It may seem odd timing that many of us are heading to the nation’s capital early next month for a major act of civil disobedience at a coal-fired power plant, the first big protest of its kind against global warming in this country.
After all, Barack Obama’s in power. He’s appointed scientific advisers who actually believe in… science, and he’s done more in a few weeks to deal with climate change than all the presidents of the last 20 years combined. Stalwarts like John Kerry, Henry Waxman, and Ed Markey are chairing the relevant congressional committees. The auto companies, humbled, are promising to build rational vehicles if only we give them some cash. What’s to protest? Why not just give the good guys a break?
If you think about it a little longer, though, you realize this is just the moment to up the ante. For one thing, it would have done no good in the past: you think Dick Cheney was going to pay attention?
More importantly, we need a powerful and active movement not to force the administration and the Democrats in Congress to do something they don’t want to, but to give them the political space they need to act on their convictions. Barack Obama was a community organizer — he understands that major change only comes when it’s demanded, when there’s some force noisy enough to drown out the eternal hum of business as usual, of vested interest, of inertia.
Consider what has to happen if we’re going to deal with global warming in a real way. NASA climate scientist James Hansen — who has announced he plans to join us and get arrested for trespassing in the action we’re planning for March 2 — has demonstrated two things in recent papers. One, that any concentration of carbon dioxide greater than 350 parts per million in the atmosphere is not compatible with the “planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” And two, that the world as a whole must stop burning coal by 2030 — and the developed world well before that — if we are to have any hope of ever getting the planet back down below that 350 number.
That should give you some sense of what Obama’s up against. Coal provides 50 percent of our electricity. That juice comes from hundreds of expensive, enormous plants, each one of them owned by rich and powerful companies. Shutting these plants down — or getting the companies to install expensive equipment that might be able to separate carbon from the exhaust stream and sequester it safely in some mine somewhere — will be incredibly hard. Investors are planning on running those plants another half-century to make back their money — the sunk costs involved are probably on the scale of those lousy mortgages now bankrupting our economy.
And if you think it’s tough for us, imagine the Chinese. They’ve been opening a coal-burning power plant a week. You want to tell them to start shutting them down when that coal-fired power represents the easiest way to pull people out of poverty across Asia?
The only hope of making the kind of change required is to really stick in people’s minds a simple idea: Coal is bad. It’s bad when you mine it, it’s bad for the city where you burn it, and it’s bad for the climate.
Happily, there’s no place that makes that point much more easily than the power plant Congress owns not far from the U.S. Capitol building. It’s antiquated (built today, it wouldn’t meet the standards of the Clean Air Act). It’s filthy — one study estimates that it and the other coal-fired power plants ringing the District of Columbia cause the deaths of at least 515 people a year. It’s among the largest point sources of CO2 in the capital. It helps support the mining industry that is scalping the summits of neighboring West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Oh, and it would be easy enough to fix. In fact, the facility can already burn some natural gas instead, and a modest retrofit would let it convert away from coal entirely.
Not only that, but it’s owned by Congress. They don’t need to ask any utility executives. They could just have a vote and do it — as easy as you deciding to put a new, clean furnace in your basement. It would even stimulate the local economy.
All of which means it’s the perfect target. Not because shutting it down would do much, except for the people who live right nearby. But because it’s a way to get the conversation started. When civil disobedience works, it’s because it demonstrates some willingness to bear a certain amount of pain for some larger end — a way to say, "Coal is bad enough that I’m willing to get arrested." Which is not the biggest deal on earth, but if you’re going to be asking the Chinese, say, to start turning off their coal-fired plants, you can probably keep a straighter face if you’ve made at least a mild sacrifice yourself.
There are dangers in this kind of strategy too. It could turn people off, make them think that global warming protesters are crazy hippies harkening back to the '60s. I don’t mind hippies in the slightest, but when the writer Wendell Berry and I sent out the original invitation to this action, we asked that those who wanted to be arrested wear their dress clothes. And not just because it’s serious business — but also in hopes of discouraging the hardcore anarchists and troublemakers attracted to such events, sort of in the way that convenience stores play classical music to keep folks from loitering outside.
The other danger is that it might convince activists that this is the most important work to do, the main tool in the toolbox. That’s almost certainly not true, which is why it’s appropriate that Powershift, the huge gathering of young people the same weekend in D.C., will focus on lobbying on Capitol Hill that Monday morning of the protest. Lobbying first, sitting-in second. And third, and most important of all, the suddenly swelling movement toward symbolic action next fall on a global basis. 350.org, the campaign I helped found, is looking for new ways to make a point, with a global day of action on Oct. 24 that will link people up from high in the Himalayas to underwater on the Great Barrier Reef to… Your Town Here.
A little Facebook, a little Twitter, and a little sitting down in the street where the police don’t want you. We’ve got to see what works!