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Why Direct Action Is the Only Realistic Path to Climate Reform

The U.S. government won't shut down coal plants -- the nation's biggest global warming contributor. It's up to citizens to fix the damage that's been done.

There are some 614 coal-fired power plants in the United States, and it is up to us to shut them down. No one in the White House will do it. No one in Congress will do it. And no one at the coming U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen will do it. We will build local movements to carry out acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to halt the burning of coal, or the polar ice caps will continue to dissolve, the Greenland ice sheet will disappear, the glaciers in the Alps, the Himalayas and Tibet will melt, and widespread droughts, rising sea levels and temperatures, acute food shortages, disease and gigantic mass migrations will envelop the globe. We are killing the ecosystem on which human life depends. One of the major polluters is coal, which supplies about half of the country’s electricity. NASA’s James Hansen has demonstrated that our only hope of getting our atmosphere back to a safe level -- below 350 parts per million CO2 -- lies in stopping the use of coal to generate electricity. We are currently at 390 parts per million carbon dioxide.

"The world political system is not about to keel over and give us a treaty that will get us to 350 parts per million anytime soon, or in fact do anything of great note," the writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben told me when I met him in New York City. The author of "The End of Nature" and "Deep Economy" said: "The news that the Obama administration had punted on the Copenhagen talks is discouraging. The good news, to the extent that there is any, is that we finally have the beginning of a real global movement about climate change."

McKibben and his group, 350.org, this year organized perhaps the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history: On Oct. 24, people in 181 countries joined in calling for environmental reform. But such popular calls for change have largely been ignored by the leaders of industrialized nations. The climate crisis will be solved by widespread and sustained civil disobedience or not at all.

"There were no celebrities, no rock stars, no movie stars," McKibben said of the October protest. "People were rallying around a fairly obscure scientific data point, and the 25,000 pictures or so that have come into the Flickr site from the 5,200 events in 181 countries make it clear that the canard that environmentalism is something for rich white people is crazy. It is mostly something for black, brown and yellow people and mostly something for poor people. We are all going to bear the consequences before very long, but Bangladesh and places like Bangladesh get it first. This is why it was so great to see them heavily involved. We have about half the countries in the world that have endorsed the 350 [parts per million] target. Unfortunately they are the poorest countries on Earth. They will not carry the day at Copenhagen or anywhere else, but they have begun to challenge the right of the rich countries of the world to submerge them, burn them up or whatever else."

There are five countries that are responsible for over half of fossil-fuel-related CO2 emissions. The United States and China alone account for more than a third. We in the U.S. have been the world’s largest emitters for more than a century, although we have now been overtaken by China, where growth in emissions has been driven by a rapid increase in coal consumption. China is currently opening an average of two coal-fired power plants a week. Emissions there have more than doubled since 1990. The burden to act rests on us, our major trading partner and a handful of other highly industrialized nations.

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