Bill McKibben / Yale Environment 360 – 2009-02-28 22:18:51
Why I’ll Get Arrested to Stop the Burning of Coal
Bill McKibben / Common Dreams
(February 25, 2009) — 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!
© 2009 Yale University
Bill McKibben is the author of many books, including his latest: Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future . McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and cofounder of 350.org.
Make History in DC on March 2, 2009: Largest Civil Action on Climate Change
Capitol Climate Action
“I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.”
— Al Gore
Make history March 2, 2009 in Washington, D.C.
Be part of the largest mass civil disobedience for the climate in U.S. history.
The protest is on for Monday—and it’s going to be something of a party too! Senate majority leader Reid and Speaker Pelosi promised Thursday to switch the Capitol Power Plant off coal. Now we need them to promise to do the same thing to every other coal-fired power plant in America. If this one’s too dirty, so are all the rest! Read our response to Reid and Pelosi’s announcement:
You know there is a climate crisis. You know we have to solve it. It’s time to take our action to the next level.
With a new administration and a new Congress, we have a window of opportunity. But we have to open it — together.
On March 2, join thousands of people in a multi-generational act of civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant — a plant that powers Congress with dirty energy and symbolizes a past that cannot be our future. Let’s use this as a rallying cry for a clean energy economy that will protect the health of our families, our climate, and our future.
This will be a peaceful demonstration, carried out in a spirit of hope and not rancor. We will be there in our dress clothes, and ask the same of you.
It’s time to take a stand on global warming. We can’t wait any longer for the changes we KNOW we can, and must, make today.
Now is the time… RSVP NOW!
Action Guidelines FACEBOOK
Coalition Response to Call for
Switch to Natural Gas at
Capitol Power Plant
Today, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid released a letter asking the Capitol Architect to switch the Capitol Power Plant from coal to 100 percent natural gas by the end of 2009.
Pelosi and Reid’s call comes just three days before more than 2,500 people from across the country are coming to converge at the power plant for the biggest civil disobedience on climate issues in U.S. history. Prior to the announcement of the Capitol Climate Action, pro-coal legislators had been able to prevent the switch from coal to natural gas.
“Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid’s dramatic action shows that Congress can act quickly on global warming when the public demands it,” said Greenpeace Deputy Campaigns Director Carroll Muffett. “This move demonstrates that they recognize the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for a switch to cleaner energy sources.”
“The more than 2,500 people coming to Washington to call for a solution to the climate crisis and an end to the use of coal are still coming because the climate is still in crisis and coal is still driving that crisis,” said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network. “Today’s move reflects Congress’s growing awareness that the public is demanding change.”
“Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid today showed the power of grassroots action,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “That grassroots action is going to continue until Congress passes legislation that solves the climate crisis.”
For more information on the Capitol Climate Action, global warming, and coal, visit www.capitolclimateaction.org . The initial rally for the Capitol Climate Action will meet on March 2nd at 1:00pm in Spirit of Justice Park (C St. SW and Capitol St SE, two blocks west of Capitol South Metro).
Pelosi and Reid’s letter is available at http://speaker.house.gov/newsroom/pressreleases?id=1028.
CONTACTS: Michael Crocker, 202-319-2471 Nell Greenberg, 510-847-9777 Anne Havemann 240-396-2022
We Commit Civil Resistance, Not Civil Disobedience
Max Obuszewski / Beltway Beast
(February 27, 2009) — In 2002, the Iraq Pledge of Resistance was formed to prevent a war with Iraq. While we failed, we continued to engage in nonviolent direct action to end the war and the occupation. Eventually, the group, in expanding its focus, became the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance [NCNR].
In light of the massive Capitol Climate Action on March 2nd, we would like to take the opportunity to describe what we as a campaign have committed ourselves to. We celebrate this opportunity to share our thoughts with other progressive activists.
As a group with lots of direct action experience, NCNR has consistently encouraged organizations and individuals to recognize the difference between civil disobedience and civil resistance. We see the difference as being important in the struggle for nonviolent, positive social change.
The classic definition of civil disobedience, as practiced by the civil rights movement, is the breaking of an unjust law with the intent of changing it. In Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Rosa Parks broke an immoral law when she refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person.
It is rare for today’s actvists to do “civil disobedience,” as it removes the onus from the government to prove a defendant was engaged in criminal activity. Doing CD can cause a majority of the people to plead guilty and pay a protest tax. Doing CD eliminates the argument that the government, or a corporate entity, is the lawbreaker.
Today, NCNR activists engage in civil resistance, which means taking action to uphold the law. For example, we repeatedly challenged the Bush/Cheney government which disavowed the rule of law.
Using the term civil resistance is important for several reasons. First, in every statement about an action we point out that a government, or a corporate entity, is breaking the law. Second, we stress our Nuremberg obligation to act against the government’s lawbreaking. Finally, there is the matter of speaking in court after the action. A defendant who states s/he was engaged in civil disobedience not only is pleading guilty, but is letting the government off the hook for its failure to prosecute the real criminals.
If we are arrested, we encourage participants to go to trial and then use the courtroom to state that the action was lawful since its intent was to expose actual violations of the law—starting an illegal war, torturing prisoners or destroying the environment.
In court, we point out citizens have a Nuremberg obligation. At the Nuremberg trials, the court determined that citizens must challenge the government when it breaks the law.
Using the term civil disobedience today can confuse activists new to resistance. An activist would assume first that the rationale is to get arrested in order to change the law, and second that one is guilty as charged.
Reporters and prosecutors will make the case, you wanted to get arrested. No, the intent of the person involved in civil resistance was to end torture or to close down a nuclear power plant or to uphold the Constitution. One reason a prosecutor asks such a question is that most charges have a “mens rea” [guilty mind] component to the charge. The government will argue that the defendant’s intent was to get arrested. No, the intent, for example, was to try to get a meeting with a senator who voted to fund an illegal war.
On January 3, 2008 twelve activists arrested on September 15, 2007 outside the Capitol had their case dismissed. Over 180 people arrested that day pled guilty and paid a citation fee. Once the case came to court, it became evident that the police line was illegal. If possible, activists should take these “open and shut” cases to court.
Not only did the Bush administration break innumerable laws, but police consistently violate First Amendment rights. Even if one is found guilty after engaging in an act of civil resistance, an absurdity can become obvious: prosecute an activist who stated the war is illegal, but ignore the criminality rampant in the Bush administration.
In closing, we reiterate the importance of using appropriate language. Those of us with experience have a duty to mentor those who are just now contemplating acts of resistance. And when we act, we engage in civil resistance.