Why Direct Action Is the Only Realistic Path to Climate Reform
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.
"The average American family uses more energy between the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve and dinner on Jan. 2 than the average Tanzanian family uses all year," McKibben said.
The projected rise of sea levels, as much as six feet this century and 23 feet if the Greenland ice sheet disappears, will submerge coastal nations such as Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people, as well as places such as the Mekong Delta, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands. The disappearance of glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau -- glaciers that feed the Indus, Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow rivers -- will create catastrophic water shortages and devastate the rice and wheat harvests in China and India, where about four of every 10 people live. World food prices will rise dramatically. If we can’t save countries such as the Maldives and Bangladesh we will also be unable to save Venice, Hawaii, the Netherlands, New Zealand, London, Hong Kong and Manhattan. But don’t expect much from Barack Obama and other leaders in the industrialized world. Their loyalty is not to the planet, or to us, but to the oil and gas industry, the coal industry and the huge corporate polluters who own them.
"Even the inadequate bill before the Congress has been postponed until the spring," McKibben said, "which in my political calendar is a little too close to the election to be very comfortable. We are getting no leadership from the president, rhetorical or otherwise. All the problems are obvious. The only good news is that there is finally something that looks like the glimmer of a movement."
It is incumbent on all of us to find out where the nearest coal-powered plant is located—the one closest to me is in Hamilton, N.J.—and begin to organize to shut it down nonviolently. Princeton, where I live, is also home to NRG Energy, the ninth-biggest coal energy producer in the United States. A map of the nation’s coal-fired plants can be found here.
"Coal is the key commodity," McKibben said. "The ability to cease the combustion of coal will be the thing that decides whether or not we go over the precipice meteorologically in the decades ahead."
“It is unlikely that the environmental movement, or any other movement, will come up with as much cash as those industries," McKibben said of the corporations he opposes. "ExxonMobil made more money last year than any company in the history of money. We better not compete in that currency. We better find something else to compete in. The only thing I can think of is bodies, creativity and passion. These are the sort of things, with all their strengths, the Exxons of the world tend to lack."
McKibben, along with the writer and activist Wendell Berry, organized a mass act of civil disobedience conducted last March against a coal-fired power plant in Washington, D.C., near the White House. Thousands of demonstrators from around the country arrived to see that in anticipation of the protest a promise had been made to convert the plant from coal to natural gas. But there are over 600 more coal plants to close. And McKibben said that local and regional leaders need to rise up to organize against coal.
McKibben and Berry embrace civility and nonviolence. Protesters in Washington last March were enjoined to arrive "in their Sunday best."
"If we are going to use civil disobedience we need to reclaim it from people who enjoy taunting the police and showing off," McKibben said.
"I spent last Sunday night out on Boston Common with hundreds and hundreds of young people from across Massachusetts who were willing to very, very peacefully and unaggressively risk arrest, and in fact we were all cited [by the police] before the evening was done,” he went on. “They were sleeping in Boston Common and refusing to sleep in their dorms for the rest of the fall because [the dormitories] are powered by dirt energy. They have been lobbying for a bill in the Massachusetts Statehouse to close down all the coal-fired power plants within the next 10 years. There were students from every campus. The biggest contingent came from Clark in Worcester. The prize was whoever brought the most students got to have me sleep in their tent."
McKibben and Berry are right. Nonviolent civil disobedience is the only tool that might work. If we mirror the violence employed by the instruments of state security we will become corrupt, as they are, and obliterate the moral high ground that attracts followers to any movement and sustains the long night of resistance. Violence is a poison that infects all those who use it, even in what can be defined as a just cause. And nothing could make ExxonMobil or the coal industry happier than to see shop windows broken, cars set afire and police lines rushed. The moment we resort to violence the corporate state wins. It will gleefully crush us like flies in the name of law and order and national security. The temptation to violence, especially given the passivity of most of us and the hypocrisy of our ruling elite, including Obama, will mount as climate change begins to create social and political unrest. But it must be resisted. This will be a long, long struggle. The coal companies will only be the start. The other corporations that have disempowered the citizenry, created a state of neo-feudalism and turned our democracy into a sham will be next.
"We are past the point where we are going to stop global warming," McKibben said. "It is happening already, and more of it is coming no matter what we do. One of our jobs is to start figuring out how to cope with it. We need to build the kind of communities that can deal with that. The key question is scale. Communities need to be smaller. Our way of thinking about the world has to shrink. At the same time we need a global movement to continue this fight to bring carbon emissions under some kind of control. If we don’t, the kind of change we are talking about over the next decades is so big there is no way to adapt … no matter what we do, no matter how wonderfully organic your community has become. Communities still require water. People don’t quite understand what three or four or five degrees increase in the temperature of the planet will mean. One degree was enough to melt the Arctic. This was a bad sign."
"Nothing important is going to come out of Copenhagen," McKibben warned, "just a lot of spin. … [Obama’s] vast spin machine will be in full gear. There is no obvious route out of all this. We have started exploring mainly popular movements, and hopefully we have introduced a wild card into this game. Our plans are not even plans at this point. It is easier said than done. We shut down one coal-fired power plant and not a very big one. There are 600 left in the country. I don’t fancy myself up to the task of figuring out how to shut them all down. Hopefully some people will begin to do it."