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Al Gore, James Hansen, and Civil Disobedience

How long can any of us wait?

Gordon Clark

In his recent global warming op-ed in the New York Times ("The Big Melt," August 16, 2007) , Nicholas Kristof reported on a conversation with Al Gore in which the former Vice-President said: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers, and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants." His comment was a reaction to the ever-quickening pace of polar ice meltoff, with all its catastrophic implications, and the huge role played by coal-fired power plants in advancing our demise through global warming.

Gore's comment was also strikingly similar to a recent quote from Dr. James Hansen, the top climate scientist at NASA: "It seems to me that young people, especially, should be doing whatever is necessary to block construction of dirty (no CCS) coal-fired power plants."

What does it mean when one of the top scientific leaders ringing the alarm on global warming, along with a top political leader, both suggest, in so many words, nonviolent direct action (or civil disobedience) to confront the challenge of climate change?

Clearly both men must realize the importance of nonviolent resistance in social change efforts of this magnitude and agree, if only subconsciously, with historian Howard Zinn's observation that "Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy. It is absolutely essential to it." (Dr. Hansen, for his part, goes on to quote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution at some length.)

Gore and Hansen must both know that nonviolent direct action has been a significant catalyst in nearly every major social change movement in U.S. (and world) history, starting in this country with the Boston Tea Party and extending through the anti-slavery, woman's suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, environmental and anti-war movements. Nonviolent direct action can dramatize an injustice or danger to the general public as few other actions can. It both provokes other people to act and speak - often people who had previously been silent - and it opens up political space for them to do so. Nonviolent actions are acts of courage that inspire others to follow. They are acts of leadership.

The twin quotes also reflect the extraordinary urgency of our predicament. As Jay Gulledge, senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, notes in Kristof's column, "Over and over again, we're finding that models correctly predict the patterns of change but understate their magnitude."

Or their speed. According to the May 2007 report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, polar ice is melting significantly faster than computer models of climate calculate, and the Arctic Sea could be free of summer ice by 2020 - 30 years earlier than the recent prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Clearly, we are running out of time.

I would also imagine that young people (and I can only imagine, being middle-aged myself) are, while grateful for recognition of their vital role in the movement, probably less than enthusiastic to have this particular imperative dumped on them and them alone.

Personally, I pray for and will gladly follow leadership from any quarter and age group. But I expect it from those in the climate change movement who are older, more experienced, and more influential. Especially when it comes to nonviolent resistance. I know, for instance, that when I or younger activists organize nonviolent direct actions, a relative few people will hear and join us, and we are lucky to get more than a few stories outside the independent media. If Al Gore were to actually call for and lead such an action it is likely that thousands would join him, and the story would be splashed across the mainstream media for all of America to see.

None of this should be read as criticism of Mr. Gore's incredible efforts on global warming. He has arguably been the single most effective (and active) person on the planet in raising the clarion call. But perhaps now his leadership is requiring even more of him. After all, if you truly recognize the extreme emergency and catastrophic danger inherent in global warming, how long can one wait before taking the most dramatic, effective and necessary actions in response - as opposed to wondering out loud why those younger and less influential than yourself aren't doing so?

Of course, this is a question that everyone who understands the reality of global warming needs to be asking themselves right now. How long can any of us wait? As with all revolutionary changes, forging a new, sustainable society will require us to take risks, make sacrifices, and endure suffering - all hallmarks of nonviolence. And nonviolent blockades of coal-fired power plants, Mr. Gore and Dr. Hansen are correct in noting, would be an excellent place to start.


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Gordon Clark

Gordon Clark

Gordon Clark is a lifelong environmental and social change activist, and the former director of Peace Action, the nation’s largest grassroots peace organization.

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