On Monday, I’m going to get arrested just two blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. I’ll peacefully block the entrance to an energy plant that burns raw coal to partially power Congress. My motivation is global warming. My colleagues in civil disobedience will include the poet Wendell Berry, country western signer Kathy Mattea, and Yale University dean Gus Speth.
Up to 2,000 other people from across the country will risk arrest, too. We’ll all be demanding strong federal action to phase out coal combustion and other fossil fuels nationwide that threaten our vulnerable climate.
This mass arrest might seem symbolic and radical to many Americans. Symbolic because it’s purposefully organized amid the iconic images of Washington, D.C. And radical because, well, isn’t getting locked up kind of out there? And isn’t global warming kind of vague and distant?
But I live five subway stops from the U.S. Capitol. My home is right here. There’s nothing symbolic — for me — about trying to keep the tidal Potomac River out of my living room and off the National Mall where my son takes school trips. There’s nothing symbolic about fighting for homeowner’s insurance in a region where Allstate and other insurers have already begun to pull out due to bigger Atlantic hurricanes. And what’s vague about the local plant species like deadnettles and Bluebells that now bloom four to six weeks earlier in D.C.-area gardens thanks to dramatic warming.
For citizens like me who live amid the symbolic trappings of D.C., we stand as proof that climate change is everywhere, right now, and no one is immune, not even the citizens and leaders of the world’s most powerful city. (No wonder nearly 1 in 10 protestors on March 2 will be members of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network).
And radical? Actually civil disobedience is no more radical than our belief that extreme energy changes are possible now — not just in far-off China or liberal Oregon, but in the city of Washington, D.C. itself. Like a growing number of Metro D.C. residents, my home in Takoma Park is completely solarized. I heat my home with locally grown, organically fertilized corn that saves me money. And beginning this summer in much of Maryland, energy from wind farms will be cheaper than coal-fired electricity from Pepco, the state’s mega-utility. Meanwhile, as a region, the D.C. area uses twice as much electricity per capita as California or New York State. Clearly, there is low-hanging “efficiency fruit” everywhere you look in the nation’s capital. Washington could cut its power use in half and still have every comfort and abundance: bright lights for the Kennedy Center, heating and cooling for the museums, fast computers for every hall of Congress. No trade-offs.
We just need national legislation to move things along as fast as the climate is changing, which is to say right now! Congress must pass — in 2009 — a cap on carbon pollution that matches the goals of Japan and the European nations under the current international climate talks. Then Obama must go to Copenhagen in December to negotiate a strong successor to the Kyoto protocol.
Otherwise, Washington, D.C. is screwed. Not just in a political and diplomatic sense. But screwed as an actual place. On the last day in office, the Bush administration released a study showing the U.S. Atlantic coast would soon see sea-level rise much worse than previously estimated. Another study in the journal Science this month showed that ice reduction in Antarctica is actually leading to planetary gravitational changes that will further cause the Atlantic to bulge and swell, leading to still more rise. Who knew? University of Maryland professor Court Stephenson already believes a billion-dollar flood gate on the Potomac River just south of D.C. is the only thing that can save Washington from future mega-storms. No wonder in nearby New York city, mayor Michael Bloomburg is already planning to move to higher ground the pumps that keep the New York subway dry.
But adaptation measures will never protect us without a simultaneous turn to clean energy. Which is why I’m getting arrested March 2 with thousands of others two blocks from the Capitol. President Barack Obama and Congress have already done a lot for the climate in the last six weeks alone, and I hear the voice of those who say, “Why push so hard now?”
But I’m reminded of the labor leaders who visited Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s. After hours of talks they persuaded the President to support a pro-union proposition. But FDR then surprised them. “Okay you’ve convinced me,” he said. “Now go out and pressure me.” That’s kind of the weird way politics works. Obama and Congress need this pressure to help them keep doing what, for the most part, they already want to do.
All politics is local, as they say, so in the end I’m just looking after my street corner. My corner just happens to be in the D.C. area. I have a son here, and the scientists have spoken: there’s nowhere to hide from global warming. Nowhere. So I want an end to coal combustion in my region. I want to live surrounded by wind mills, not flood levees. For this, I’ll even get arrested, knowing all along that the reverse is true too: If the actual citizens of Washington, D.C. are safe from global warming, then everyone else in the world is safe too.