Rachel's Democracy & Health News #978  [Printer-friendly version]
September 25, 2008


[Rachel's introduction: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of
young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from
constructing coal-fired power plants." -- Al Gore]

By Peter Montague

Most of my friends want to deny it, but the evidence is compelling:
the U.S. and Europe are aggressively advancing the only real plan
they've ever had for "solving" the global warming problem. Their
plan -- their only published plan -- is to capture carbon
dioxide (CO2) gas, compress it into a liquid, and pump it a mile below
ground, hoping it will stay there forever. It will be the largest
hazardous waste disposal program ever undertaken. Sometimes the plan
is called CCS (short for "carbon capture and sequestration") but
mostly it's known by its gimmicky PR name "clean coal."

On paper, the plan seems simple enough: Bury trillions of tons of
hazardous CO2 in the ground. They tell us it will work even though its
never been tested. But what if they're wrong? What if it leaks? If
that happens, they've got no Plan B. Sorry, kids, we used up your

The U.S. and Europe have painted the whole planet into a corner: by
denying or ignoring global warming science for more than 20 years and
refusing to take precautionary action, political "leaders" have
allowed the problem to grow so large that it now threatens the future
of civilization.

To be cynically frank, the CCS plan has three big things going
for it:

** First, after the stuff is pumped underground, it will be out of
sight and out of mind, no one will know for sure where it is, and
there will be no way to get it back. Problem solved. If it starts to
leak out a few miles away from the injection site and the leakage is
somehow miraculously discovered, chances are that nothing can be done
about it, so we might as well forget the whole thing. It's a done
deal, so eat, drink, and be merry -- just as we've been doing for the
past 30 years.

** Second, with CCS as our "solution," no one important has to change
anything they're now doing -- the coal, oil, automobile, railroad,
mining and electric power corporations can continue on their present
path undisturbed -- and no doubt they will reward Congress handsomely
for being so "reasonable." Everyone knows that's how the system works.
No one even bothers to deny it.

** Third, CCS cannot actually be tested; it will always require a leap
of faith. Even though the goal is to keep CO2 buried in the ground
forever, in human terms any test will have to end on some particular
day in the not-too-distant future. On that day the test will be
declared a "success" -- but leakage could start the following day. So,
given the goal of long-term storage, no short-term test can ever prove
conclusive. CCS will always rest on a foundation of faith; and, in the
absence of conclusive tests, those with the greatest persuasive powers
($$) have the upper hand.

Two weeks ago the Germans inaugurated the world's first coal-fired
power plant designed to bury its CO2 in the ground as an experiment.
As New Scientist magazine told us last March, "In Germany, only CCS
can make sense of an energy policy that combines a large number of new
coal-fired power stations with plans for a 40 per cent cut in CO2
emissions by 2020." In other words, the Germans hitched their wagon to
a CCS solution long before they designed the first experiment to see
if it could work. With the future of the German economy dependent on
the outcome, it seems unlikely that this first little experiment will
be announced as a failure. Like us, the Germans are playing Russian
roulette with the future of the planet.

This week saw several new developments:

** A study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences clarified that our past carbon emissions have already
committed the world to an unavoidable temperature rise of 4.3 degrees
Fahrenheit (2.4 C.) -- with the true number perhaps as low as 2.5
Fahrenheit (1.4 C.) or as high as 7.7 Fahrenheit (4.3 C.). This is
global warming that is already "in the system" and cannot be reversed
no matter what we do. One degree Fahrenheit (0.6 C.) of this
"committed warming" has already occurred; the other 3.3 Fahrenheit
(1.8 C.) will build up as the century unfolds. It's likely to be very
unpleasant and very costly but it's already too late to do anything
about it. Sorry, kids. Perhaps a little humor can make us feel better
(this from the New York Times June 1, 2008);

Three words from our elders: We are toast.

** Another important study came out this week, this one from the
American Physical Society -- the professional association for the
nation's 46,000 physicists. It made a couple of really crucial

1. In case you had any lingering doubts, it said the physics and
chemistry behind the human causes of climate change -- such as
heat-trapping pollution from the burning of fossil fuels -- is
"well-understood and beyond dispute."

2. It said the need for action now is "urgent." But what kind of
action? Burying carbon dioxide in the ground? No.

"The bottom line is that the quickest way to do something about
America's use of energy is through energy efficiency," said Burton
Richter, the chairman of the study panel and a 1976 Nobel Prize winner
in physics. "Energy that you don't use is free. It's not imported and
it doesn't emit any greenhouse gases. Most of the things we recommend
don't cost anything to the economy. The economy will save money."

** Of course Democrats in Congress joined Republicans in ignoring
the advice of the nation's 46,000 physicists. Instead, they voted to
end the 26-year-old ban on drilling for oil on the nation's coastal
waters (both Atlantic and Pacific coasts, plus they ended a ban on oil
shale drilling in the Rocky Mountain states) -- thus promising to
prolong and worsen the global warming problem. Sorry, kids.

** The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced this week it is
offering an $8 billion subsidy for "clean coal" demonstrations. (As a
sign of the appalling collapse of governmental independence, the DOE
is now parroting the coal industry's loony slogan, "clean coal.") The
coal companies are unwilling to put up their own money to start
burying CO2 in the ground, so Uncle Sam is using our money to
do it. Actually, federal money is increasingly borrowed these days, so
it is actually our children's money that is funding this game
of Russian roulette with the future of the planet. A double whammy.
Sorry, kids.

** Next week U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) holds the
first of two public hearings on its proposed "regulation" of carbon
capture and sequestration (CCS) -- in Chicago Sept. 30 and Denver Oct.
2. But what's the point? EPA has already announced that CCS is a
splendid idea. The agency's CCS web site says (evidently with a
straight face), "With proper site selection and management, geologic
sequestration could play a major role in reducing emissions of CO2."
(As we saw a couple of weeks ago, to sequester even 10% of today's
CO2 would require an infrastructure of pipelines and chemical
processing plants larger than the entire global petroleum industry.
Who's going to "properly" manage such a kluged-together behemoth? EPA?
DOE? Perhaps the wizards of Wall Street?)

Despite the absence of experiments, demonstrations or data, the EPA
chief is already firmly on board the CCS Express. Stephen L. Johnson
said in 2007 [2.4 Mbyte PDF], "By harnessing the power of geologic
sequestration technology, we are entering a new age of clean energy
where we can be both good stewards of the Earth, and good stewards of
the American economy." Clearly, we cannot look to EPA for careful
scrutiny of this untried technology, on which we are betting the farm.

No, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already cast aside
all doubts about CCS and is prancing with pom poms -- ready to bet the
future of humankind on this untested and untestable technology. Those
of us who were around -- and were even naively enthusiastic -- when
EPA was created by Richard Nixon back in 1970 can only say, with
genuine shame and regret, "Sorry, kids."

** This week, Al Gore once again called for civil disobedience to stop
the construction of new coal plants. The New York Times reports that
Gore told an audience in New York September 24, 2008:

"If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and
looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe 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." Since no coal plants have carbon capture
and sequestration, Mr. Gore was calling for an end to all coal plants,
as he soon made clear:

According to the Times, "Mr. Gore said the civil disobedience should
focus on 'stopping the construction of new coal plants,' which he said
would add tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere -- despite 'half a
billion dollars' worth of advertising by the coal and gas industry'
claiming otherwise. He added, 'Clean coal does not exist.'"

"Clean coal does not exist." Now there's a refreshing blast of simple
honesty. The phrase "clean coal" was invented as a public relations
gambit by the coal industry to bamboozle regulators and legislators
into approving construction of new dirty coal plants. If the deciders
can be convinced that some day a fancy end-of-pipe "clean coal" filter
might be tacked onto today's dirty coal plants, then imaginary "clean
coal" takes on an important reality: it becomes the crucial gimmick
that allows more dirty coal plants to be built today even though
everyone acknowledges they are destroying our future. And if the
"clean coal" filter never materializes because it turns out to be too
complicated or too unreliable or too costly or too leaky? Sorry, kids.

Yes, kids, the system is rigged. The fossil corporations claim the
right to burn all the fossil fuels they own, no matter the cost
to the rest of us. And of course they've got the state violence
apparatus on their side (judges, police, national guard). To
accomplish their goal, they have paid off Congress -- Republicans
and Democrats (all perfectly legal, of course, through
"campaign contributions"). And yes, all of them know your future is
being sacrificed, but they don't care. They simply don't care.

But the system has been rigged before. It was rigged against all
people of color, against women, against workers, and against children
chained to machines in "dark, satanic mills." But in each of those
cases, people marched; they picketed; they demonstrated; they took to
the streets in hordes; they stuck wooden shoes into the gears of the
industrial machine; they flushed pocket combs down toilets to stop up
the works; they stashed stinking fish in safe deposit boxes to unnerve
the bankers; they sat in restaurants and public libraries and college
offices and industrial workplaces and they refused to budge; they
conducted strikes and walk-outs and they sat down on the job; they
faced dogs and fire hoses and guns and clubs and jail; they chained
themselves to fences, they prayed, they sang; in short, they got
courageous and creative and obstreperous and disobedient. They pushed
the system until it fell over and changed.

In sum, they refused to allow their future to be crucified on the
altar of the almighty Dollar.

And now that spirit is rising again.

Item: In early July a dozen protestors shut down rush hour traffic
in Richmond, Virginia to protest Dominion Virginia Power's plan for a
new $1.8 billion coal plant in Wise, in southern Virginia.

Item: Protestors sat in at the headquarters of AMP-Ohio in Columbus
July 8 opposing the construction of a coal plant in Meigs County.
Eight people occupied the headquarters lobby while another 40 people
pressed against the door to the building, obstructing the entrance.
Police said they maced "about 20 people," but denied accusations that
they had used tasers.

Item: In late July an estimated 500 activists gathered in Coburg,
Oregon for a week-long "climate action convergence camp" aimed at
"low-impact living and high-impact action" -- learning a more
sustainable lifestyle and successful protest tactics, including
civil disobediance. Similar convergence camps were reportedly going on
this summer in New York, Virginia, England, Germany, Australia,
Denmark, Russia, and New Zealand.

Item: In August, 50 protesters marched noisily through downtown
Richmond, Va., on their way to the headquarters of Massey Energy --
the nation's second-largest coal corporation.

Item: In early September six Greenpeace protestors were acquitted by
a jury in England, despite having caused at estimated $76,000 dollars
in damage to the Kingsnorth power station in Kent. During an eight-day
trial, the six Greenpeacers argued that they were justified in
shutting down coal-fired power plants because of the larger danger
posed to the planet by coal emissions. The jury agreed, in a decision
that rocked the system to its foundations.

In Australia, it was reported this way:

"In a decision that will send chills down corporate spines across
Britain, the jury decided the dangers of global warming were so
enormous that the Greenpeace campaigners were justified in trying to
close down Kingsnorth power station in Kent. Jurors at Maidstone Crown
Court cleared the six activists of criminal damage, accepting they had
a 'lawful excuse' to damage the Kingsnorth property to try to
prevent the even greater damage of climate change...."

Think of that, kids. An English jury concluded that you've got a
lawful excuse to try to shut down coal plants in your role as
guardians of the future.

"This verdict marks a tipping point for the climate change movement,"
said Ben Stewart, one of the defendants. "If jurors from the heart of
Middle England say it's legitimate for a direct action group to shut
down a coal-fired power station because of the harm it does to our
planet, where does that leave government energy policy?"

Civil disobediance to stop coal is not an idea that Mr. Gore dreamed
up yesterday. He's been recommending it for some time. A year ago he
said, "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people
blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired
power plants." So, for some time now, Mr. Gore has been trying to tell
us all something important: Our situation is dire. Our future is
threatened. It's time for a new approach. It's time to act.

One last thing, kids. As a historian I can tell you that nothing
having to do with justice in the United States has ever been
accomplished without civil disobedience. Nothing. Not one thing. So Al
Gore is right. It's necessary. It's justified. And it's time.