Kelly Mitchell's adrenaline surged as she began her ascent up the 450-foot smoke stack at the Fisk coal-fired power plant in Chicago. Wearing a tight-fitting safety harness and loaded down with industrial climbing gear, Mitchell, along with seven other activists from Greenpeace, scaled the stack at the break of dawn on Tuesday in order to paint "Quit Coal" in bright yellow on the side of the towering structure.
Greenpeace coordinated this action—the most high profile anti-coal protest the group has orchestrated in the United States—to protest both the local problems associated with coal-fired power generation (air pollution that causes sickness and death) and its aggregate contributions to global warming as a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions.
While Greenpeace is demanding that Fisk and the nearby Crawford plant be shut down, it is also sending a message to other parts of the environmental and climate justice movements. In the wake of failed efforts to push Congress to pass comprehensive climate change legislation, many in the movement—not least those perched atop the smoke stack at Fisk—argue it is time for more radical tactics.
Halfway up the stack, Mitchell took phone calls from the media and explained her participation: "We need bold action. Air pollution and climate change are urgent problems that are not being addressed by our leaders, whether they are in government or business. I hope this action can bring attention to that need for urgency."
The Fisk and Crawford plants are the largest single sources of air pollution in Chicago. Together, these two plants spew thousands of tons of soot, mercury, and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur into the atmosphere and are directly responsible for forty-two deaths, 720 asthma attacks and sixty-six heart attacks annually, according to a September 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force .
Fisk and Crawford emit millions of tons of heat trapping carbon dioxide, too, placing them among the nation's leading stationary contributors to global warming. Think of them as an around-the-clock, Los Angeles–style traffic snarl, where tens of thousands of motorists are revving their engines and going absolutely nowhere.
And its been going on for several decades.
Fisk began generating power in 1903, Crawford in 1924. They've both been rebuilt since, but because construction took place prior to passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, the plants are able to operate without widely used technologies for reducing air pollution.
These days, Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of California-based Edison International, owns and operates these aging relics. Edison—ironically enough—features images of wind turbines, solar panels and smart electric meters on its corporate website .
"Edison actually does a lot of good stuff," Mitchell says into her cell phone as hicago police begin to gather far below. "Edison is the largest purchaser of renewable energy of any American utility. They are phasing out coal power out West. Yet, while they promote this green image nationally, they are operating one of the dirtiest coal fleets in the country—in this case right in the middle of a major city."
While the Greenpeace action seeks to push Edison to close the Fisk and Crawford facilities, viewed in a national context, its use of nonviolent direct-action tactics also represents a decisive break from how the mainstream environmental movement has advocated for its agenda over the past years. The climate bill's failure has many activists questioning the point of pressing for legislation in DC, especially when most of it is likely to be watered down to the point of uselessness.
Confrontational tactics targeting the coal industry and the financial institutions that bankroll it, meanwhile, have proved to be remarkably successful in preventing the construction of new coal-fired power plants and have helped to cast the coal industry as an environmental pariah. National organizations like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), Rising Tide North America and a dozen or so smaller, grassroots community groups in the mountains of Appalachia and Wyoming's Powder River Basin have blockaded coalfields and disrupted the shareholder meetings of the nation's leading banks. These actions hit the coal industry on multiple fronts, from the point of production to its access to lines of credit, exposing a mighty industry to frequent public scrutiny, and severely curtailing its ability to expand.
But the electric utility and fossil fuel industries remain strong in the halls of political power. During the 2010 election cycle, the electric utility lobby contributed nearly $20 million to individual candidates and political action committees. The coal industry chipped in another nearly $8 million . Add to this mix of influence-peddling contributions from the oil and gas sector, along with right-wing boosters like the Koch brothers, and it becomes easy to see the matrix of interests standing in the way of comprehensive energy and environmental reforms. Its no wonder, many environmentalists are saying, that Congress hasn't passed a climate bill, or a clean energy bill, or greatly increased oversight of offshore oil drilling or ended fossil fuel subsidies.
Rebecca Tarbotton, Executive Director at RAN, says the Chicago action is part of an emerging trend. "With the failures of federal legislative strategies, there's a return to seeing how we can actually put pressure on specific private actors, in tandem with building real political power and real momentum for climate organizing around the country."
But this is not, Tarbotton adds, a retreat from the fight for federal action on climate and the environment. "I actually think the shift we're seeing toward more direct action, more community based organizing will very much determine whether or not we will be able to pass national climate policy in a couple of years time," she adds.
Nearly 500 coal-fired power plants remain in use in the US. Most of them, like Fisk and Crawford, are very old and very dirty. According to the most recent government data on domestic electricity production, coal-powered generation fell by nearly 12 percent between 2008 and 2009. The question now is, Will the work of Greenpeace, RAN, and other increasingly confrontational groups hasten the coal industry's permanent retirement?