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The New Climate Radicals | The Nation

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The New Climate Radicals

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A stone’s throw from the entrance to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts, the pavement forks down to the left and dead-ends at a forlorn strip of public beach alongside a brave remnant of wetland, beyond which are small houses. Directly across a narrow inlet from the beach, the power plant rises, half a century old, with its towering smokestacks and the long pier where thousands of tons of coal are regularly unloaded from giant freighters. Not only do the people who live in the neighboring community breathe the pollution from all that coal; Brayton Point is the largest coal-fired power plant in New England and among the largest sources of carbon emissions in the Northeast. 

About the Author

Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is at work on a book about climate justice to be...

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If you live in a toxic environment like this, surrounded by refineries, you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one.

“Environmentalism” has failed. The planet now needs a movement far more radical.

One morning this past spring, I stood on that beach with Ken Ward, a fellow climate activist I met through 350 Massachusetts, a grassroots network allied with 350.org and spearheaded by the Better Future Project (a nonprofit in Cambridge where Ken is a fellow and I serve on the volunteer board). Ken turned 56 last fall, is the father of a 13-year-old boy and lives in Boston’s Jamaica Plain, where he supports himself these days as a carpenter and handyman. He’s a good-humored, naturally buoyant kind of guy. He’s studied at Andover Newton Theological School and likes to play Dylan songs on the mandolin. He’s also a veteran environmental insider—co-founder of the National Environmental Law Center and a former deputy director of Greenpeace USA—who happens to be a sharp critic of mainstream environmentalism, which he argues has failed to grapple seriously and urgently enough with the threat of catastrophic climate change. 

Ken brought me down to that beach on a beautiful morning so that I could see the view. Out in front of us, one of those big freighters, the hulking, black-hulled Energy Enterprise, rested at the pier, carrying some 40,000 tons of West Virginia’s finest. An infernal mountain of the stuff rose behind it. Ken wanted me to stand there so I could picture for myself the sheer physical mass of the power plant, the ship and the coal—and so I could see where, in some two months’ time, Ken and a 31-year-old Quaker activist named Jay O’Hara from nearby Cape Cod would put themselves in the way of that freighter. 

Early on the morning of May 15, after a private sunrise prayer service on the docks in Newport, Ken and Jay motored up to Brayton Point in a thirty-two-foot lobster boat, which they’d acquired and rechristened the Henry David T., flying an American flag and a banner that read #coalisstupid. They were about two hours ahead of the Energy Enterprise, and Jay, skippering, positioned the lobster boat in the ship channel along the pier—right where the 689-foot freighter would have to dock and unload. Intending to stay a while, they proceeded to drop a well-fastened, 200-pound mushroom anchor off the stern of the Henry David T.

Ken called the Somerset police and said they were there to carry out a peaceful protest. Sometime before 11 am, the Energy Enterprise came into view, followed close by multiple high-speed Coast Guard boats. As the freighter bore down on Ken and Jay, the ship’s captain made radio contact, ascertained their intentions, and advised them and the Coast Guard that he had ordered “defensive measures” on deck and was prepared to “protect” his crew. Meanwhile, from somewhere above them on the pier, Ken and Jay heard the distinctive chck-chck of a rifle, chambered and ready. When the freighter finally came to a stop, its prow loomed over the lobster boat. Coast Guard personnel boarded the Henry David T. and calmly took control of the situation. 

On the website they’d created for the protest, shared via social media around the world, Ken and Jay explained the reasons for their action, which boil down to this: even the most politically ambitious plans to address climate change at the national level, including President Obama’s newly announced strategy of executive action—which would impose limits on existing power-plant emissions—fall far short of what the scientific consensus says is necessary to avert catastrophe. But if we accept what climate science is telling us—that humanity faces an existential threat and that we’ve all but run out of time—then we have to start acting like it. This means, first and foremost, that we have to stop burning coal, whatever the cost—because the cost of continuing to burn it is immeasurably greater. “We are faced with an imperative like none confronted by any previous generation,” they wrote. “It is our choice to take direct, nonviolent action—putting our bodies between the Brayton Point coal plant and its water-borne coal supply—in an attempt to achieve the outcome necessary for planetary survival.” 

So they demanded the immediate closure of the plant—and, with their action, they helped launch a grassroots campaign, supported by 350.org and 350 Massachusetts, to push for precisely that, and to call for a just transition for workers and the community. (On July 28, a mass protest is planned for Brayton Point, where dozens more will be prepared to risk arrest engaging in peaceful civil disobedience. It’s one of several events planned as part of the nationwide “Summer Heat”.) 

By the time that 200-pound anchor was hauled up by a salvage crane from the channel bottom, as the sun went down behind the plant, Ken and Jay had managed to block, for a day, the delivery of those 40,000 tons of coal. 

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