Photo: Greenpeace USA 2011
Earlier today, I set out to cover Greenpeace USA's first major act of civil disobedience against coal in quite some time. Activists unfurled a giant banner atop the Bridgeport Harbor coal plant with the words 'Shut it Down: Quit Coal' stamped across it. Unfortunately, I ended up spending most of the morning detained by police -- who wrongfully suspected I was involved in the protest -- instead of reporting on the significance of the event itself. I was released without charges (big surprise) after being held up for an hour and a half, and was able to spend the rest of the day covering the action. It's important to understand why Greenpeace did this today, and targeted the Bridgeport coal plant -- and why the event will serve as a major hallmark in the next wave of the climate movement.
Photos: Brian Merchant
Why Target Bridgeport?
Bridgeport Harbor is an aging, inefficient plant -- it's 40 years old -- and it isn't necessary to provide power to Connecticut's grid. Yet it emits 3 million tons of carbon emissions every year, as well as 2,800 tons of toxic sulfur dioxide, 2,200 tons of nitrous oxide, and 50 lbs of mercury. The coal plant literally casts a shadow upon a low-income section of Bridgeport, where 1 in 4 residents have asthma. Health experts estimate that at least one death a year in the city can be attributed to the coal plant's noxious emissions.
I spoke to one such resident, who both lived and worked just one block away from the massive plant. Rosa Melgar, who runs Leo's Spanish Restaurant, said that nobody had ever told her that the plant posed health risks.
"I didn't know it was dangerous," she said. "Nobody ever told us anything." She also says that few people in the community that she knows of are aware of any health hazards, either. But those hazards are very real indeed -- emissions from coal plants can cause respiratory illness, cancer, and asthma, among other ills.
Furthermore, all the coal that the 400 MW plant burns is imported from Indonesia, where it is mined by workers who enjoy low wages and few human rights, at an estimated cost of $79 million per shipment. Essentially, the plant epitomizes all that's wrong with coal-power in modern America -- it spews copious amounts of carbon emissions, poses an immediate risk to public health, is inefficient, expensive, and old.
"It's low-hanging fruit," Robert Gardener, Greenpeace coal campaigner says. As the activist group is now aiming squarely to shutter coal plants, Gardener says that Greenpeace will focus on similar plants for future demonstrations -- especially plants that can be replaced with renwable energy. "We're very interested in taking things offline. In the future, we'll be very interested in taking things online," he said.
Environmental leaders have been wondering over the last few years why more people aren't engaging in serious civil disobedience to stop coal plants -- Al Gore mentioned the thought a couple of years ago, in a comment that was needlessly deemed controversial. Pioneering climate scientist James Hansen has now been arrested on more than one occasion protesting mountaintop removal coal mining.
But civil disobedience targeting coal by and large hasn't gone anywhere near mainstream (aside from regionally, thanks to the great work activist groups do in Appalachia, especially on MTR). Despite the fact that there's a strong argument to be made that coal poses the greatest threat to the global environment, the stuff retains an ambiguous station amongst the attitudes of the American public. Most people just don't care too much about coal, one way or the other -- the coal industry's not like Big Oil, after all, with its nefarious lobbying influence, shady business deals, and tendency for putting profits above the well-being of the environment and the American public.
Except that it's all of those things. But coal doesn't suffocate pretty animals in blackened goo. Now, that may be a bit reductive, but the fact remains that burning coal is one of the most destructive practices we engage in as a species -- yet we're largely apathetic about the practice (this certainly has to do with the US public's lack of engagement with climate science). And since Congress is flat-out ignoring any attempt to address climate change with legislation, since much of our political leadership has stooped to actually attacking the EPA, it may be go time: Engaging coal head-on with a major activist movement is one of the few options left on the table for bringing about major carbon emission reductions in a meaningful way before global warming reaches a tipping point. People need to see coal plants shut down, and they need to understand why it's happening.
Which is why the next wave of the climate movement, of which Greenpeace's coal campaign will be a major pillar, will be more important than any wave before it. Our politicians have failed us thus far, and the fossil fuel industry maintains its iron grip on our energy supply -- they'll continue to push the same dirty energy policies that make our nation sick and contribute mightily to climate change. It's time to push back.
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