The smile never left her face, even after Representative Donna Edwards plunged into the icy Potomac River on Saturday with two hundred local activists to urge stronger government action against climate change.

“I feel great,” a beaming Edwards told The Nation as she stood shivering in a wetsuit after emerging from a full-body immersion in the frigid river. It was the first time Edwards, an African-American who represents Maryland’s 4th congressional district, joined the annual Polar Bear Plunge organized by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (C-CAN). And why, on a day when the air temperature in Washington measured 19 degrees Fahrenheit and the Potomac was 34 degrees, did the rising progressive star agree to such a stunt?

“Because I feel so passionately about the environment and making a difference on climate change,” Edwards said. “Actions like today give an opportunity to get the community engaged. Maybe this action won’t get you to jump in a river in January, but you’ll do what you can to save our planet, like biking or taking mass transit to work rather than driving a car.”

As a senior member of the House Science and Technology Committee, Edwards added, “I plan to play a very aggressive role in pushing back against those who want to challenge genuine climate science. It used to be that all of us in Congress respected science and took its lessons to heart as we made decisions. We have to get back to that. The science isn’t lying. It’s telling us the truth about what we’re doing to our planet, and we have to listen.”

Now in its sixth year, the Polar Bear Plunge stands as one of the more creative, not to say outlandish, strategies devised by US climate activists. The event invariably attracts local TV and media coverage as well as raising a significant proportion of the operating budget of the grassroots C-CAN group, which is currently pressing the Maryland and Virginia legislatures to pass aggressive climate change laws. Supporters pledge to make donations to C-CAN on behalf of individuals who take the plunge; this year, an estimated $50,000 was raised, according to C-CAN executive director Mike Tidwell.

“Don’t worry about needing willpower to go in the river,” an ear-flapped Tidwell exhorted the crowd minutes before the plunge. “You won’t need willpower, because we’re all going to do this together.”

And amazingly enough, they did. Of a crowd estimated by local rescue authorities at 350 people, some 200 had signed up to make the actual plunge. Most wore nothing but bathing suits and flip-flops to protect their feet from the Potomac’s rocky bottom. 

As these 200 brave souls assembled on a crushed-shell beach south of the Capitol on the Maryland side of the Potomac, a phalanx of bare-chested, college guys began bellowing, “350, 350, 350”—a reference to the goal of returning carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million—to psyche up the crowd. A few feet away, Edwards hopped from one leg to the other, like a sprinter waiting for a starter’s gun, while the crowd picked up the 350 chant.


Then Tidwell repeated the 350 call over his bullhorn, shouted “Go, go, go,” and they were off, racing into the icy waters. The college guys, still bellowing as they splashed forward, were the first into the water. Edwards trailed not far behind them, as did a group of Franciscan monks. The rest of the plungers ranged in age from six to seventy-eight, including one older woman who used a cane to get in and out of the river. Rebekah Rowe, a nine year old who was doing the plunge for her third year in a row, said later through chattering teeth that she had gotten involved because, “I watched a movie about polar bears running out of the ice they need to hunt fish, and I found myself crying. I hope what we did today will inspire other people to fight global warming, too.”

By the time the last of the activists were entering the icy river, including one flat-bellied grey-hair with 350 painted in green across his chest, some of the first wave of plungers were already returning to shore, their nearly-naked bodies red with cold but their faces glad and voices whooping in celebration. “I feel tingly,” said one grinning thirty-something with a red kerchief wrapped around his neck. “It was fun, and I think it helps raise awareness among people.”

“We’re here to promote hope,” Tidwell said after emerging, like Edwards, with wet hair—proof of a full-body immersion. “If people will be this creative and this committed to a cause,” he added, “that gives other people hope. It takes a lot for people to go in [an icy river. And it shows the power of the group. When we’re all working together, amazing things can be overcome. By myself, I would never be able to jump into this water. But as a group, we all go in. You didn’t see anyone hesitate. Because we did it as a group.“