The Heat Is on Washington

A boiling point over government inaction on climate change may have been reached in the United States.

More than 12,000 mainly young people are planning to gather in Washington on Monday, Mar. 2, to insist that their elected officials legislate immediate and deep cuts in U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, just as scientists revealed this week that the global climate is more sensitive to rising temperatures than expected.

And on the same Monday, at least 2,000 people led by eminent scientist James Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) plan to close the coal/oil powered Capitol Power Plant that supplies heat to government buildings on Capitol Hill, breaking the law if necessary.

"For more than 30 years, scientists, environmentalists and people from all walks of life have urged our leaders to take action to stop global warming; and that action has yet to come," said Hansen, one of the world's leading climate scientists.

"The world is waiting for the [Barack] Obama administration and Congress to lead the way forward on this defining issue of our time. They need to start by getting coal out of Congress," Hansen said in a statement.

For 30 years, Hansen has "consistently been the voice of courage on climate change," said Michael Crocker of Greenpeace USA, one of a coalition of more than 40 environmental, public health, labor, social justice NGOs that plan to shut down the Capitol Power Plant at least for part of the day.

"We want to send Congress the message that carbon emissions can't be cut without phasing out coal-power plants," Crocker told IPS.

Hansen and other scientists have shown that coal-powered plants are the major source of carbon emissions, and if they were phased out in every country by 2030, there would be real hope of stabilizing the climate. Coal is also a major air pollutant that kills hundreds of thousands, and the single largest source of toxic mercury emissions. Mining coal has significant environmental and health impacts.

"The industry claim that there is something called 'clean coal' is, put simply, a lie," said leading environmental writers Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben, who are participating and called on young people to join them in shutting down the plant.

"It is probable that people will be arrested. This is the start of series of actions on coal until the government takes real action on climate," said Crocker.

The U.S. needs to have legislation that sharply cuts carbon emissions and increases clean energy in place before the international climate negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of this year, said Jessy Tolkan, director of the Energy Action Coalition.

The Energy Action Coalition, made up people under the age of 30, has organized a separate but complementary effort bringing more than 10,000 young people from every state to the U.S. capital to lobby their members of Congress for action on climate change.

"There will be a wide cross-section of young people, and a real cross-section of our generation," said Tolkan.

These aren't just college kids from the Northeast states, she told IPS. There will be young people who have "been abused by dirty energy by polluting their air, native youth whose lands have been damaged by coal mining, Latinos and Latinas lobbying for jobs in green energy, sons and daughters of autoworkers looking for green transportation, and Christian evangelicals who want proper stewardship of the environment."

While her generation is deeply worried about the economy, they are "terrified" about climate change and realize this is the time for bold action on climate and to create a new green economy, she said. They want to see 5 million green jobs and to "turn the [U.S.] midwest into the Saudi Arabia of wind and the southwest into the Saudi Arabia of solar."

"This is the solution to so many problems including ending wars over oil," Tolkan added.

To reach these ends, the coalition has arranged more than 325 meetings with nearly every member of Congress on Monday. In one such meeting, more than 500 students from Virginia will meet their two senators and insist on "just and bold climate legislation," said Laura Comer, a student at Hofstra University in New York.

"This will be the biggest lobby day in U.S. history," Comer, a volunteer organizer for the Coalition, told IPS. "We know the science [about climate change] is well-established and what actions are needed for us to survive."

And that science is becoming more dire. This week scientists reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that global temperature increase of less than 1.8 C is very likely to result in "increases in drought, heat waves and floods" resulting in increased water stress, wildfire frequency and flood risks. Previously they thought temperatures would have to rise above 1.8 C.

The present temperature rise is 0.8 C and even if all carbon emissions ended today, temperatures would likely reach 1.8 C, previous reports have found.

Comer said young people realize that even though they strongly support President Obama, who has made climate a priority, they know that many in Congress do not share their desire for immediate and bold action on climate and to green the U.S economy.

So far elected officials have been "shocked" by the organization and numbers of young people who raised funds to make the journey to Washington and arranged meetings to tell their representatives how much action on climate matters to them, said Comer.

"We know older generations have failed us so they better not cut corners this time because we will be watching," the activist added.

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