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Do climate protests work?

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(Read caption) Protesters block an entrance to the US Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C., during a March 2 march by the Capitol Climate Action Coalition to demand that the plant switch from coal to natural gas.

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On Monday, thousands of climate activists descended on Washington, D.C., to protest the Capitol Power Plant, a partly coal-fired plant that heats and air-conditions the seat of the US Congress and is the District of Columbia's largest source of air pollution and carbon emissions.

For more than four hours, the protesters, many wearing dress clothes to play down any appearance of radicalism, blockaded all five entrances to the plant as police stood by, according to the Associated Press and other news reports. Nobody was arrested.

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The activists are declaring victory, in part because, a few days before the protests, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that they would convert the plant to run entirely on natural gas, which burns far more cleanly than coal does. Currently, the plant runs on about 35 percent coal, 65 percent natural gas.

In a Feb. 26 letter to Stephen Ayers, the acting architect of the Capitol, the Democratic leaders called the move "an important demonstration of Congress’s willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global warming, energy independence, and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels."

"It sounds like we're making progress before we even get there," quipped Bill McKibben, a prominent climate activist and one of the protest's organizers, in an interview with the online eco-mag Grist. He added that, despite the victory, the protests would go on as scheduled. "Of course our real protest is aimed at coal power all over the country, and Nancy Pelosi could help rewrite the rules for that as well, which would be even more important," he said.

According to the Associated Press, converting the plant would cost between $6 million and $7 million in equipment upgrades, and at least another $2 million a year in purchasing gas, which is more expensive than coal.

The Capitol Climate Action site, backed by Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, and a host of smaller outfits displays videos of the civil disobedience under headlines that read "We shut them down!" and "This is what democracy looks like."

Monday's protest was one of the largest demonstrations – if not the largest demonstration – against greenhouse-gas emissions in the United StatesTime magazine puts the number at 2,000. A spokesman for Greenpeace said perhaps 2,300 showed up.  [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized Bill McKibben's estimates of the size of the coal plant protest. In a story  for Mother Jones, McKibben that the PowerShift conference that took place beforehand to discuss clean energy solutions drew 12,000 participatns, a number that is not disputed.]

That's a heck of a lot of people for an environmental demonstration in the United States. And the preemptive move by Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid suggests that Washington's leadership is willing to listen to protesters.

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This willingness stands in sharp contrast to the political climate at the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq, when President Bush compared heeding the 6 million to 10 million who took to the streets worldwide on Feb. 15, 2003, to "decid[ing] policy based on a focus group."

As this blog noted in November, climate-related civil disobedience has been more common in Australia and Europe, particularly in the UK, than in the US. But perhaps Monday's victory means that more American protests are on the way. Those willing to risk arrest for the climate seem to be gaining friends in high places: In September, Al Gore openly advocated civil disobedience to block the construction of new coal power plants.