Fresh from winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate change evangelism, Al Gore is apparently considering an invitation from a prominent environmental group to engage in civil disobedience against the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
Rainforest Action Network issued the invitation to the former Vice President, according to RAN executive director Michael Brune. The San Francisco-based group has a twenty-year history of protesting against destructive logging practices and other causes of climate change; it specializes in targeting corporations as much as governments.
"We came across a quote from Gore in an interview with [New York Times] columnist Nicholas Kristof back in August, saying he didn't understand, quote, 'Why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them constructing new coal-fired power plants,'" said Brune. "We thought, 'Great idea!' That's the kind of activism we do at RAN. So we decided to invite Gore to join us."
Gore's office confirmed that the former Vice President had received RAN's invitation and was considering it, though no decision has been made.
"He has not accepted any of their offers to date," Kalee Kreider, a spokeswoman for Gore, said of the RAN offer. Kreider did not deny that this phrasing leaves open the possibility of Gore saying yes down the road.
RAN plans a national day of protest against coal on November 16, according to Brune.
If Gore did end up getting arrested during a protest against a coal-fired power plant, it would make front-page news throughout the world and put a spotlight on what some climate scientists and activists consider the single most important priority in the fight against climate change: halting the use of coal as the world's top source of electricity production. Coal is the most carbon-intensive of the three major fossil fuels (the others are oil and natural gas) whose combustion produces most of the carbon dioxide that is helping to raise temperatures and change climatic patterns on earth.
NASA scientist James Hansen, the man who first warned during testimony before the US Senate in 1988 that man-made greenhouse gas emissions were warming the planet, has called for a complete ban on new coal-fired power plants "until we have the technology to capture and sequester the CO2." That technology, Hansen estimates, is "probably five or ten years away." Any plants built without that technology "are going to have to be bulldozed," argues Hansen, if the earth is to avoid "dramatic climate changes that produce what I would call a different planet."
John McCain, the Arizona senator and Republican presidential candidate, reportedly told a crowd in New Hampshire this week that he would consider supporting a ban on new coal-fired power plants if he could be shown possible alternatives. McCain was responding to a question from activists with Step It Up, a grassroots organization pushing for bolder federal action against climate change, including a total ban on coal. Step It Up plans a national day of demonstrations on November 3, exactly one year before the 2008 presidential election.
The State of Kansas recently denied a permit for construction of a coal-fired power plant due to concern over the plant's CO2 emissions. "I believe it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment if we do nothing," said Roderick Bremby, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment, in explaining his rejection of the permit for the Sunflower Electric Power company.
In neighboring Iowa, Hansen is offering expert testimony in a lawsuit aiming to halt construction of the Sutherland Generating Station Unit 4 coal-fired plant. "Coal will determine whether we continue to increase climate change or slow the human impact," Hansen testified.
A native of Iowa, Hansen contended that a decision by his state to reject coal-fired power plants could be an important tipping point that would trigger broader shifts in public opinion and institutional behavior. "If the public begins to stand up in a few places and successfully oppose the construction of power plants that burn coal without capturing the CO2, this may begin to have a snowballing effect, helping utilities and politicians to realize that the public prefers a different path, one that respects all life on the planet."
Asked why he is focusing on Iowa when China is building many more coal-fired power plants, Hansen replied that China and other developing nations "must be part of the solution to global warming, and surely they will be, if developed nations take the appropriate first steps." The United States, Hansen noted, is responsible for three times as much of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere as any other nation.
True enough. But if China keeps building new coal plants at a rate of one every ten days, it won't much matter if US companies turn away from coal. The campaign against coal must be global if it is to succeed.
Al Gore could launch this campaign with a bang if he joined activists in facing down the bulldozers. But a word of advice, Mr. Gore: make a US power plant your first target, but don't leave out China and the rest of the world. Carbon is a climate killer, wherever it originates.
Mark Hertsgaard is The Nation's environment correspondent, a fellow of The Nation Institute and the author of five books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future.
© 2007 The Nation