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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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Blaine O'Neil believes he and his friends are on to something big -- namely, saving the world.

"Climate change is more than a life-or-death issue -- it's a life-or-death issue for the next infinite generations," says the 19-year-old, a biology major at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "We need to show Congress that we need climate legislation now and that green jobs are the way to go. We can't keep living off of this short-term fossil-fuel energy. We need immediate and aggressive change; it's simply the only choice we have left."

O'Neil, along with 30 others from Swarthmore, was among an estimated 12,000 people -- mostly college students -- who descended on Washington over the weekend to demand sharp cuts in the country's greenhouse gas emissions. For environmentalists, the three-day-long mobilization was a convergence of superlatives.

Organizers called a grassroots lobbying drive on Monday "the biggest lobbying day on climate and energy" in the country's history as they enlisted some 4,000 students to visit nearly every congressional office. And later that day, in what activists dubbed "the largest mass civil disobedience on climate" in the U.S., some 2,500 people blockaded the gates of the Capitol Power Plant, which burns coal to provide heat to the senators' and representatives' offices, a symbol of the nation's reliance on fossil fuels.

The grassroots energy displayed in the Capitol appears to mark an important turning point for the environmental movement. Climate change -- for many years the concern of a narrow circle of scientists and inside-the-Beltway policy wonks -- seems to have finally birthed a broad-based citizens movement. The numbers prove the point: Powershift, the 12,000-person conference that organized the lobbying day, attracted 5,000 students at its 2007 gathering 14 months ago; the first such meeting of campus climate activists, in 2005, had fewer than 200 attendees.

For author-activist Bill McKibben -- whose seminal book about global warming, The End of Nature, was published before many of the Powershift participants were born -- the emergence of a muscular social movement demanding carbon-dioxide reductions is long overdue.

"I've been waiting 20 years to see what the climate change movement would look like, and it looks great," McKibben, one of the initiators of the power plant action, told AlterNet. "We've got a lot to do. And the reason we're doing this protest is to give [President Obama] the political space he needs to maneuver, to show him that people care. Because the fossil-fuel industry doesn't want to give him any space."

The popular pressure is coming just in time. In December, leaders from around the world will gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to negotiate an international treaty to replace the Kyoto Accords. With greenhouse gases continuing to accumulate in the atmosphere, and ecosystems already showing stress from rising temperatures, environmentalists warn that the Copenhagen negotiations will be a do-or-die.

And there is unlikely to be any meaningful progress at the talks unless the U.S. plays a leadership role. Green groups, therefore, believe it's essential for Congress to pass some kind of ambitious climate legislation before the world's leaders arrive in Copenhagen.

Gus Speth, a former environmental advisor to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and now dean of the Yale School of Forestry, says that 2009 will be a "hinge of history."

"Far too many members on the Hill don't feel sufficient political pressure," he told AlterNet. Speth was among the prominent environmentalists -- along with farmer-writer Wendell Berry and climatologist James Hansen -- who risked arrest at the power plant protest. "They [Members of Congress] get the science, that's not difficult. I think what we've been missing is a protest movement in this country, a powerful welling of grassroots support. Real citizen power: That has been the missing ingredient."

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.

"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.