Our 2009 Targets: Congress and Coal

Future Hope column, March 6, 2009

By Ted Glick

“Throughout this jubilant day, there was a palpable sense of a psychological line being crossed which has had a parallel in all great movements for nonviolent social change. It is the moment when a movement becomes aware that it is tapping into the immensely strong and unstoppable power of truth. It is a time of spiritual awakening, when seekers of change suddenly realize they have unleashed an infinite force far beyond the strength of any individuals – what Gandhi referred to as ‘satyagraha.’ It is comparable to those moments in time when the peasants of India understood that an entire British empire could be defied and bus riders in Montgomery, Alabama realized that racism was not in reality an immovable fact of life.

”The action in DC yesterday was more than a display of youthful exuberance. It was an aligning of this movement with the power of that truth. It was a moment for genuine celebration. While the battle has not yet been won, what was witnessed yesterday by those of us fortunate enough to be there may well have been a genuine turning point. The moral authority of our movement is now in the ascendancy, while that of the coal industry is in rapid decline.”

Gary Houser, Ohio coal country activist

We were halfway around the dirty-coal Capitol Power Plant complex in D.C., stretched out in our thousands for over four blocks along South Capitol St. It was a beautiful visual: hundreds of red, green, blue and yellow flags and hundreds of Power Past Coal, Coal Is Dirty and other signs being held by the bundled-up marchers. And as marchers continued to turn off of E St. onto South Capitol while the front of the march moved slowly forward up at I St., I exclaimed to a nearby friend, “This is big, there must be 10,000 or more people!”

Reflecting afterwards, I am convinced there were a minimum of 5,000 of us on Monday, a work day, a day with a wind chill around 15 degrees, a day with snow showers following on a storm during the night which dumped up to half a foot of snow on the ground. But the weather had no impact on our spirits or our plans. For the entire afternoon we blocked all the entrances to this government-owned symbol of what’s wrong with our energy policy. We shut it down!

There were so many amazing things about this entire historic weekend in D.C.:

-the 12,000 young people from around the country at the Power Shift 09 conference, twice the number of people at the first Power Shift conference just 16 months ago. Talk about a mushrooming movement!

-the breadth of organizations and individuals participating in both Power Shift 09 and the March 2nd Capitol Climate Action;

-hearing about the spontaneous march of 1,000 young people to the White House Saturday night following the conclusion of that day’s Power Shift activities;

-the Indigenous and Appalachian/coal-impacted contingents leading the march to the coal plant;

-being informed that scientist James Hansen, the Paul Revere of the climate movement, drove 16 hours to get to D.C. for this civil disobedience action because the snow storm grounded his plane;

-the energy of the young people and others all through Monday afternoon as they refused to let the cold weather dampen their determination or their spirits as they prevented business-as-usual in front of the coal plant gates;

-and so much more. There are so many stories to be told about this historic weekend for the climate movement in the USA.

And now what?

Meetings and discussions that have already happened, just a few days later, make it clear that those who organized the main events over this weekend have every intention of following up quickly in a variety of ways. As importantly, there is every reason to believe that the double-digit thousands who were in D.C. will be taking action during this critical 2009 year when they return home. Neither Power Shift 09 nor the Capitol Climate Action were in any way one-shot deals. Instead, they were the opening shots of an escalating campaign all throughout the year.

Why is 2009 so important? It’s important because we finally have a President who understands that we need to take action to address the climate crisis and is doing so despite resistance from coal and oil interests and their paid mouthpieces in Washington, and despite his public support for non-existent “clean coal.” But it’s particularly important because of the international negotiations going on toward a stronger world treaty, negotiations which will culminate at the U.N. Climate Conference in mid-December in Copenhagen, Denmark. If that conference is to succeed–and it needs to because global warming is an urgent global problem–the world needs to see that the U.S. is prepared to reverse course and, instead of obstructing, give leadership to the world’s efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change.

For that to happen, for Barack Obama and his representatives to be taken seriously, the U.S. Congress must pass bold legislation that matches not the political science of Capitol Hill but the world’s climate science. That science, those facts on the ground—like the dramatic Arctic ice melt, the years-long Australian drought, the accelerating glacial ice melt all over the earth, and much more—are telling us that industrialized countries like the U.S. must reduce carbon emissions at least 25-40%, more likely more, compared to 1990 levels by 2020. For the U.S., that means a 35-50% reduction from current levels.

Just two days ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Todd Stern, Obama’s special envoy for climate change to the U.N. talks, “urged Congress to pass legislation curbing greenhouse-gas emissions in advance of an international summit this December, saying it would give other countries ‘a powerful signal’ to cut their own emissions.” This is the good news.

The bad news is what he went on to say. He referred to a “road map agreed to by industrialized countries at a 2007 summit in Bali, Indonesia. . . to reduce their emissions by between 25% and 40% by 2020” compared to 1990 levels. “Mr. Stern reiterated Mr. Obama’s goal of returning U.S. emissions to their 1990 levels by 2020. . . ‘We need to be very mindful of what the dictates of science are, and the art of the possible,’ Mr. Stern said. Referring to the targets called for in the Bali plan, Mr. Stern added, ‘it’s not possible to get that kind of number. It’s not going to happen.’”

So when it comes to climate action at the scale of the problem it’s not “yes we can” but, instead, “no we can’t?” It was a “yes we can” mind set that enabled the U.S. to dramatically retool its economy in 1942 to meet the threat of fascism, to produce the armaments that made possible its defeat. Are Todd Stern, and Obama, saying that the climate change threat doesn’t rise to that level of seriousness? Right now, apparently, they are, and this is a big problem.

Climate activists really should be very upset about this, and they should let the White House know it, in no uncertain terms. And right now.

The inside-the-beltway green groups, those who have been experiencing a kind of cultural revolution over the last several months as they’ve been having meetings with top leaders of Obama’s transition team and his appointed climate/energy people, need to let those people know that this just isn’t acceptable and that they’re going public to say so.

More importantly, they need to join with the young people of Energy Action, the community climate and no-coal activists, and people like James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, Daryl Hannah and Gus Speth who were out there on the streets blocking the entrances to that coal plant.

We need to build, right now and for the next nine months up to and during the Copenhagen conference, a grassroots movement that grows exponentially, that engages in all kinds of actions. This must include many more nonviolent blockades of planned and existing coal plants. It must include sit-ins inside the offices of the fossil fool Senators and House members who continue to do the bidding of Big Oil and King Coal. They need to be put on notice that TIME’S UP!

A month from now Senators and House members will be back in their districts during a two-week recess. Those who are on the fence or on the wrong side of it should return to Congress at the end of those two weeks shell-shocked by the buzz saw of climate activism they experience every working day that they are home—phone-ins to their local offices, vigils and pickets outside, people present at any public event where they are speaking, a whole range of creative and impossible-to-ignore tactics.

The Power Past Coal campaign (http://www.powerpastcoal.org) needs to experience an avalanche of groups signing up for local actions and getting connected as it moves toward actions around the country at the end of the first 100 days of the Obama administration at the end of April.

We need to support and get involved if we can with major actions being planned, such as:

-End Mountaintop Removal Week March 14-18 in Washington, D.C. (http://ilovemountains.org/action/wiw2009)

-Focus the Nation’s Town Hall Meetings around the country on April 18th (http://www.focusthenation.org)

-the April 20th mass rally and nonviolent civil disobedience at Duke Energy’s planned and hugely destructive Cliffside Coal Plant in Charlotte, N.C. (http://www.stopcliffside.org)

-350.org’s actions all around the world on October 24th (http://www.350.org)

-and many more that are or will be developing.

We’ve turned a corner. We’ve entered a decisive stage in our battle to prevent catastrophic climate change. In the words of Christopher Fry,

Thank God our time is now when wrong

Comes up to face us everywhere,

Never to leave us till we take

The longest stride of soul (we humans) ever took.

Affairs are now soul size.

Ted Glick is the Policy Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (http://www.chesapeakeclimate.org). He can be reached and past Future Hope columns and writings can be found at http://www.tedglick.com.