NEW YORK - A phalanx of NYPD officers on foot and aboard
several police vans surrounded the marchers as they walked up Sixth
Avenue in the cold rain on Monday, at times pushing people off of the
street and back on to the sidewalk. A group of roughly 30 climate
activists, joined by award-winning NASA scientist and outspoken climate
change expert, James Hansen, chanted as they went: "The earth, the
earth, the earth is on fire. We don't need no cap and trade, the market
is a liar."
Was it a satellite Goldman Sachs trading office that brought the
greens out to the barricades? The Manhattan offices of a large and
influential oil or gas company? The downtown penthouse of a Big Coal
mogul? Nope. The soggy climate activists were camped out in front of
the headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one
of the largest environmental advocacy groups in the country.
The activists accuse the NRDC of collaborating with polluters
through its involvement with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or
U.S. CAP, which is billed on its website as "an alliance of major
businesses and leading climate and environmental groups that have come
together to call on the federal government to enact legislation
requiring significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions." Members
of the group include such corporate heavyweights as The Dow Chemical
Company, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Shell,
Alcoa, BP America and Caterpillar. Other environmental groups involved
in the group include Environmental Defense, the Pew Center on Global
Climate Change and World Resources Institute.
U.S. CAP played a pivotal lobbying role in drafting the massive
Waxman-Markey climate bill in the House which, while calling for modest
emission reductions, will also create an exponentially lucrative carbon
trading market. And many of the largest financial institutions that
have been deemed "too big to fail" (Goldman Sachs, Bank of America) are
expected to cash in on what some activists have begun to call a new
system of "climate profiteering."
Outside of the nondescript office building on 20th Street where the
crowd eventually assembled, the NYPD set up a row of metal barricades
around the entrance in an effort to keep the protesters away from the
front entrance. For every three members of the crowd, there was roughly
one police officer, with a total of three police vans and three small
interceptor vehicles parked in a line out front.
"You have to be a little flattered by that," said Monica Hunken, a
protest organizer who spoke to the crowd on a soapbox on the sidewalk.
"They even brought out their pen, it's pretty heavy-handed." That
contrasted with the police activity at the launch point for the march
-- the Bank of America branch on 17th St and 5th Avenue -- where the
group spoke out about the bank's investments in mountaintop removal and
oil and gas prospecting. No such safety precautions were in evidence at
The demonstration in Manhattan was one of over a dozen organized by the
Mobilization for Climate Justice and organizers of BeyondTalk.net, a
website that rallies individuals to commit civil disobedience in the
name of climate change action. At least one member of the New York
contingent did just that, when he attempted to lock himself to the
front doors of the building.
"Stopping coal starts with the NRDC," yelled out Robert Jereski,
co-founder of New York Climate Action Group, as he was handcuffed and
hustled in to a paddy wagon parked up the street. Jereski was
eventually charged with "obstruction of governmental administration"
and disorderly conduct.
"I stand here at the NRDC building with a heavy heart. I never thought
that in 2009 I'd be standing here decrying their stance on climate,"
said Charles Komanoff, co-director of the Carbon Tax Center. "What NRDC
is championing as a big step forward is actually a baby step forward.
NRDC is on the wrong side, cutting deals with their pals in business
"Come back NRDC," yelled out a voice in the crowd. Overall the lament
was in line with much of the sentiment of the demonstration, as many
participants described their action as an expression of tough love
rather than outright opposition. They say that the NRDC has aligned
itself with a broader coalition of corporate interests whose goals and
benchmarks for reducing carbon emissions are drastically below what is
necessary according to prevailing climate science.
"We appreciate the work that the protesters are doing," said Jenny
Powers, National Media Director for NRDC, in response. "Overall I think
we're very supportive of any opportunity to bring more attention to
this issue. We definitely view it as all of us as being united in the
same goal. We're on the same track, we just deploy different
Although nobody from NRDC stepped outside to discuss the issues with
those at the barricades, Powers did say that Dr. Hansen and Mr.
Komanoff were invited via email to a meeting with NRDC Executive
Director Peter Lehner.
After the demonstration petered out, I spoke with NASA climate
scientist Dr. James Hansen about the meager turnout and the prospects
for major policy change going forward.
Hansen, when not publishing and speaking at academic Fora, is no
stranger to disobedient protests. This June he was arrested with 30
others during a protest against mountaintop removal mining in West
"It's an indication of where we are, it's a really screwy
situation," said Hansen, wearing a white Gilligan-style hat to ward off
the rain. "But despite the small numbers, it's becoming more widely
recognized that cap and trade just won't work. Country by country
doesn't work. The president should ask the national academy of
Scientists to give him a report. Instead he's getting a 2000 page bill
written largely by polluters. We have governments acknowledge that we
have a planet in peril, but they're not doing anything."
As for the unusual tableau of a group of environmental activists
demonstrating outside the offices of an organization peopled by
environmental activists, Rocco Ferrer had an interesting take on the
dynamic. "It's like NRDC used to be Lou Reed," said Ferrer, a young
environmental activist and fashion consultant who participated in the
demonstration. "But now they're more like the Jonas Brothers."