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Foreign Policy In Focus

Postcard from Capitol Climate Action

Andrée Zaleska

I came down to DC from Boston on March 2 to attend Capitol Climate Action — the biggest act of civil disobedience on climate issues ever organized. Real protest of the polluters that cause climate change has been slow to develop. I've been part of this movement for 10 years, concerned that the very future of our planet rests on our ability to recognize that fossil fuels are deadly. This was a moment I'd been waiting for.

The demonstration was held outside of a coal-fired power plant on Capitol Hill that generates electricity for the offices of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the Library of Congress and several other buildings. There were about 2,500 of us there, despite freezing weather and heavy snow. It was well organized, with great posters and banners. And it was truly fun. When activist and writer Bill McKibben spoke I realized I have seen him three times in the past year; he's ever-present, and looking thin and aged by his relentless campaign to make climate our greatest priority. Hardheaded NASA climatologist James Hansen somehow managed to be moving: Though he spoke for all of two minutes, you could feel the weight of his words for the crowd. This is the man whose careful science has brought us the grim figure of 350 (parts per million) — the amount of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can sustain before the climate changes irreparably and horribly (currently, the atmospheric concentration is 377, and rising by 2 parts per million each year). The speaker who followed Hansen waited a good while for the shouts of "Thank you Jim!" to die down before she could speak.

There were grim cops everywhere, many in riot gear, but the thing was not set up for a real conflict, and that was frustrating. The police clearly didn't want to make arrests, and they were given no reason to — the demonstration "blocked" the gates of the plant, but this was largely symbolic, as operations were underway inside as usual.

This tame official reaction seemed in keeping with the government's other attempt to quell the grassroots: Three days before the demonstration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an official request that the Capitol Hill plant stop burning coal, and be converted to natural gas. Although this was hailed as a victory by the demonstration's organizers, it was clearly an attempt to declaw the protest, and essentially meaningless at that: Converting one small coal plant to a slightly less-polluting fuel isn't going to stop climate change.

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Andrée Zaleska, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is an organizer at the Institute for Policy Studies' Boston office. Her family is building a zero-carbon demonstration home called the JP Green House. She recommends 350 and for the best information on climate change.

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