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Unitarian Universalists promote clean energy on Capitol Hill

Thousands of young people gather in Washington to lobby for changes in energy policy.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Capitol Climate Action protest

Capitol Climate Action activists stand before federal police blocking the gates of Capitol power plant in Washington, DC, March 2, 2009. (Pete Muller/Greenpeace. Courtesy of capitolclimateaction via Flickr)

In late February more than 12,000 young people converged on Washington, D.C., to learn about, lobby against, and protest industries contributing to global warming at a four-day conference called Power Shift ’09. On the last day, March 2, in an independently organized civil disobedience action, about 2,500 activists blockaded Capitol Hill’s coal-fired power plant.

Unitarian Universalist youth were well represented at both events.

“We’re seeing the birth of a climate justice movement,” said Jared Duval, 25, a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. “It’s about addressing the climate crisis at the same time that we renew our economy so that everyone, including lower income and communities of color that have traditionally been left behind, can be included.”

For the Rev. Fred Small, senior minister of First Parish in Cambridge, Mass., who spoke on a “Faith, Justice, Morality, and Climate Change” panel, the big story was the resurgence of youth activism and protest tactics reminiscent of the 1960s.

“Climate change and environmental justice are beginning to mobilize and radicalize youth in ways that we have not seen in decades,” said Small, who is also cochair of Religious Witness for the Earth, a national interfaith environmental advocacy network. “In the 1960s youth faced the prospect of killing and being killed in Vietnam. Now we have the looming catastrophe of global warming. Again, there is an inescapable threat to the very lives and futures of young people. They see the train bearing down, and they’re trying to stop it. Just as in the 1960s, it took mass civil disobedience to motivate Congress, and that may be what has to happen now.”

Organizers called the March 2 blockade the largest mass action ever held in the United States against global warming. Protestors, including author-environmentalists Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry, had to brave a snowstorm, frigid temperatures, and bitter winds for the march. They then blocked the entrances to the plant that heats and cools several Capitol Hill buildings, including House and Senate offices, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and Union Station.

The activists anticipated some arrests, which would have increased the visibility of both the event and the issue of the high pollution levels generated by coal plants. However, no arrests were made.

Power plant managers changed the shift times that afternoon, with the result that no employees needed to go in or out of the building during the four-hour blockade. Fred Small, who had volunteered to be arrested, said police simply waited out the participants. “In warmer weather we could have stayed for a long time and forced arrests,” he said, “but it was just too cold Monday.”

Still, Small said, “it was a very inspiring day. We had people who came from coal-producing communities in Appalachia, indigenous people from the southwestern United States and Australia, people from urban communities affected by pollution, and a growing number of youth who see this issue as their own.”

This year the 12,000 Power Shift conference attendees came from all 50 states and represented greater racial diversity, reports Jared Duval, who is the former director of the national student chapter of the Sierra Club and has helped organize earlier conferences. At the first Power Shift conference in 2007, about 5,000 to 6,000 young people attended, and participants came mostly from the East and West coasts.

The power plant blockade was an important step for the movement, Duval said. “People were willing to be arrested because it is past time for our actions to reflect the urgency of the situation.”

The blockade started having an effect even in the planning process. The previous Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wrote a letter asking the Acting Architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, to switch the power plant from coal to natural gas by the end of 2009. The plant is already equipped to burn natural gas, which produces about half as much greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier efforts to remove coal from the plant’s fuel mixture were blocked by legislators such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, both coal-producing states.

Also on that Monday, Power Shift participants made about 350 visits to congressional offices, and several youth addressed the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

Meg Klepack, 27, who attends the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vt., visited the offices of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch, both of Vermont. “That wasn’t hard at all,” she said. “These people are really our heroes on these issues.” The conference helped energize her for her work with an organic farming association—and to do more on other issues, including climate change. “This was about what we can all do when we go home,” she said.

Ben Ramsden-Stein, 24, a community organizer from Eugene, Oreg., and a member of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose, commented, “It was really inspiring to me to see so much passion among the youth. There was an overwhelming sense this is an issue that we can make a difference with and that the time to do it is now. It’s up to us to hold our public officials accountable.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Ind., had chartered a bus to take 21 people to the blockade but had to cancel because of the snowstorm. Indiana gets 95 percent of its electricity from coal, coordinator Marcia Veldman said. “As a result, we have more coal ash piled up than many other states,” she said. “As a state, we’re one of the biggest polluters because of the coal we burn. So we feel a certain level of responsibility to do something.”

The growing climate-justice movement has staged several other civil disobedience actions at coal-fired plants in the past year. In November 2008 six activists, including a rabbi, were arrested for blocking the entrance to a power plant in Montgomery County, Md. In April 2008 eight people were arrested after chaining themselves to construction equipment at a North Carolina plant. More than 50 were arrested at a plant in the United Kingdom in August and 90 in the Netherlands in November.

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