From Coal to Climate: the Evolution of an Activist

Originally published in the San Diego Free Press, September 22nd, 2016

So, here is a question: what’s about as likely as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly jointly admitting that pretty much everything they’ve ever said was wrong?

climate activist

Before I knew what coal looked like. And smelled. And tasted.

Answer: that a guy with my background would end up as an active member of

I grew up in Kansas, famous for Dorothy, sunflowers, and voting against your best interest (as in What’s the Matter With…). I remember my father vehemently wishing he could vote against Ted Kennedy. My mother railing against the Equal Rights Amendment, saying she liked having men open doors for her. Umm, I guess that such chivalry was banned in the bill’s text somewhere. Both of them mourning angrily that the country was ruined, now that Carter had been elected.

Not to spare myself, I also remember a Charles Kuralt interview in which he wondered what conservatism ever brought us. I turned to Dad and said—without a trace of irony—the money for everyone else to live on. I was maybe eighteen at the time, swimming with the rest of the fish in the Republican Kansas water. Unnecessary to point out?

An engineering degree landed me a job going around the country starting up coal-fired utility scale power plants. Doing that, I liked to reflect on the fact that I worked with some of the biggest “engines” in the world. I thought seriously about building my own small power plant, natural gas fired, and selling power to the grid. What fun it would be, I thought, but then found that the economics of small scale were a bit less than profitable. Regardless, it seemed to me that those of us in the industry were like priests of old, tending the sacred fires around which their civilizations turned.

Ah, the romance of the grandiose. Point is, the water around me was pretty much the same I’d known all my life; I questioned nothing about the work, the power industry, or its effects on the environment. And then I moved to California.

The author in 1995, when he was Operations Superintendent of a 240 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Virginia.

The author in 1995, when he was Operations Superintendent of a 240 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Virginia.

Was that really the catalyst? Was I a palm tree that had mistakenly been planted on the Great Plains? Within a year I joined Greenpeace, voted for B. Clinton, and rejoiced over his victory (loved the story of his sax playing at the post-returns party). I was working for a different company in the solid fuel power plant industry now. It produced advanced, more environmentally friendly equipment. Well, except for that CO2 business. But who (besides a few climate scientists and Exxon executives) knew that was a problem?

I can’t pinpoint the change in my outlook, the dawning awareness. Some years later, the company moved to New Jersey. I let them go and made the switch to a gas turbine manufacturer. The turbines still burned fossil fuel, but mostly natural gas with some diesel fuel thrown in now and then. Certainly no coal, and that relieved me. All I know for certain is that by the time An Inconvenient Truth came out I was fully on board with the science behind the climate crisis. Almost none of my friends from the power industry were. When I hung the poster from Al Gore’s movie in my office it was assumed to be ironic, an assumption I always took pains to correct. How I kept my job, I’m not sure. Assuredly, good looks were not the reason.

It’s been eleven years since that movie came out and some of my power industry friends now get it. Not all, by any means, and why the difference? Most of us are retired, so it’s not a matter of—as Al said—making them see the science when their livelihood depends on not seeing it. How can engineers, whose methods, knowledge, and practice are based on the findings of science, accept the universe of scientific findings—barring those stemming from climate science? Strange creatures indeed are we.

August 2016 - My first volunteering gig with SanDiego350 - at Harborfest in Chula Vista

August 2016 – My first volunteering gig with SanDiego350 – at Harborfest in Chula Vista

All I can say is I shed the Kansas waters and thoroughly dried off. My wife and I have solar panels on our roof, enough to power the house, our electric car, our plug-in hybrid, and have some left over to send to the grid. I’m vegetarian and my wife is 95% of the way there. We conserve water and forgo air conditioning. We understand that the only oracle Man has at his disposal, erratic as it can be, is the scientific method and peer review process. We trust no other, and that’s made all the difference.

So that’s the journey’s story, though it’s far from over, as now we pitch in with SD350. Oh, and did you notice? I got my dream—I have my own little power plant, silently puttering along on our roof. Who would ever have thought?

Bill O’Reilly maybe?

About Mark H

Mark Hughes has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Kansas State and spent over 30 years in the power industry. Now retired, he has devoted a portion of his life to raising awareness about climate change, which he sees as the #1 threat to not just Mankind, but all life on Earth.


  1. Angela Deegan says

    I hope #KenBone and others employed in the fossil fuel industry will read this.

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