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Can Citizen Action Stop Climate Change?


Next week, 10,000 students and youth will converge on the Capitol for a massive lobby day to demand action on climate change and green jobs.

On March 2, thousands of people have pledged to commit nonviolent civil disobedience at the Capitol Power Plant, a heavy bit of symbolic machinery that burns dirty coal to provide electricity to Congress.

Dr. James Hansen, the most prominent scientific voice on global warming, and Al Gore have both endorsed direct action on climate change.

And this week, 96% of members have voted "Build a green economy, stop climate change," as one of their top causes for 2009, with a $3 million campaign and triple the current number of community organizers coast to coast.

President Obama made clear in his inaugural address that he sees global warming as a top priority. Unfortunately, most Americans don't agree with the president or the activists: Global warming has slipped to the bottom of a long list of policy priorities in recent polling, as the economy dominates people's worries; and the percentage who believe that the damage is caused by human activity has actually slipped compared to a couple of years ago.

As Obama's first month in office draws to a close, there has already been progress, but it's been mixed. The stimulus package contained $30 billion in direct spending, and $20 billion in tax incentives for renewables, batteries, efficiency and smart grids. The EPA  plans to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant, reversing a Bush Administration decision, but this is widely seen as a stopgap until further Congressional action can be taken. As for the Congress, Senator Barbara Boxer has issued a set of principles for a new climate change bill, clearly favoring cap-and-trade over other approaches like a carbon tax, and leaving out any hard targets. The Washington Post said in an op-ed: "Senator Boxer is open to everything—except what might work best."

This makes it a perfect time to ask a potentially deflating question: Will all of this principled citizen action actually be effective in shaping climate change policy for the Obama administration in 2009, 2010, and beyond? You have to go back to the 1960s and 70s to find a time when marches on Washington had an unambiguous effect on policymaking. And global warming is a different kind of issue from civil rights or the Vietnam war. We can all agree on the principle of preserving the earth's majesty for future generations, but good climate-change policy requires a mastery of both  Nobel-level diplomatic skills and Nobel-level science. The movements have worked hard to make "80 by 20" (80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020) and 350 (parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere) into rallying cries, but they don't have exactly the same ring as "We Shall Overcome" and "Make Love Not War."

I don't mean to suggest that mass protests are always ineffective or that they're the wrong thing to do in this case. The most important effect of these protests—and particularly targeted letter-writing and phone call campaigns—will be to provide political cover to lawmakers who are facing pressure from business groups to water down or vote down climate legislation.

To avoid alienating the skeptics, or just those who feel the US has other priorities right now, these campaigns would be smart to remain focused on the link between green energy and green jobs. It's the young people who really get this connection. It was at the Power Shift conference in 2007 when I first heard Van Jones hailed as a hero, with his Green Collar Economy call for environmental, social, and economic justice, and the student activists I met were seeking their own economic opportunity as well; the conference included a job fair with reps from nonprofits and green businesses.

On the other hand, respectfully dissenting from Al Gore, I'm not sure getting arrested is the most effective environmentalist technique at the moment. If activists can actually shut down coal plants as they have in Britain, that has a real, if incremental, effect on CO2 emissions; but is it really worth getting painted as extremists and carted off to jail just when the movement has supporters in the highest places? Sometimes you have to shout down the door, and other times you want to be inside with a seat at the negotiating table.

[via It's Getting Hot In Here blog]