COPENHAGEN – One of the stranger spectacles of the climate change debate was the sight, earlier this month, of NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen marching hand-in-hand with Hollywood actress Darryl Hannah outside the Capitol Coal Power Plant in Washington, DC.
Hansen promised to brave arrest at what was billed as the world’s largest direct-action climate change protest. Instead, the worst snowstorm in three years reduced the size of the crowd, prevented special guests from arriving, and hindered efforts to use a solar panel to light up a protest billboard. The police reportedly told the crowd that they didn’t want to arrest anybody who didn’t want to be arrested, and nobody was.
That didn’t stop the protesters from proclaiming the event a success. “VICTORY: THIS IS HOW TO STOP GLOBAL WARMING,” declared the Web site of Capitol Climate Action. And, indeed, the US House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader called on the Architect of the Capitol to stop using coal for the Capitol Power Plant (albeit days before the rally). But if stopping global warming were this easy, I – and everybody I know – would be painting placards for the next round of direct action.
Hansen condemns coal-fired power plants as “death factories,” and his belief that coal is evil is widely shared. It is also obviously wrong. If we were to stop using coal tomorrow, we would discover that it remains a vital source of life. Coal accounts for almost half of the planet’s electricity supply, including half the power consumed in the United States. Coal keeps hospitals and core infrastructure running, provides warmth and light in winter, and makes life-saving air conditioning available in summer. In China and India, where coal accounts for about 80% of power generation, it has helped to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.