Why I'll Get Arrested To Stop the Burning of Coal

On March 2, environmentalist Bill McKibben will join demonstrators who plan to march on a coal-fired power plant in Washington D.C. In this article for Yale Environment 360, he explains why he’s ready to go to jail to protest the continued burning of coal.

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

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
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!

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