Nov 23, 2009
There are some 614 coal-fired power plants
in the United States, and it is up to us to shut them down. No one in
the White House will do it. No one in Congress will do it. And no one
at the coming U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen will do it.
We will build local movements to carry out acts of nonviolent civil
disobedience to halt the burning of coal, or the polar ice caps will
continue to dissolve, the Greenland ice sheet will disappear, the
glaciers in the Alps, the Himalayas and Tibet will melt, and widespread
droughts, rising sea levels and temperatures, acute food shortages,
disease and gigantic mass migrations will envelop the globe. We are
killing the ecosystem on which human life depends. One of the major
polluters is coal, which supplies about half of the country's
electricity. NASA's James Hansen has demonstrated that our only hope of getting our atmosphere back to a safe level-below 350 parts per million CO2-lies in stopping the use of coal to generate electricity. We are currently at 390 parts per million carbon dioxide.
"The world political system is not about
to keel over and give us a treaty that will get us to 350 parts per
million anytime soon, or in fact do anything of great note," the writer
and environmental activist Bill McKibben
told me when I met him in New York City. The author of "The End of
Nature" and "Deep Economy" said: "The news that the Obama
administration had punted
on the Copenhagen talks is discouraging. The good news, to the extent
that there is any, is that we finally have the beginning of a real
global movement about climate change."
McKibben and his group, 350.org,
this year organized perhaps the most widespread day of political action
in the planet's history: On Oct. 24, people in 181 countries joined in
calling for environmental reform. But such popular calls for change
have largely been ignored by the leaders of industrialized nations. The
climate crisis will be solved by widespread and sustained civil
disobedience or not at all.
"There were no celebrities, no rock stars,
no movie stars," McKibben said of the October protest. "People were
rallying around a fairly obscure scientific data point, and the 25,000 pictures
or so that have come into the Flickr site from the 5,200 events in 181
countries make it clear that the canard that environmentalism is
something for rich white people is crazy. It is mostly something for
black, brown and yellow people and mostly something for poor people. We
are all going to bear the consequences before very long, but Bangladesh
and places like Bangladesh get it first. This is why it was so great to
see them heavily involved. We have about half the countries in the
world that have endorsed the 350 [parts per million] target.
Unfortunately they are the poorest countries on Earth. They will not
carry the day at Copenhagen or anywhere else, but they have begun to
challenge the right of the rich countries of the world to submerge
them, burn them up or whatever else."
There are five countries that are responsible for over half of fossil-fuel-related CO2
emissions. The United States and China alone account for more than a
third. We in the U.S. have been the world's largest emitters for more
than a century, although we have now been overtaken by China, where
growth in emissions has been driven by a rapid increase in coal
consumption. China is currently opening an average of two coal-fired
power plants a week. Emissions there have more than doubled since 1990.
The burden to act rests on us, our major trading partner and a handful
of other highly industrialized nations.
"The average American family uses more energy between the stroke of
midnight on New Year's Eve and dinner on Jan. 2 than the average
Tanzanian family uses all year," McKibben said.
The projected rise of sea levels, as much
as six feet this century and 23 feet if the Greenland ice sheet
disappears, will submerge coastal nations such as Bangladesh, a country
of 160 million people, as well as places such as the Mekong Delta, the
Maldives and the Marshall Islands. The disappearance of glaciers in the
Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau-glaciers that feed the Indus,
Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow rivers-will create catastrophic water
shortages and devastate the rice and wheat harvests in China and India,
where about four of every 10 people live. World food prices will rise
dramatically. If we can't save countries such as the Maldives and
Bangladesh we will also be unable to save Venice, Hawaii, the
Netherlands, New Zealand, London, Hong Kong and Manhattan. But don't
expect much from Barack Obama and other leaders in the industrialized
world. Their loyalty is not to the planet, or to us, but to the oil and
gas industry, the coal industry and the huge corporate polluters who
"Even the inadequate bill before the Congress has been postponed
until the spring," McKibben said, "which in my political calendar is a
little too close to the election to be very comfortable. We are getting
no leadership from the president, rhetorical or otherwise. All the
problems are obvious. The only good news is that there is finally
something that looks like the glimmer of a movement."
It is incumbent on all of us to find out
where the nearest coal-powered plant is located-the one closest to me
is in Hamilton, N.J.-and begin to organize to shut it down
nonviolently. Princeton, where I live, is also home to NRG Energy, the
ninth-biggest coal energy producer in the United States. A map of the
nation's coal-fired plants can be found here.
"Coal is the key commodity," McKibben
said. "The ability to cease the combustion of coal will be the thing
that decides whether or not we go over the precipice meteorologically
in the decades ahead."
"It is unlikely that the environmental
movement, or any other movement, will come up with as much cash as
those industries," McKibben said of the corporations he opposes.
"ExxonMobil made more money last year than any company in the history
of money. We better not compete in that currency. We better find
something else to compete in. The only thing I can think of is bodies,
creativity and passion. These are the sort of things, with all their
strengths, the Exxons of the world tend to lack."
McKibben, along with the writer and activist Wendell Berry, organized a mass act of civil disobedience conducted last March
against a coal-fired power plant in Washington, D.C., near the White
House. Thousands of demonstrators from around the country arrived to
see that in anticipation of the protest a promise had been made to
convert the plant from coal to natural gas. But there are over 600 more
coal plants to close. And McKibben said that local and regional leaders
need to rise up to organize against coal.
McKibben and Berry embrace civility and nonviolence. Protesters in
Washington last March were enjoined to arrive "in their Sunday best."
"If we are going to use civil disobedience
we need to reclaim it from people who enjoy taunting the police and
showing off," McKibben said.
"I spent last Sunday night out on Boston
Common with hundreds and hundreds of young people from across
Massachusetts who were willing to very, very peacefully and
unaggressively risk arrest, and in fact we were all cited [by the
police] before the evening was done," he went on. "They were sleeping
in Boston Common and refusing to sleep in their dorms for the rest of
the fall because [the dormitories] are powered by dirt energy. They
have been lobbying for a bill in the Massachusetts Statehouse to close
down all the coal-fired power plants within the next 10 years. There
were students from every campus. The biggest contingent came from Clark
in Wooster. The prize was whoever brought the most students got to have
me sleep in their tent."
McKibben and Berry are right. Nonviolent
civil disobedience is the only tool that might work. If we mirror the
violence employed by the instruments of state security we will become
corrupt, as they are, and obliterate the moral high ground that
attracts followers to any movement and sustains the long night of
resistance. Violence is a poison that infects all those who use it,
even in what can be defined as a just cause. And nothing could make
ExxonMobil or the coal industry happier than to see shop windows
broken, cars set afire and police lines rushed. The moment we resort to
violence the corporate state wins. It will gleefully crush us like
flies in the name of law and order and national security. The
temptation to violence, especially given the passivity of most of us
and the hypocrisy of our ruling elite, including Obama, will mount as
climate change begins to create social and political unrest. But it
must be resisted. This will be a long, long struggle. The coal
companies will only be the start. The other corporations that have
disempowered the citizenry, created a state of neo-feudalism and turned
our democracy into a sham will be next.
"We are past the point where we are going
to stop global warming," McKibben said. "It is happening already, and
more of it is coming no matter what we do. One of our jobs is to start
figuring out how to cope with it. We need to build the kind of
communities that can deal with that. The key question is scale.
Communities need to be smaller. Our way of thinking about the world has
to shrink. At the same time we need a global movement to continue this
fight to bring carbon emissions under some kind of control. If we
don't, the kind of change we are talking about over the next decades is
so big there is no way to adapt ... no matter what we do, no matter how
wonderfully organic your community has become. Communities still
require water. People don't quite understand what three or four or five
degrees increase in the temperature of the planet will mean. One degree
was enough to melt the Arctic. This was a bad sign."
"Nothing important is going to come out of
Copenhagen," McKibben warned, "just a lot of spin. ... [Obama's] vast
spin machine will be in full gear. There is no obvious route out of all
this. We have started exploring mainly popular movements, and hopefully
we have introduced a wild card into this game. Our plans are not even
plans at this point. It is easier said than done. We shut down one
coal-fired power plant and not a very big one. There are 600 left in
the country. I don't fancy myself up to the task of figuring out how to
shut them all down. Hopefully some people will begin to do it."
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