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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.

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."