Over a thousand activists representing a broad alliance of civic groups are converging on Washington, D.C. today for the country’s largest mass civil disobedience against global warming. Dubbed the "Capitol Climate Action," people are demonstrating against coal at the Capitol Hill Power Plant, which still uses coal to heat and cool several key buildings, including House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and Union Station. We speak with two well-known environmentalists: Bill McKibben and Judy Bonds. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: Tens of hundreds of activists representing a broad alliance of civic groups are converging on Washington, D.C. today for the country’s largest mass civil disobedience against global warming. Dubbed the "Capitol Climate Action," people are demonstrating against coal at the Capitol Hill Power Plant, which still uses coal to heat and cool several key buildings, including House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and Union Station.
Last Thursday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid called for the plant to eliminate coal and completely switch to natural gas, which produces about half the greenhouse gas emissions as coal. They called the plant "the number one source of air pollution and carbon emissions" in the nation’s capital. It currently burns about 35 percent coal and the rest natural gas. Earlier efforts to remove coal from the plant’s fuel mixture were thwarted by pro-coal legislators like Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Robert Byrd from West Virginia.
I’m joined right now from Washington, D.C. by two well-known environmentalists who will be at today’s nonviolent direct action at the Capitol Power Plant, willing to be arrested.
Bill McKibben is an environmentalist who frequently writes about global warming and alternative energy, the author of nine books, including Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is co-founder of an environmental mobilization campaign called 350.org.
Julia "Judy" Bonds is an Appalachian environmental activist from West Virginia and the director of Coal River Mountain Watch. She comes from a family of coal miners and won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2003 for leading the fight against mountaintop removal mining.
Welcome to Democracy Now! to both of you. I want to start with Judy Bonds. Tell us about this mass protest today.
JUDY BONDS: Well, basically, I will be a speaker at the mass protest, and I’m very proud to be here today with the youth of America that’s demanding change and demanding that the adults take responsibility for creating a mess. So I’m very much looking forward to today’s mass protest and crossing the line.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about this particular coal plant in Washington, D.C. It may surprise many that there’s a coal plant right there in Washington, D.C. that fuels the capital.
JUDY BONDS: Absolutely. It may surprise many that we’re still burning coal, as most Americans don’t quite understand where their energy comes from. But this coal plant has been used to burn coal to heat the capital with, and my own senator, Senator Byrd, has refused to actually switch over to a cleaner way of burning coal. So this plant burns some coal that comes from West Virginia, as well. And one of the — the coal mine that uses this plant is using underground sludge injection, by underground injecting this sludge, the coal waste, into old abandoned mines, and it’s leaching into people’s well water.
AMY GOODMAN: Judy Bonds, can you talk about how coal mining has affected West Virginia and also about the massive spill that occurred in December?
JUDY BONDS: Coal mining has greatly affected West Virginia. Right now, there’s almost 400,000 acres of mountains that have been lowered, the tops blasted off. They’re using three-and-a-half million pounds of explosives a day just in West Virginia to blow the tops off our mountains, and it’s blasting our homes, it’s poisoning our air, and it’s poisoning our water. So, basically, the people who live where I do, in coal extraction areas, literally are living in terror and are being poisoned by the coal extraction process here.
And even though that West Virginia still relies upon coal for its economy, we should have diversified many, many years ago, about thirty years ago. And we’re calling, you know, for a diversification of our economy. Basically, where I live at, there’s one mountain left, called Coal River Mountain, and it’s slated for mountaintop removal. And we’re proposing a wind farm on top of this mountain in place of mountaintop removal, so that they can still underground mine the coal, but we will have jobs forever, clean, renewable jobs forever and tax revenues forever for our communities, because we think we have about probably anywhere from fifteen to twenty years of coal left in the valley where I live at.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly how mountaintop removal works, Judy Bonds.
JUDY BONDS: Well, basically, the coal industry comes in and cuts all the trees off the top of the mountain, and most of the time they don’t even use the trees. Then they set — they take bulldozers and scrape the wonderful topsoil from the top of the mountain, and then they drill holes and use ammonium nitrate, which Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing, and they load those charges, and then they set a blast off. And it shakes the whole valley.
You know, we can smell and taste the ammonium nitrate and the silica and the coal dust in our mouths in the valleys below, where we live at. So when they set off these blasts, that shakes our homes, and the problem is, it’s pretty hard to go to the bathroom between 4:00 in the evening and 5:00 in the evening, because that’s when they blast. And it’s literally — we feel as if we’re living in a war zone. And we are. And we are. And we just literally live in terror. Our air and our water both are poisoned from the coal mining and the extraction process.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Judy Bonds, a well-known environmentalist from West Virginia, director of the Coal River Mountain Watch. We’ll come back with Judy Bonds and Bill McKibben, then, later in the broadcast, Tavis Smiley. But before that, Democracy Now! producer Nicole Salazar is down in this massive Washington meeting of 12,000 students, Power Shift '09, and we’ll hear some of their voices. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue with the environmental movement, largest mass civil disobedience planned today in US history. Also, a mass meeting took place over the weekend at Washington Convention Center, 12,000 students from around the country, Power Shift ’09. Among those there, Julia Bonds, Appalachian environmental activist, head of Coal River Mountain Watch, and Bill McKibben, an environmentalists, has written many books, co-founder of the environmental mobilization campaign called 350.org.
Bill, welcome, as well, to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of this weekend's meeting. 12,000 students?
BILL McKIBBEN: It’s almost — it’s hard to describe. You know, I wrote the first book about global warming twenty years ago. I’ve spent two decades wondering what the global warming movement was going to look like when it arrived. And this weekend, we’re really finding out. And the answer is, it looks incredibly sweet: 12,000 young people, so fired up, ready to do all that they can to try to slow down this juggernaut of climate change while we still have a very narrow window of opportunity to do so.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about today’s protest and the significance of it. Are you planning to be arrested, Bill McKibben?
BILL McKIBBEN: Yes. I mean, we’re all planning to risk arrest. And it’s going to be a very interesting day. It’s going to be half victory party, you know. After 103 years of burning coal, on Thursday, as you said, Speaker Pelosi and Harry Reid said, “OK, we’ll turn off that coal.” It was a pretty good demonstration of the power of people’s movements, even before we had the protest. So, today we’ll be celebrating the fact that the people of Washington aren’t going to have to breathe that soot and particulates any longer, and we’re also going to be energizing ourselves for the drive to shut down the 600 coal-fired power plants still operating in this country.
This is a very, very, very symbolic moment, a kind of turn. And, you know, it’s funny. The cable news networks and things have been preoccupied all weekend showing the Conservative Political Action Conference across town here in Washington, a few thousand people kind of leftover from the past. And the future was at the Convention Center, with 12,000 young people saying, “We don’t need the fuels of the past like coal, and we don’t need the ideologies of the past that have bankrupted not only the economy but the climate. It’s time for real change.” And you can feel it, feel it. I just hope we’ve started soon enough.
AMY GOODMAN: Judy Bonds, let me ask you something about a federal judge on — a judge in West Virginia on Friday ordering environmentalists to stop peaceful protest against the Massey Energy’s mountaintop removal operations. What’s the significance of this?
JUDY BONDS: Well, basically, it’s very significant because when a coal company actually orders someone to stay off their property, this — the gentleman that they’re ordering to stay off the property, Mike Roselle, has basically told me it’s going to take more than a temporary restraining order to keep him off an illegal activity. He’s exposing exactly what the coal industry is doing to Appalachia and indeed to all of America. So it’s pretty significant. That means that Mike is poking them pretty hard.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill McKibben, 350.org, your organization, explain the title.
BILL McKIBBEN: Can I show off my necktie for a minute? Because they made it for me yesterday down at the art convergence center here, where people are doing incredible placards and things. It’s got that “350” on it, because it’s the most important number in the world. This protest here today is the beginning of an incredible year of activism. The world meets in Copenhagen in December to come up with a new climate treaty, and it’s our last really plausible bite at the apple, I think, to get it right. We now have a number that defines that process.
Jim Hansen at NASA, who I think may be arrested today with us all, said — his team last year said 350 parts per million carbon dioxide is the most we can have in the atmosphere if we wish to retain a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted. Pretty strong language. We’re above that number now. We’re at 387 parts per million and rising.
We need really dramatic action really quickly to bring it down, which is why at 350.org we’re assembling this global grassroots movement. And on October 24th, there will be demonstrations every corner of the world, from high up in the Himalayas to 350 scuba divers underwater in the Great Barrier Reef to people out on Easter Island, the kind of poster child for what happens when you don’t take care of your environment, all trying to get this number across, so that our negotiators actually have some target they have to hit, so that they can’t come back from Copenhagen and just say, “Oh, you know, we’ve reached an agreement.” Not good enough. We’re now up against the wall, and if we don’t get a really strong agreement really soon, then we all might as well not even go through the process.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to an ad that CNN reportedly refused to play last week. It’s about the coal industry and so-called “clean coal.” The website thinkprogress now reports that CNN will be playing the ad this week.
MAN: All so clean!
CLEAN COAL MAN: Is regular clean clean enough for your family? Not when you can have Clean Coal clean! Clean Coal harnesses the awesome power of the word "clean" to make it sound like the cleanest clean there is! Clean Coal is supported by the coal industry, the most trusted name in coal.
AMY GOODMAN: Judy Bonds, your response?
JUDY BONDS: That’s how we live. That dust of gray, black soot that they’re spraying out, that’s basically what’s in our homes and in our lungs. And I’m certainly glad that CNN has changed their mind and will air that ad, because that ad is true. Clean coal is a dirty lie. It’s a dirty lie. Clean coal does not exist. And if people could actually, you know, look at a coal-fired power plant or come to Appalachia and see how they extract coal, then they would understand what we mean when we say clean coal is a dirty lie. They would understand that commercial completely. And I hope, you know, America gets a chance to see more and more and more of this commercial, because I think this commercial is so true about what our children are breathing, too, in the inner cities.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being there. Judy Bonds, thank you for joining us, Appalachian environmental activist from West Virginia, director of Coal River Mountain Watch, and also want to thank Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, among other books, co-founder of the environmental group called 350.org.