Slouching Toward Golgotha

By Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News

[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]

globeMost 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 world.

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 points:

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.

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  • Posted on Oct. 5, 2008. Listed in:

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