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Climate Disobedience Is on the Rise and It's Not Just for Radical Activists Anymore

An emerging movement is determined to use direct action to combat the depredations of climate change and they've got some big names on board.

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There are far less compromised skeptics, too. Many harbor a distaste for social-movement theatrics or operate on the belief that, sooner or later, science will speak loudly enough to force the political situation to sort itself out. Harvard University oceanographer James McCarthy expressed such a view when the IPCC released its 2007 report. "The worst stuff is not going to happen," he said, "because we can't be that stupid."

Sadly, the latent hope that politicians will eventually come to their senses cannot suffice as a political strategy. The stark facts of segregation in the American South never put an end to that longstanding injustice; it took an unruly civil rights movement to force change. In this case, presumably less farsighted and more profit-hungry energy companies than the climate-concerned E.On have invested tens of millions of dollars in convincing elected officials and newspaper editorial boards that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is neither practical nor particularly needed. The operative force at work here is not stupidity, but political power.

Hansen and others motivated to confront the industry head on have concluded that, unless there is a public counterbalance to the organized money of those who profit from the status quo, what science has to say will be largely irrelevant, no matter how theoretically convincing it may be. Unless citizens themselves become inconvenient, the truth will remain a minor consideration.

The Disaster You Can See

It is no accident that, on June 23rd, when Hansen was arrested for his first time, it was in West Virginia, the heart of coal country. Because coal is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions both in the United States and worldwide, and because there is enough coal left in the ground to heat the planet to catastrophic levels, that fossil fuel has been the focus of much new protest. As long as U.S. and European power plants continue spewing coal smoke, their governments will have absolutely no credibility in trying to influence the policies of rising economies such as China and India. Nonetheless, current U.S. legislation ensures that coal burning will continue largely unchecked for decades to come.

In West Virginia, concerns about coal's impact on the atmosphere have intersected with a local environmental atrocity known as mountaintop-removal mining, a practice that Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both claimed to oppose in the presidential campaign, but which continues today. This has made Appalachia the heart of direct action on the climate-change issue in the U.S. -- or, as a blog tracking area protests puts it, "Climate Ground Zero."

"You stand at the edge of one of these mountaintop removal sites and you'll never feel the same way again," says Mat Louis-Rosenberg, a staffer at Coal River Mountain Watch in southern West Virginia. The practice turns rolling mountains and valleys into flat, desolate moonscapes. Locals regularly hear the blasts of surface mines from their homes and then drink the resulting contaminants in their well water. When newly created lakes of toxic coal waste give way -- as happened last December as a billion gallons of sludge flooded 300 acres of land near Harriman, Tennessee -- they are the ones whose homes stand immediately downstream.

These dangers have given organizers a chance to create campaigns that connect the abstractions of climate change to specific sites of environmental ruin. "You can get a visceral and immediate sense of how bad this is," says Louis-Rosenberg. "It's not an invisible gas and a bunch of science that most people don't understand."

This year, in a series of escalating initiatives, environmentalists in the area have chained themselves to rock trucks, obstructed coal roads, and climbed up a huge crane-line mining machine to halt its work. A delegation of concerned citizens, including Hansen, crossed a police line onto the property of Massey Energy, a company responsible for mountaintop removals. Louis-Rosenberg places such direct action alongside a raft of other activities: community organizing, research for environmental impact statements, and gathering co-sponsors for a Congressional ban on filling valleys with mining waste. "Ultimately, things will have to see their resolution in some sort of federal regulation or legislation," he says. "But at this point there is not the political will to deal with the crisis. I see it as my role as an activist to create that political will."

 
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