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Confronting Coal: Next Steps for the Climate Justice Movement

Joshua Kahn Russell
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

Despite the freezing snow, on March 2, 2009, around 4,000 people gathered at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC. Although most had never been to a demonstration of any kind before, more than 2,000 risked arrest through nonviolent civil disobedience that day.

People from communities most directly impacted by coal’s lifecycle—from Navajo reservations in the Southwest, to Appalachian towns in the Southeast—led the march. With vibrant multicolored flags depicting windmills, people planting gardens, waves crashing, and captions like “community,” “security,” “change,” and “power,” we sat-in to blockade five entrances to the power plant that literally fuels Congress. We called it the Capitol Climate Action (CCA). Police ended up overwhelmed by our numbers and decided not to arrest any of the participants. CCA was the largest action on climate in the history of our young movement.

New coalitions

In the US the fossil fuel industry employs over 2,340 corporate lobbyists pushing false solutions (nuclear, “clean” coal, industrial agrofuels, and others) that devastate communities and shape legislation. They represent the stranglehold that the dirty fossil fuel industry—and coal industry in particular—has on our government, economy, and future. Burning coal is the single biggest contributor to global warming. We will not be able to solve the climate crisis or build a clean energy economy without breaking its hold.

2009 is crucial, and not just because of the terrifying tipping points that scientists describe. The political window to pass necessary science-based, binding climate legislation is growing increasingly urgent as we march toward the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen this December. This year the Kyoto agreements expire, and the world will be watching to see if a new international deal will be struck.

In anticipation of this narrow timeline, people’s movements are beginning to build some unlikely alliances within a broad framework of political actors.

The CCA sought to anchor an outside action arm of this spectrum. The role of such an anchor is to help shift the center of political conversation in the US further to the left. As part of the spectrum, we offer a holistic narrative and program of solutions to intersecting crises: ecological, economic, and political. The mistakes and successes of the CCA in March are instructive for building a movement that is both broad-based, politically savvy, as well as bold in demanding genuine community-based solutions.

The number of direct actions confronting the coal industry has sharply increased over the past few years. Campaigns have been organized and carried out by a polycentric global network of student organizers, frontline communities, radical environmentalists, and traditional nonprofits. In the United States, communities have been using nonviolent direct action to confront coal at all stages of its lifecycle: finance, extraction, transport, burning, and energy consumption. The Capitol Climate Action presented organizers with the opportunity to connect these struggles more publicly, transcending traditional single-issue organizing platforms that many NGOs put forward, and help build momentum to tackle our political challenges looming in 2009.

At CCA, communities impacted by mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia mobilized their base to travel to DC. Indigenous communities resisting strip mining and resource theft from the Southwest United States and from Canada joined them. Folks suffering from asthma and pollution caused by coal-burning plants in cities also played a role and were joined and supported by the bulk of the action, as well as thousands of others (primarily white youth and students, but also scientists, religious congregations, families, teachers, celebrities, and others), most new to this movement.

Organizers from four national/regional nonprofit organizations (Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and the Ruckus Society) comprised the CCA organizing core. These were not community-based organizations, but rather sought to act in solidarity with frontline groups. CCA organizers consulted such communities throughout the build-up, and we invited these groups to lead the march and become spokespeople for the action. It was a mixed model whereby organizers employed by resourced organizations sought to leverage that access for broad grassroots objectives.

Capitol Climate Action

We had three “big picture” goals with the Capitol Climate Action:

1) Change the national conversation on climate.

We wanted to get sympathetic mainstream media coverage, with a climate justice framework that highlighted coal as a driver of global warming. Within a single media cycle, we had positive pieces in the Associated Press, TIME Magazine, CNN, USA Today, New York Times blogs, Democracy Now!, The Nation, and a host of others. The action generated over 700 media stories.

2) Press the new administration and Congress for bolder climate policy in 2009.

This “mid-term” goal is difficult to evaluate just a month after the action, but we are already seeing indications of some success. Three days before our action, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Capitol Power Plant would be converted from coal to natural gas. While our action objectives went well beyond this specific plant, and natural gas is certainly not the solution (it’s an industry-backed false solution), it’s a meaningful step forward that was clearly the direct result of the threat of protest. While Pelosi’s move seemed aimed at taking the wind out of our sails, it had the opposite effect, publicly validating the power and efficacy of grassroots popular pressure.

CCA intentionally coincided with the largest youth lobby day on climate in history, organized by the Power Shift 2009 youth summit. Various reasons prevented us from working explicitly with Power Shift to have a publicly unified approach, which was a missed opportunity to integrate tactics and do thorough political education with participants about the value of inside/outside strategies.

3) Build the climate justice movement and legitimize nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience.

We did not focus on mobilizing seasoned activists. We primarily engaged “passive allies”—people who care about the issue but have not yet taken action. We wanted CCA to be a vehicle through which new people had a transformational first experience and joined the movement.

More than 100 groups publicly endorsed the action, ranging from public health organizations, religious groups, and clean-energy businesses, to grassroots environmental networks, labor groups, and racial justice organizations. These groups helped mobilize a base of mostly first-time activists, who participated in a build-up that trained and briefed more than 2,000 people in civil disobedience, growing the capacity of our movement.

Just three days after the CCA, there was another civil disobedience action at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, and there have been sustained escalating actions since. In the three months after CCA there has been more action on coal than in the previous 14 months combined, including a mass action of hundreds at a Duke Energy facility called the Cliffside Climate Action.

New challenges

CCA navigated a series of new challenges. With so many new participants, we wanted to be deliberate in how we introduced people to the mass action (and be clear that this was not a model for community-led direct actions). After CCA, some of the more seasoned activists critiqued that we did too much controlled handholding and should have escalated further—the lack of arrests rankled some. This has raised meaningful conversations within the environmental community about the utility of arrest in different action scenarios, as well as conversations about organizing models and the roles of nonprofits in mass actions.

Our political landscape is shifting, as is the nature of the environmental movement. Three out of the four environmental “heavy hitters” in the White House are people of color. Environmental leaders with racial justice organizing backgrounds like Van Jones from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are becoming Obama’s advisors, signaling meaningful openings for the Left.

Until now, struggles against the coal industry have primarily centered on preventing the construction of new coal-burning plants. We now need to go after existing coal plants. Here, lessons from the anti-nuclear movement are instructive. Direct actions at plants did not decommission individual nuclear facilities but cumulatively helped create a moratorium on nuclear plant construction that lasted decades.

Groups helping anchor the left-wing of the “emerging progressive majority” are tying conditions to participation. These conditions currently center on economic empowerment and social uplift for communities of color and other impacted peoples, led by a compelling (though easily co-opt-able) call for green jobs. Climate justice organizers can build their leverage in this new political terrain through increased demonstrations of power. The Capitol Climate Action sought to test our limits, and found that we’re ready for more. So let’s push further.

Joshua Kahn Russell is the Grassroots Actions Manager at Rainforest Action Network and was a lead organizer on the Capitol Climate Action

An extended version of this article appears online at Check out for additional photos and video