Is “Washington” Winning?

Future Hope column, March 29, 2009

By Ted Glick

It was a couple of weeks before the historic March 2nd shutdown action at the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant on Capitol Hill in D.C. A national leader of an important climate group came up to me in the hallway at a conference we were both attending to express concern about the action. She had heard from Nancy Pelosi’s office, which was not happy that the action was happening. I asked, what are the specific concerns?, and wasn’t able to get a clear answer.

And this was a national leader of a climate group that has been among the strongest when it comes to calling for serious, substantial and science-based reductions of dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, a minimum of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 for countries like the U.S.

From my vantage point, I see this same thing happening with way too many inside-the-beltway environmental and climate groups since Obama won the Presidency and the Democrats strengthened their hold on Congress. Groups are moderating their tactics and their demands, scaling them back to gain access to high-level White House and Congressional leaders, who themselves are being impacted by Republican intransigence and fossil fuel supporting Democrats. It’s an old, familiar story which has played out innumerable times on other issues in the past. And it’s a very big problem for the low-income people of the world, most of them people of color, who are most vulnerable to the more destructive storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, famines and sea level rise that we’re already seeing as the atmosphere heats up.

That’s why it is so important that there be continuing, visible and aggressive nonviolent direct actions by groups and activists who understand that our role in 2009 is not to go along to get along but to escalate the political pressure, to make the need for strong action on climate a fundamental moral issue. It cannot, absolutely cannot, be the political science on Capitol Hill or in Washington that determines our tactics and demands; they must be determined by the urgent climate science.

What could this mean specifically?

One example is what happened at the Second World Coal-to-Liquids Conference last Thursday afternoon. A newly-formed D.C. Rising Tide group thoroughly and nonviolently disrupted this conference, engaging in a “people’s filibuster” for almost half an hour. Activists stood in the audience and loudly presented speeches to refute the statements of coal and oil executives from Chevron, World Coal Institute, World Petroleum Council and Consol Energy. The advocates of clean energy called for an end to the use of fossil fuels and for adoption of clean, renewable, community-based energy sources. Protesters deployed banners in the conference to highlight that “Coal kills” and “Coal takes lives” and we need “Renewable energy now.”

“Pound for pound coal produces more CO2 than almost any other form of energy production. If we’re serious about tackling climate change, we absolutely must stop mining and burning coal. Coal to liquids technology is a step in the wrong direction for our air, water and climate.” said Michael Weber of Rising Tide in a press release issued afterwards. The carbon emissions from the production and burning of coal-to-liquids fuel is twice as much as the production and burning of gasoline.

How did the civil rights movement break the back of legal segregation? It didn’t happen by concentrating the vast bulk of its resources and energies on Capitol Hill. It happened through heroic action at local levels all across the country, by confronting racist voter registration and other racist practices, putting the defenders of the status quo on the defensive and taking the moral high ground which, in turn, led to a political crisis for the political and economic establishment.

We need to do the same on the climate issue, and we need to do it now, right now, in the spring of 2009. We need to build off of the power of the 12,000-young-people strong PowerShift09 conference and the many-thousands-strong Capitol Power Plant action a month ago and keep upping the ante, not get caught up in Washington political games, even as we escalate the pressure on our Congressional representatives.

We need more and more, a steady stream, of local nonviolent direct actions directed against the coal and fossil fuels industry. We need similar actions directed against the politicians who are paying back their fossil fuel industry contributors by their regressive actions on Capitol Hill. We need people willing to engage in long hunger strikes as a way of underlining the urgency. And what we really should be talking about is thousands of students and others descending on Washington after the schools let out in early May for a people’s lobby action, not for a day but for day after day after day, refusing to go away, being a visible presence that cannot be forgotten.

As I write this, we’re days away from the release by the House Energy and Commerce Committee of draft legislation to put a steadily declining cap and a price on carbon emissions. Indications are that it’s not going to come close to the 25-40%-by-2020 reduction targets, compared to 1990 levels, called for both by the science as well as the world’s climate negotiators who are trying to pass a stronger treaty by the end of this year at a major U.N conference in Copenhagen.

Once again, it’s the political science of corporate lobbyist-dominated Capitol Hill that seems to be driving what our federal government does, not the needs of threatened humanity and all living species.

I have hope that President Obama is concerned about all this. As a former community organizer and a very smart person who, to his credit, made his best appointments in the climate field (as distinct from his national security and economic appointments), there are grounds for hope that, with a visible and active movement pushing him and others toward stronger positions, putting the fossil fools on the defensive, he might find the strength to take the risks, to give the leadership he needs to be giving.

It was encouraging to see Obama, just a few days ago, making the connections between the Red River floods and global warming, doing something I’ve seen few in the mass media doing. According to the Scientific American website, “President Obama says [on March 23rd] potentially historic flood levels in North Dakota are a clear example of why steps need to be taken to stop global warming. ‘If you look at the flooding that’s going on right now in North Dakota and you say to yourself, ‘If you see an increase of two degrees, what does that do, in terms of the situation there?’ Obama told reporters at the White House Monday. ‘That indicates the degree to which we have to take this seriously.”
It’s time for a spring climate offensive.

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network ( Past columns and other information can be found at, and he can be reached at