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For Obama, No Opportunity Too Big To Blow December 22, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Economic Crisis, Environment.
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Published on Monday, December 21, 2009 by The Nationby Naomi Klein

Contrary to countless reports, the debacle in Copenhagen was not everyone’s fault. It did not happen because human beings are incapable of agreeing, or are inherently self-destructive. Nor was it all was China’s fault, or the fault of the hapless UN.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but there was one country that possessed unique power to change the game. It didn’t use it. If Barack Obama had come to Copenhagen with a transformative and inspiring commitment to getting the U.S. economy off fossil fuels, all the other major emitters would have stepped up. The EU, Japan, China and India had all indicated that they were willing to increase their levels of commitment, but only if the U.S. took the lead. Instead of leading, Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.

(The “deal” that was ultimately rammed through was nothing more than a grubby pact between the world’s biggest emitters: I’ll pretend that you are doing something about climate change if you pretend that I am too. Deal? Deal.)

I understand all the arguments about not promising what he can’t deliver, about the dysfunction of the U.S. Senate, about the art of the possible. But spare me the lecture about how little power poor Obama has. No President since FDR has been handed as many opportunities to transform the U.S. into something that doesn’t threaten the stability of life on this planet. He has refused to use each and every one of them. Let’s look at the big three.

Blown Opportunity Number 1: The Stimulus Package When Obama came to office he had a free hand and a blank check to design a spending package to stimulate the economy. He could have used that power to fashion what many were calling a “Green New Deal” — to build the best public transit systems and smart grids in the world. Instead, he experimented disastrously with reaching across the aisle to Republicans, low-balling the size of the stimulus and blowing much of it on tax cuts. Sure, he spent some money on weatherization, but public transit was inexplicably short changed while highways that perpetuate car culture won big.

Blown Opportunity Number 2: The Auto Bailouts Speaking of the car culture, when Obama took office he also found himself in charge of two of the big three automakers, and all of the emissions for which they are responsible. A visionary leader committed to the fight against climate chaos would obviously have used that power to dramatically reengineer the failing industry so that its factories could build the infrastructure of the green economy the world desperately needs. Instead Obama saw his role as uninspiring down-sizer in chief, leaving the fundamentals of the industry unchanged.

Blown Opportunity Number 3: The Bank Bailouts Obama, it’s worth remembering, also came to office with the big banks on their knees — it took real effort not to nationalize them. Once again, if Obama had dared to use the power that was handed to him by history, he could have mandated the banks to provide the loans for factories to be retrofitted and new green infrastructure to be built. Instead he declared that the government shouldn’t tell the failed banks how to run their businesses. Green businesses report that it’s harder than ever to get a loan.

Imagine if these three huge economic engines — the banks, the auto companies, the stimulus bill — had been harnessed to a common green vision. If that had happened, demand for a complementary energy bill would have been part of a coherent transformative agenda.

Whether the bill had passed or not, by the time Copenhagen had rolled around, the U.S. would already have been well on its way to dramatically cutting emissions, poised to inspire, rather than disappoint, the rest of the world.

There are very few U.S. Presidents who have squandered as many once-in-a-generation opportunities as Barack Obama. More than anyone else, the Copenhagen failure belongs to him.

Research support for Naomi Klein’s reporting from Copenhagen was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

© 2009 The Nation

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist and the author of the international and New York Times bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, now out in paperback. Her earlier books include the international best-seller, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies; and the collection Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002). To read all her latest writing visit www.naomiklein.org

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One Africa. One Degree. Two Degrees is Suicide. December 19, 2009

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 “$10 billion is not enough to buy us coffins”.

http://elliottverreault.wordpress.com/2009/12/09/one-africa-one-degree-two-degrees-is-suicide/

December 19, 209

Yesterday in Copenhagen, where leaders have come together to discuss the fate of the climate, lead G77 negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping of Sudan, broke down in tears. To a small group of press and civil society supporters, he divulged that many African negotiators, pressured by developeing countries, and some succumbing to their own self-interest, were ready to sign a weak deal.

What would a weak deal look like? A deal that locks Africa and the rest of the world into a 2 degree, 450ppm scenario — what President Nasheed of the Maldives, and now many African civil society leaders call a “suicide pact.”

He did not start his speech immediately. Instead he sat silently, tears rolling down his face. He put his head in his hands and said “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” The room was frozen into silence, shocked by the sight of a powerful negotiator, an African elder if you like, exhibiting such strong emotion. He apologised to the audience, but said that in his part of Sudan it was “better to stand and cry than to walk away.”

Di-Aping first attacked the 2 degrees C warming maximum that most rich countries currently consider acceptable. Referring continuously to science, in particular parts of the latest IPCC report (which he referenced by page and section) he said that 2 degrees C globally meant 3.5 degrees C for much of Africa. He called global warming of 2 degrees C “certain death for Africa”, a type of “climate fascism” imposed on Africa by high carbon emitters. He said Africa was being asked to sign on to an agreement that would allow this warming in exchange for $10 billion, and that Africa was also being asked to “celebrate” this deal.

He explained that, by wanting to subvert the established post-Kyoto process, the industrialised nations were effectively wanting to ignore historical emissions, and by locking in deals that would allow each citizen of those countries to carry on emitting a far greater amount of carbon per year than each citizen in poor countries, would prevent many African countries from lifting their people out of poverty. This was nothing less than a colonisation of the sky, he said. “$10 billion is not enough to buy us coffins”.

Calling the current deal that was being proposed “worse than no deal”, he called on Africans to reject it — “I would rather die with my dignity than sign a deal that will channel my people into a furnace.” Africans had to make clear demands of their leaders not to sign on. He suggested a couple of slogans: “One Africa, one degree” and “Two degrees is suicide”

The Courage to Say No December 18, 2009

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Published on Friday, December 18, 2009 by The Nationby Naomi Klein

CopenhagenOn the ninth day of the Copenhagen climate summit, Africa was sacrificed. The position of the G-77 negotiating bloc, including African states, had been clear: a 2 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures translates into a 3-3.5 degree increase in Africa.

That means, according to the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, “an additional 55 million people could be at risk from hunger” and “water stress could affect between 350 and 600 million more people.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts the stakes like this: “We are facing impending disaster on a monstrous scale…. A global goal of about 2 degrees C is to condemn Africa to incineration and no modern development.”

And yet that is precisely what Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, proposed to do when he stopped off in Paris on his way to Copenhagen: standing with President Nicolas Sarkozy, and claiming to speak on behalf of all of Africa (he is the head of the African climate-negotiating group), he unveiled a plan that includes the dreaded 2 degree increase and offers developing countries just $10 billion a year to help pay for everything climate related, from sea walls to malaria treatment to fighting deforestation.

It’s hard to believe this is the same man who only three months ago was saying this: “We will use our numbers to delegitimize any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position…. If need be, we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent…. What we are not prepared to live with is global warming above the minimum avoidable level.”

And this: “We will participate in the upcoming negotiations not as supplicants pleading for our case but as negotiators defending our views and interests.”

We don’t yet know what Zenawi got in exchange for so radically changing his tune or how, exactly, you go from a position calling for $400 billion a year in financing (the Africa group’s position) to a mere $10 billion. Similarly, we do not know what happened when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Philippine President Gloria Arroyo just weeks before the summit and all of a sudden the toughest Filipino negotiators were kicked off their delegation and the country, which had been demanding deep cuts from the rich world, suddenly fell in line.

We do know, from witnessing a series of these jarring about-faces, that the G-8 powers are willing to do just about anything to get a deal in Copenhagen. The urgency clearly does not flow from a burning desire to avert cataclysmic climate change, since the negotiators know full well that the paltry emissions cuts they are proposing are a guarantee that temperatures will rise a “Dantesque” 3.9 degrees, as Bill McKibben puts it.

Matthew Stilwell of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development–one of the most influential advisers in these talks–says the negotiations are not really about averting climate change but are a pitched battle over a profoundly valuable resource: the right to the sky. There is a limited amount of carbon that can be emitted into the atmosphere. If the rich countries fail to radically cut their emissions, then they are actively gobbling up the already insufficient share available to the South. What is at stake, Stilwell argues, is nothing less than “the importance of sharing the sky.”

Europe, he says, fully understands how much money will be made from carbon trading, since it has been using the mechanism for years. Developing countries, on the other hand, have never dealt with carbon restrictions, so many governments don’t really grasp what they are losing. Contrasting the value of the carbon market–$1.2 trillion a year, according to leading British economist Nicholas Stern–with the paltry $10 billion on the table for developing countries, Stilwell says that rich countries are trying to exchange “beads and blankets for Manhattan.” He adds: “This is a colonial moment. That’s why no stone has been left unturned in getting heads of state here to sign off on this kind of deal…. Then there’s no going back. You’ve carved up the last remaining unowned resource and allocated it to the wealthy.”

For months now NGOs have gotten behind a message that the goal of Copenhagen is to “seal the deal.” Everywhere we look in the Bella Center, clocks are going “tck tck tck.” But any old deal isn’t good enough, especially because the only deal on offer won’t solve the climate crisis and might make things much worse, taking current inequalities between North and South and locking them in indefinitely. Augustine Njamnshi of Pan African Climate Justice Alliance puts the 2 degree proposal in harsh terms: “You cannot say you are proposing a ‘solution’ to climate change if your solution will see millions of Africans die and if the poor not the polluters keep paying for climate change.”

Stilwell says that the wrong kind of deal would “lock in the wrong approach all the way to 2020”–well past the deadline for peak emissions. But he insists that it’s not too late to avert this worst-case scenario. “I’d rather wait six months or a year and get it right because the science is growing, the political will is growing, the understanding of civil society and affected communities is growing, and they’ll be ready to hold their leaders to account to the right kind of a deal.”

At the start of these negotiations the mere notion of delay was environmental heresy. But now many are seeing the value of slowing down and getting it right. Most significant, after describing what 2 degrees would mean for Africa, Archbishop Tutu pronounced that it is “better to have no deal than to have a bad deal.” That may well be the best we can hope for in Copenhagen. It would be a political disaster for some heads of state–but it could be one last chance to avert the real disaster for everyone else.

Copyright © 2009 The Nation

*This column was first published in The Nation (www.thenation.com).

Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international and New York Times bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  See more at www.naomiklein.org.

Daryl Hannah: Why I Was Arrested in Coal River, West Virginia July 2, 2009

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Published on Thursday, July 2, 2009 by Huffington Post by Daryl Hannah

Why would I fly across the country on my own dime knowing I would most likely end up in jail in one of the poorest parts of America?

Well, have you ever heard of MTR?

Don’t feel bad, my friends are intelligent, well-read and informed people, but most of them had never heard of MTR (Mountain Top Removal) either.

So, I went to Coal River to help bring much needed attention to this hidden, criminal (but somehow legal) form of mining. I was honored to be joining an inspiringly brave group of concerned Americans, which included NASA climate scientist James Hansen who was among the first to sound the alarm on the climate crisis. The sharp, charismatic, 94 year old, former West Virginia U.S. Representative and Secretary of State Ken Hechler, who was the first congressman to introduce a Federal bill to abolish strip mining in 1971. (If passed the bill could have prevented this mess we find ourselves in.) And I was deeply moved to be arrested with those affected by MTR in Kentucky, and the many local residents fighting for their very lives, including a half dozen senior citizens, canes, walkers and all.

Mountain Top Removal is a devastatingly destructive form of mining and has already destroyed 2,000,000 acres in the Appalachian Mountains.

Coal companies have literally blown up over 500 mountain tops to access the coal seams and then dumped the refuse into the valleys below, killing over 3000 miles of headwater streams. The EPA just gave the go ahead for an additional 42 mountaintops to be blown off with another 6 permits pending.

Mountain Top Removal leaves behind a virtual hideous moonscape of devastated earth, billions of gallons of poisonous toxic sludge, and boarded up towns with dramatically high rates of cancer.

Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for, and am deeply indebted to the miners working in coalmines and on MTR projects who risk their lives daily to bring power to our country. I understand they feel threatened by anything that might take away their jobs. And, I don’t want to see them lose more jobs, as 75% of mining jobs have already been lost to the machines and explosives of MTR.

While it takes fewer miners to remove coal with Mountain Top Removal, there are just as many dangers, accidents and fatalities! It is a cheaper way for the companies to mine and that’s why it’s becoming so pervasive.

Yesterday, I received this email from a woman in Virginia:

Dear Daryl,Thank you so much for coming to West Virginia and trying to save our mountains from Mountain top removal. I am a 9th generation Appalachian and it pains us to see what is happening. If it was not for the Internet I wouldn’t have known about your efforts. Massey has quite a bit of influence of the local media in the coalfields. I am sorry you were arrested but I thank you for standing up for what is right. We need to work on sustainable communities here in the mountains so that coal miners will have opportunities for jobs not so dangerous. My brother works, when he can’t find anything else, at the mines driving the large dump trucks that haul the coal out of the pits. It’s dangerous work even if you are not underground. You just wouldn’t believe the equipment they give them to work with. This one site he was in this massive huge dump truck that the floorboard was rusted out with open holes. Rocks would fly back into the cab from the tires. And when it rains, it’s a mudslide. One of his co -workers was killed when the dump truck went over an embankment last year. Reporting gets you fired. And yet these workers will defend the job because there is nothing else. So thank you for standing up with us. We do appreciate it.

Then there’s the sickness…

According to WVU’s institute for health policy research, coal county residents are more likely to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases, cancers and generally suffer from excess numbers of premature death. There’s a high cancer risk for up to 1 out of every 50 Americans living near the more than 100 billion gallons of toxic sludge in the clay-lined and unlined (the majority unlined) coal ash landfills and slurry ponds, such as the TVA Kingston ash sludge landfill that collapsed into the Emory River in December.

Tennessee Valley Authority officials consistently have said the ash spilled in December from the utility’s Kingston Fossil Plant wet landfill in Harriman, Tenn., and in January from its Widows Creek pond in Stevenson, Ala., is non-hazardous… but after the spill, regulatory and independent testing have found high levels of toxicity in the spilled waste and raw water where the two spills occurred. Thirty-one of the landfills and slurry ponds in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama are on or near major waterways!

The slurry pond above the Marsh fork elementary school where we held our protest holds 2.8 billion gallons (it’s one of the smallest ponds — one nearby in brushing fork holds 9 billion gallons) of sludge in unlined pits containing arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.

Tragically but predictably in coal river valley, the children are often sick with headaches and asthma, and among the 200 students and teachers at Marsh Fork elementary school cancer rates are higher than average.

Three teachers have died from cancer and one is struggling with the disease now.

In 2005 one student died from ovarian cancer at age seventeen and another is still battling ovarian cancer.

Today I received this from a man in Raleigh County, West Virginia:

West Virginia. It is hell.Every morning a 6 am my cat starts coughing. My eyes burn, my nose burns (sometimes bleeds), I get ill, and my health continues to fall apart. I got two forms of cancer, I can’t drink the water… and we are 15 miles from Marsha Fork where they are making (was supposed to be shut down) a cyanide based pesticide that in an accident killed 1800 people in India. My kid is lead poisoned, my wife is- and in a mile radius 10 people have had heart attacks or died from whatever is here. The dust is full of arsenic and the Massey power plants create a blue haze which is really sulfuric acid. EPA won’t come near this place. It is owned by the coal industry. Thousands, who live here and are dying from 100 miles of rivers under coal sludge, Do the earth a favor and check on this and if you feel like improving our life send us a ticket out of here. I am sending you a picture of my son. He is being poisoned here. It breaks my heart. We cannot even get workman’s comp and have huge families. We are the poor of southern West Virginia..

State regulators are telling the people that it’s an “improvement” to flatten a forested mountain, seed it with grass and hope that some shrubs will grow — and then allow hunters who have signed “the appropriate waivers of liability, indemnifications and assumptions of risks” to hunt whatever animals might choose to inhabit such barren fields.

As humorist Dave Barry says, we’re not making this up, although we wish we were.

Let me make one thing clear… there is no such thing as clean coal!!!

I wish President Obama would stop using the term and take CEQ chief Nancy Sutley and EPA head Lisa Jackson to visit these unfortunate mining sites under their jurisdiction.

When we flip the switch to turn our lights on, most of us have no idea where that power comes from.

According to the U.S. dept. of energy, more than 50% of our electricity comes from coal.

Coal emits much more carbon (CO2) per unit of energy than oil and natural gas. From the acid drainage of mines polluting rivers and streams, to the release of mercury and other toxins when its burned into the atmosphere, the fine particulates that wreak havoc on human health, and the colossal waste, coal pollutes every step of the way

“Clean coal” is the industry’s attempt to “clean up” its dirty image — the industry’s greenwash buzzword. It is not a new type of coal. “Clean coal” methods only move pollutants from one waste stream to another. Coal is a dirty business!

The good news is we have a solution! A study of the long-term benefits of infinite Wind Power versus finite coal MTR in Coal River Mountain, West Virginia already exists. They show “excellent potential” for efficiency, productivity and economic benefit. Though it doesn’t have short-term financial returns, wind promises to provide clean, inexpensive energy and offers scores of safe jobs for the long term. Just check out the staggering figures from a report released by the American Wind Energy Association: “wind industry jobs jumped to 85,000 in 2008, a 70% increase from the previous year.” Renewable energy will continue to grow exponentially, whereas mining jobs have decreased or remained relatively stagnant at “81,000 workers” for over 20 years, according to the 2007 U.S. dept of energy report.

I can understand why those who live in coal towns are frustrated, because while we have this technology available to us now — it is still just “a promise” in these regions.

It’s imperative we let our president, our elected public servants and entrepreneurs know that this is where we want our investment to be directed.

Hopefully some wise, forward thinking heroes will step up the plate, build the wind farm and take this incredible win, win, wind, opportunity to bury the dirty dinosaur of Mountain Top Removal forever.

www.crmw.net

www.appvoices.org

ilovemountains.org © 2009 Huffington Post

Daryl Hannah is an actress and environmental activist.

Coal Industry Tries to Hide Dirty Facts Behind ‘Clean’ Claims March 5, 2009

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Misleading and duplicitous ads on ‘clean coal’ cannot camouflage the stench of fossil fuels

Greenpace activists disrupt coal loading in Newcastle, New South Wales 
Greenpeace activists disrupt coal loading at the world’s largest coal port at Newcastle, Australia Photograph: EPA

 

The fightback begins here. Well, we can hope. The misleading and downright duplicitous ads against clean coal chronicled here are now being contested by – you guessed it – an ad.

Last week the Academy-award winning movie producers Joel and Ethan Coen began airing their commercial on cable TV in the US. It is a spoof air freshener advert with a suburban housewife spraying her home with a coal-black aerosol from a can called Clean Coal. Explaining the magic ingredient, the presenter says that “Clean Coal harnesses the awesome power of the word clean”.

It ends with the caption for anyone with a comedy bypass: “In reality, there is no such thing as clean coal.”

Meanwhile, a thick spray of the white stuff in Washington DC couldn’t prevent some 2,000 protesters gathering at the Capitol Hill power plant to protest that the plant burns coal to provide steam heating for the federal legislature’s cavernous halls.

The snow did allow a mocking Fox News to report that the scene was “reminiscent of a day in January 2004 when Al Gore made a major address in New York – on one of the coldest days in the city’s history.” They really can’t get over Gore, can they?

But we all have our obsessions, and I fear that the alliterative power of “clean coal” is destined to reoccur in this column. It is just so pervasive and so toxic. It seems capable of camouflaging every stench of the industry. And even the distant prospect of it is just so damned convenient for politicians caught between coal and environment lobbies.

In Britain, the prospective “clean coal” technology known as carbon capture and storage looks like it is being lined up as a fig leaf for the construction of new coal-burning power plants. How else can one explain contradictory messages from ministers in recent days?

This week the word from Whitehall has been that a decision on the Kingsnorth power plant, likely to be the first of several such plants, had been delayed until the autumn, while the cabinet minister responsible for both energy and climate policy, Ed Miliband, conducted a review of coal policy because of climate concerns.

But I am having trouble reconciling that with last week’s speech by energy minister Mike O’Brien at a coal industry conference in London where he said “we will need new fossil fuel plants, including coal” to meet a “generation capacity gap by 2015”.

Which is it to be? Watch out for “clean coal” to bridge the climate gap. But we may be asked to glossed over the fact that, as O’Brien helpfully explained, Britain’s first project to see if it can make the technology work at an actual power station won’t begin its first tests until 2014 – a bit late to plug an energy gap a year later.

The doublespeak is in overdrive right now in Australia, from where reader Patrick has sent me updates on the launch of the Australian Coal Association PR campaign New Generation Coal. It has a multi-million dollar media budget for promoting clean coal.

We should be grateful that, like its counterparts round the world, the ACA now concedes that climate change has to be beaten. And unlike many countries, the Australian $40-billion coal industry is spending a few tens of millions of dollars a year on R&D into carbon capture and storage.

But it is small stuff that they are selling big. And one snappily-titled project, Zero-Gen in Queensland, is reportedly on the brink of collapse because of a funding dispute between industry and government.

The Australian industry’s claim that carbon capture and storage will be “commercially viable by 2017” is far-fetched to say the least.

Nobody else in the world thinks that is possible. And that, I’d guess, includes the Australian government, which recently snubbed UN climate negotiators by setting itself a derisory target of reducing domestic CO2 emissions by just 5% by 2020.

Australia is built on coal. It gets 80% of its electricity from burning the stuff. But domestic emissions are just the start. It is also the world’s largest exporter. As another reader Dave points out, Newcastle in New South Wales is the world’s busiest coal exporting terminal, sending abroad 80 million tonnes of the black stuff every year, mostly to fast-growing Asian economies like China and Thailand.

So not only are Aussie greenhouse gas emissions among the world’s highest (per head of population, more than twice those of Britain) they are also doing their best to bump everybody’s up as well.

Until its Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, starts doing something about that, his claimed green credentials will be just greenwash.

• How many more green scams, cons and generous slices of wishful thinking are out there? Please email your examples of greenwash to greenwash@guardian.co.uk.

The Carbon Addicts on Capitol Hill March 1, 2009

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The Capitol Hill Power Plant.

The Capitol Hill Power Plant. (By Jahi Chikwendiu — The Washington Post)

By BILL McKIBBEN Middlebury, Vt.

Sunday, March 1, 2009; Page C07 , Washington Post

 

Washington has seen its share of big protests over the years, and most of them center on the White House, the Mall or the Capitol. That will change tomorrow, when the first big protest of the Obama era — and the first mass civil disobedience against global warming in this country — will take place against the not-very-scenic backdrop of the Capitol Hill Power Plant, a dirty symbol of the dirtiest business on Earth, the combustion of coal.

In that one plant — owned and operated by our senators and representatives — you can see all the filth that comes with coal. There are the particulates it spews into the air and hence the lungs of those Washington residents who enjoy breathing. There are the profits it hands to the coal industry, which is literally willing to level mountains across West Virginia and Kentucky to increase its fat margins. And most of all there is the invisible carbon dioxide it spews each day into the atmosphere, drying our forests, melting our glaciers and acidifying our oceans.

The power plant is only a symbol, of course — a lunch counter or a bus station in the fight for environmental justice. We’ll sit down at its gates for a single afternoon, but the message is much larger: It’s time to start figuring out how to shut down every coal-fired plant on the planet. Success won’t come right away because we’re up against some of the world’s richest corporations, but we have to start turning this tanker around someday, and tomorrow is that day.

This may seem like an odd time to take to the streets — after all, the new administration has done more in a month to fight global warming than all the presidents of the past 20 years. But in fact, it’s the perfect moment. For one thing, our leaders may actually listen — in the anti-science years of the Bush administration, global warming activists concentrated their work on state capitols, knowing that the federal government would never budge. Now, if we demonstrate that there’s real public pressure, we may give the Democratic Congress and the White House some room to act.

More to the point, the time not to act is running out. Climate science has grown steadily darker in the past 18 months, ever since the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice in the summer of 2007 showed scientists that change was coming faster than they’d reckoned. That message was underlined recently at the Washington meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, when Stanford researcher Christopher Field said: “We are basically looking now at a future climate that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulations.” Our foremost climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, has given that future a number — any level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere beyond 350 parts per million, his team has demonstrated, is “incompatible with the planet on which civilization developed.”

Since we’re already past that number — the carbon dioxide level is at 387 parts per million — the fight is on. Indeed, by Hansen’s calculation, the world will need to be out of the coal-burning business by 2030, and the West much sooner than that, if we’re ever going to get back to 350. It’s no accident that he’s announced he’ll be on hand to get arrested. So will Gus Speth, who ran the United Nations Development Programme, and the farmer and author Wendell Berry who has seen the devastation of his native Kentucky, and many more.

Getting the planet off coal — getting the planet back to 350 — will be the main political and economic challenge for the lifetimes of those college students. Those of us who are older won’t live long enough to see the final victory, but we can help get it started, by lobbying, by writing e-mails — and by sitting down in the street on an afternoon in March.

The writer is a a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and is co-founder of 350.org.