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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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"We are flexing our political muscle, and we are telling them how many young people voted in their district," Tolkan says. "We have a chance right now to make it clear that we have the ability to vote these people in and out of power."

Tolkan's optimism will be tried later this year when Congress and the president turn their attention to climate policy. The economic crisis appears to have moved climate lower down on the agenda (a recent Pew poll showed it dead last among the public's priorities), which could siphon off support.

Even more challenging, climate politics threatens to fracture the Democratic caucus. Otherwise-progressive legislators who come from coal-producing states will likely oppose legislation that goes too hard against coal -- the single largest source of the U.S.' greenhouse gas emissions. They will probably demand government support for (so far unproven) "clean coal" technologies, such as carbon sequestration.

Yet for many of the organizations behind the power plant rally -- national groups such as Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network and local ones like the Black Water Mesa Coalition and the Chesapeake Climate Action Network -- the very idea of "clean coal" is anathema. One of the most popular signs on Monday was "Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie."

"When I hear about 'clean coal' it just breaks my heart," says Enei Begaye, a Navajo and Tohono O'Odham woman, who has fought coal mining on her reservation in northeastern Arizona and who was at the power plant protest. "There's no way we can support [climate legislation that includes coal]. Because coal is tearing our communities apart and is the root of our suffering."

These kinds of disputes over tactics and strategies will only become more acute as environmentalists get closer to federal climate legislation. But the hundreds of skills-sharing sessions, trainings and workshops that occurred over the weekend show that organizers are ready for the long struggle that is coming. Without exception, environmentalists said they were excited to return to their communities and put pressure on their legislators, on their home turf, for climate action.

"Climate change and its unpredictable effects on our planet scares me so much," said Emily Pappo, 18, as she blockaded the south gate of the Capitol Power Plant. The protest was the first for Pappo, a New York University student majoring in environmental studies. "I think that it's beautiful, the fact that so many people are here for one important cause. I'm so happy I could be a part of it. Each of us learned so much. We have to take the skills we learned here and take them back to our communities and our campuses."

Jason Mark is the co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots. He edits the magazine Earth Island Journal, published by Earth Island Institute, the fiscal sponsor of the Energy Action Coalition.