Go to Wikipedia’s “civil disobedience” entry and you come face to face with a portrait of Gandhi, who helped India win independence from Great Britain. You’ll also read about Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay his taxes to protest the Mexican War. There’s mention of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement as well. And way down the list, there’s even a tiny paragraph about civil disobedience and climate change.
The latter section quotes Nobel Peace Prize winner (and former Vice President) Al Gore, who said at a Sept. 24, 2008, session of the Clinton Global Initiative, “We have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.”
Asheville resident David Williams took up the challenge, joining hundreds who rallied at Duke Energy’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters April 20 to protest the company’s coal-fired Cliffside power plant. “The plan was to deliver a statement of conscience about global climate change,” says Williams, a gardener by profession who’s also a member of The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit environmental group, and co-chair of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Asheville’s Peace and Environmental Justice Committee.
No stranger to organized dissent, Williams joined the Peace Corps in 1974 to protest the Vietnam War draft, and he’s been quietly outspoken ever since. On March 2, he joined at least a dozen Asheville residents at a climate-change protest in D.C. “I’d rather call them rallies, [because] our message is more positive,” he notes. “It’s not that we’re against [the new facility at] Cliffside as much as we’re for clean air, and that means phasing out coal-fired plants.”
Despite an onslaught of legal challenges by environmental groups, Duke is building a new unit to replace four existing ones at Cliffside. The utility says the new unit will emit fewer toxins and less CO2 than the older ones, resulting in significantly reduced total emissions of key pollutants, and should thus be classified as a minor pollution source. And though a federal judge threatened to stop construction if Duke didn’t undergo a stringent review process, state officials recently agreed to the minor-source designation. Environmental groups have renewed efforts to get the North Carolina Utilities Commission to overturn its approval of the new unit, and the commission will soon hear the case.
But the Charlotte rally, says Williams, was all about broadcasting the message. The well-organized event drew students, citizens in suits, an 82-year-old grandmother, environmentalists, residents affected by the coal industry and more. Gathering in a park near Duke’s headquarters, they heard speeches about mountaintop-removal mining in West Virginia and Kentucky (about half of North Carolina’s power plants are coal-fired, and those states supply much of that fuel). There were signs (“Stop Cliffside! No Coal !” and “Clean Energy Now!”). Police whizzed around on Segway Personal Transporters, and the Asheville contingent displayed a large, yellow sun puppet on a pole, representing the hopes for cleaner, safer air. “We got lots of attention, carrying ‘Sunny’ for three blocks through downtown Charlotte,” Williams reports.
The focal point was presenting Gov. Bev Purdue’s office and Duke officials with letters demanding that Cliffside be stopped. The other point was getting arrested. At least 40 protesters, including the 82-year-old, were taken away in handcuffs, hauled off in paddy wagons, fingerprinted and jailed for several hours.
Among those arrested was Canary Coalition Executive Director Avram Friedman. “It’s not necessarily about doing something illegal, but anything that tests the authority of those in power,” he explains. While agreeing with Gore’s call for action, however, Friedman differs on a key point: Carbon sequestration, he maintains, is an expensive, dangerous and largely untested proposition. Another high-tech approach—converting coal into a gas for producing electricity—is also problematic at best, perhaps creating greater volumes of toxic coal ash. Energy efficiency and renewable sources are much better options that might reduce—if not remove—the need for new coal-fired plants, says Friedman. Cliffside, meanwhile, “is the same old process that’s been around since the dawn of the industrial era. It will produce 6 million tons of CO2 in the next 50 years.”
And while environmental leaders strategize to stop Cliffside, Williams highlights another angle. “Something else I learned in D.C. and Charlotte that’s a real shift: All the new technologies are bypassing the media.” When Williams arrived at one protest, the national Fox News truck was already pulling away, having taken their quick shots and moved on, he recounts. Rallygoers, however, Twittered and blogged both before and during the event, spreading the word far more effectively than the standard mass-media approach, he says. “We’re trying to tell as many people as possible about climate-change issues, and we’re getting the word out.”
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