In 1979 Gus Speth, a Yale-trained lawyer and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), became chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality. He was 37. Approached by two scientists concerned about the rise in the earth’s temperatures as a result of increased carbon emissions, Speth commissioned a study. “It created quite a stir,” he says. “It got a lot of media attention…. In 1981 we knew enough that I’m quoted in the New York Times saying we ought to cap greenhouse [gases] at no more than 50 percent above the preindustrial level.”
On March 2 Speth, now dean of Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, was back in Washington–this time to take part in what promised to be the largest act of climate-change civil disobedience in American history. Along with fellow environmental movement veterans Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry and NASA climatologist James Hansen; anti-coal activists from Appalachia; and some of the 12,000 student activists who had flooded Washington for the Power Shift 09 climate change conference, Speth marched to the Capitol Hill power plant, a few blocks south of the Capitol. There they blocked the five entrances and waited for the handcuffs.
The tussle over the plant is a perfect parable of the failure of our political system to respond to the threat of climate change. Built in 1904, the plant provides heat and cooling to about two dozen buildings, including the Capitol, the Supreme Court and Union Station. In 2000 the Architect of the Capitol, who oversees the physical plant, submitted a plan to replace coal, by far the worst carbon emitter of all fossil fuels, with oil or natural gas. Coal-state Senators Robert Byrd and Mitch McConnell sent a letter expressing their displeasure, and promptly secured $1 million for the Interior Department to study how to integrate new coal technologies into plant upgrades. Nine years later, despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan to “green the Capitol,” the plant still burns coal, the last coal-fired facility inside the DC line.
The protesters who surrounded the plant reflected the growing diversity of interests in the climate change/green jobs coalition: indigenous teenagers whose ancestral lands have been ravaged by the dirty energy economy, white grandmothers from Kentucky who have seen their communities suffocated under the toxic runoff from mountaintop removal, and young hipsters and hippies hoping for a future in green jobs. The mood was boisterous and exultant but disciplined: an exercise in cheerful, polite militancy (sample sign: Mountaintop Removal Lacks My Approval). One protester apologized to the fluorescent-vested police for having made them stay out in the cold. Margaret Stewart, who’d come from Louisville with a group of Kentuckians fighting mountaintop removal, put it this way: “We’re not here to make trouble. We’re here because we’ve tried everything else. If there were any other way to make change, we’d do it.”
The crowd was so well behaved, in fact, the police decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of locking them up, and made no arrests. But the action had already won its immediate demand: a few days before–thanks to some behind-the-scenes lobbying from a number of green groups–Pelosi and Harry Reid had sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol supporting a phaseout of coal at the power plant.
It seems safe to say that the movement to stop the planet from overheating has entered its second act. Thirty years after Speth’s first report, the establishment–politicians, elite media, business leaders–has finally (finally!) accepted the simple fact that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet and courting catastrophe. Now comes the hard part: doing something about it.