November 30, 2009 - A phalanx of NYPD officers on foot and aboard several police vans surrounded the marchers as they walked up Sixth Avenue in the cold rain on Monday, at times pushing people off of the street and back on to the sidewalk. A group of roughly 30 climate activists, joined by award-winning NASA scientist and outspoken climate change expert, James Hansen, chanted as they went: "The earth, the earth, the earth is on fire. We don't need no cap and trade, the market is a liar."
Was it a satellite Goldman Sachs trading office that brought the greens out to the barricades? The Manhattan offices of a large and influential oil or gas company? The downtown penthouse of a Big Coal mogul? Nope. The soggy climate activists were camped out in front of the headquarters of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the largest environmental advocacy groups in the country.
The activists accuse the NRDC of collaborating with polluters through its involvement with the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or U.S. CAP, which is billed on its website as "an alliance of major businesses and leading climate and environmental groups that have come together to call on the federal government to enact legislation requiring significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions." Members of the group include such corporate heavyweights as The Dow Chemical Company, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Shell, Alcoa, BP America and Caterpillar. Other environmental groups involved in the group include Environmental Defense, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and World Resources Institute.
U.S. CAP played a pivotal lobbying role in drafting the massive Waxman-Markey climate bill in the House which, while calling for modest emission reductions, will also create an exponentially lucrative carbon trading market. And many of the largest financial institutions that have been deemed "too big to fail" (Goldman Sachs, Bank of America) are expected to cash in on what some activists have begun to call a new system of "climate profiteering."
Outside of the nondescript office building on 20th Street where the crowd eventually assembled, the NYPD set up a row of metal barricades around the entrance in an effort to keep the protesters away from the front entrance. For every three members of the crowd, there was roughly one police officer, with a total of three police vans and three small interceptor vehicles parked in a line out front.
"You have to be a little flattered by that," said Monica Hunken, a protest organizer who spoke to the crowd on a soapbox on the sidewalk. "They even brought out their pen, it's pretty heavy-handed." That contrasted with the police activity at the launch point for the march -- the Bank of America branch on 17th St and 5th Avenue -- where the group spoke out about the bank's investments in mountaintop removal and oil and gas prospecting. No such safety precautions were in evidence at that site.
The demonstration in Manhattan was one of over a dozen organized by the Mobilization for Climate Justice and organizers of BeyondTalk.net, a website that rallies individuals to commit civil disobedience in the name of climate change action. At least one member of the New York contingent did just that, when he attempted to lock himself to the front doors of the building.
"Stopping coal starts with the NRDC," yelled out Robert Jereski, co-founder of New York Climate Action Group, as he was handcuffed and hustled in to a paddy wagon parked up the street. Jereski was eventually charged with "obstruction of governmental administration" and disorderly conduct.
"I stand here at the NRDC building with a heavy heart. I never thought that in 2009 I'd be standing here decrying their stance on climate," said Charles Komanoff, co-director of the Carbon Tax Center. "What NRDC is championing as a big step forward is actually a baby step forward. NRDC is on the wrong side, cutting deals with their pals in business and finance."
"Come back NRDC," yelled out a voice in the crowd. Overall the lament was in line with much of the sentiment of the demonstration, as many participants described their action as an expression of tough love rather than outright opposition. They say that the NRDC has aligned itself with a broader coalition of corporate interests whose goals and benchmarks for reducing carbon emissions are drastically below what is necessary according to prevailing climate science.
"We appreciate the work that the protesters are doing," said Jenny Powers, National Media Director for NRDC, in response. "Overall I think we're very supportive of any opportunity to bring more attention to this issue. We definitely view it as all of us as being united in the same goal. We're on the same track, we just deploy different strategies."
Although nobody from NRDC stepped outside to discuss the issues with those at the barricades, Powers did say that Dr. Hansen and Mr. Komanoff were invited via email to a meeting with NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner.
After the demonstration petered out, I spoke with NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen about the meager turnout and the prospects for major policy change going forward.
Hansen, when not publishing and speaking at academic Fora, is no stranger to disobedient protests. This June he was arrested with 30 others during a protest against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.
"It's an indication of where we are, it's a really screwy situation," said Hansen, wearing a white Gilligan-style hat to ward off the rain. "But despite the small numbers, it's becoming more widely recognized that cap and trade just won't work. Country by country doesn't work. The president should ask the national academy of Scientists to give him a report. Instead he's getting a 2000 page bill written largely by polluters. We have governments acknowledge that we have a planet in peril, but they're not doing anything."
As for the unusual tableau of a group of environmental activists demonstrating outside the offices of an organization peopled by environmental activists, Rocco Ferrer had an interesting take on the dynamic. "It's like NRDC used to be Lou Reed," said Ferrer, a young environmental activist and fashion consultant who participated in the demonstration. "But now they're more like the Jonas Brothers."
JOSEPH HUFF-HANNON is a Brooklyn-based independent writer and producer, a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a 2008 recipient of a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. See more of his work here: www.josephhuffhannon.com