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Thousands Storm Capitol Hill in Largest Protest Against Global Warming

Climate change -- for many years the concern of scientists and policy wonks -- has finally birthed a broad-based citizens movement.

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The recent actions in Washington, then, are a crucial test of eco-muscle. Will green groups succeed in persuading politicians to put strict limits on greenhouse gases? Or will entrenched fossil-fuel industries be able to successfully defend their longtime privileges?

The student swarming the congressional offices, and the protestors surrounding the Capitol Power Plant on Monday, seemed determined to prove that they are ready to make the sacrifices demanded for success. The night before, the sky had dumped three inches of snow, and temperatures throughout the day were frigid, punctuated by occasional flurries. But the climate activists were undeterred by the storm.

Despite the icy weather, the people surrounding the power plant were jubilant, dancing and bouncing to keep themselves warm and chanting slogans, such as: "Climate change / What's the solution? / A green jobs revolution" and the elegantly simple, "Coal stinks."

Many of those at the protest seemed heated by a feeling that the political dynamics are turning in their favor. Last year, for example, environmentalists scored a major victory when Democratic lawmakers removed longtime auto industry ally Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., from his chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The December coal slurry spill at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant has put the coal industry under heightened scrutiny and is raising new questions about coal's dangers from extraction to ignition to disposal. And President Barack Obama has signaled that his administration will play a leading role in crafting any agreement that comes out of Copenhagen.

In yet another sign that lawmakers are feeling they have to respond to environmentalists' demands, four days prior to the Capitol Power Plant protest, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called for the plant to stop burning coal within a year. Even coal country's Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., a longtime defender of the plant, said he would agree to a coal phase-out. Before a single banner had been unfurled or a placard raised, environmentalists had scored a win.

Although emboldened by the victory, the newly invigorated climate movement recognizes that it isn't going to stop global warming by protesting one coal plant at a time -- mostly because there simply isn't enough time. The very urgency of the issue means that, unlike social campaigns of the past -- which perhaps could tolerate incremental change -- climate justice groups are desperate for immediate action. As McKibben points out, "we're running out of years."

At the same time, the fossil-fuel industry is preparing for a major political fight. An alliance of utilities, coal and mining companies has pledged $40 million to influence any climate-change legislation. And some 770 companies have hired more than 2,300 lobbyists to work on climate issues, which means that there are four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

"Yes, it's an uphill climb, but we believe the tide has turned," says Jessy Tolkan, executive director of the Energy Action Coalition, the main force behind the Powershift convergence. "We know the polluting industries will always have more money to put lies on television and to stuff money into politicians' pockets. But we have something more powerful -- we have numbers."

Tolkan notes that 23 million members of the millennial generation voted in the last election and were a key force in bringing Obama and a fortified Democratic Congress into power. Of those, 340,000 people signed the "Power Vote" pledge setting climate change and green jobs as their top political priority.

During the Monday lobbying day, students used those statistics to warn legislators that they if they ignore climate change, they could lose their jobs.