, but how coal has contributed to a rise in health disparities over the last half-century. A segment on how poor air quality precipitated by coal ash is linked to severe asthma in children is shocking, and seeing how Duke Energy’s unscrupulous practices leave people in North Carolina with questionable drinking water strikes the viewer as criminal. “I’m just trying to keep them breathing,” Misti O’Quinn, a mother from Texas coal country whose children have asthma, says during one of the film’s most poignant moments. O’Quinn spoke on a panel after the film’s premiere, and said that she considered “organizing and education” to be instrumental in the fight against climate change and the coal industry.

Ultimately, what the film, which premieres on June 25 on the National Geographic Channel, drives home is that while we may not be able to solve climate change in one sitting, we stand to lose our planet if national collective action is not taken.