Civil disobedience to combat climate change

March 01, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

If there were a way to harness the gases its members produce with oratory, Congress would no longer need to burn dirty old coal to generate heat and air-conditioning for Capitol Hill. Alas, and remarkably, nearly a decade into the 21st century, offices of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, the Library of Congress and several other buildings still get their heating and cooling from a 99-year-old power plant that burns the most carbon-packed of fossil fuels and produces emissions that cause global warming.

The Capitol Power Plant, spewing sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide into the Washington atmosphere, has become such a striking symbol of the nation's reliance on coal that some time tomorrow, more than 2,000 people could be arrested in a protest there. Organizers of Capitol Climate Action claim we will see the largest protest of global warming ever staged in the U.S. In a YouTube video, the climatologist James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, urges young people to join the protest and calls for Congress and the president to wean the nation off coal for good.

"It's hard for people to realize," Mr. Hansen says, "that climate is an emergency. But climate is changing. The oceans are getting warmer, ice is melting, climate zones are shifting, and you can see that the extremes of the hydrologic cycle - the floods and droughts and storms - are becoming more extreme. We cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without creating a very different planet."

Of course, we already have.

Twenty years ago, Bill McKibben, the acclaimed environmental writer, addressed the concept of time and climate change in his best-seller, The End of Nature. "By the end of nature," he wrote, "I do not mean the end of the world. ... When I say 'nature,' I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it."

Perhaps the ultimate human fallacy is that the world is too large and the forces of nature too powerful for people to affect them in any permanent way in any short span of time. Certainly we could exploit, even ruin, parts of nature - a patch of forest here, a stretch of river there - but certainly humans do not cause global change.

That might have been true before the Industrial Revolution. That might have been true before the human population hit 6 billion. "We never thought that we had wrecked nature," Mr. McKibben wrote. "Deep down, we never really thought we could. ... But, quite by accident, it turned out that the carbon dioxide and other gases we were producing in our pursuit of a better life could alter the power of the sun, could increase its heat."

Could leave a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole.

Mr. McKibben's book was one of the first and most influential on global warming. Two decades later, with even more science to support him, he crusades against the powerful lobbies that want us to keep burning fossil fuels, even to heat the halls of Congress. Mr. McKibben is a leader of Capitol Climate Action and will be among those protesting at the old power plant tomorrow.

He lives in Vermont and teaches at Middlebury College. The other day, Mr. McKibben was crowing about the college's new steam-generating plant. It's a biomass plant; they burn wood chips instead of oil. It's hoped that fuel for the plant eventually will come from fast-growing, carbon-absorbing willow shrubs, creating a new cash crop for local farmers. "We reduced [campus] carbon emissions by 40 percent overnight," Mr. McKibben says of the new plant.

With tomorrow's protest in Washington looming, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, say they want the old Capitol Power Plant to drop coal and convert to natural gas. Sounds like biomass would be even better, and willows would grow easily along the Potomac.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Sundays on this page and Tuesdays in the news pages. He is host of the midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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