Crunch Time | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Crunch Time 

Facing trial for disrupting a BLM lease auction, Tim DeChristopher thinks time is running out... for everyone.

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Most of the debate over climate-change legislation has focused on whether a straight carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system would be more effective in reducing emissions. Under a cap-and-trade system (which is almost certain to prevail at this point), total emissions are limited by government-issued permits, which are either freely distributed or sold at auction and can then be sold or traded amongst polluters themselves. This, in theory, creates a market to determine the price of emissions, and, as fewer permits are made available over time, encourages reductions.

Peaceful Uprising generally favors a direct carbon-pricing mechanism, which is like a tax. However, they are not necessarily opposed to cap-and-trade as long as nearly 100 percent of the emission permits are auctioned off. This, they argue, will not only fairly price carbon, but it will assert that the climate is a public commons, not a private commodity. A 100 percent auction is not a pie-in-the-sky idea per se, but it was never part of the Waxman-Markey conversation, either.

The group also insists upon a strong renewable-energy standard, which the original Waxman-Markey bill approached, with a mandate for 25 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Overall, the bill was not thrilling, but the group felt they could tentatively support most of its provisions at that time.

As for advocacy tactics, the discussion stuck strictly to the conventional. Letter-writing campaigns and video e-mails were batted around, but what was settled upon was a rapid-response phone tree. Peaceful Uprising would recruit friends, family and community members to phone Matheson’s D.C. offices at specific times, delivering targeted messages related to the bill’s progress.

When the ACES hearings opened up on April 21, Peaceful Uprising members were glued to C-Span. The next afternoon, they came through with about 50 phone calls urging Matheson to support the construction of a nationwide smart energy grid. Two weeks later, they placed nearly 300 calls in a single afternoon, begging Matheson to support limits on permit exchanges under the bill’s cap-and-trade framework. The EAC said it was the single largest number of calls to any one representative organized by a single group in their network. Matheson publicly said he had never before seen such a committed public-lobbying effort.

But the effect was negligible. The committee continued to hear testimony from CEOs, union leaders, scientists and economists—all arguing that key provisions in the draft bill would be detrimental to the U.S. economy and its workforce. Republicans and moderate Democrats, including Matheson, chiseled away at the offending provisions over the course of the bill’s markup.

“There really is no limit to the phrase ‘money talks,’” said one Peaceful Uprising member, who traveled to D.C. for the hearings.

The final draft of the bill, which has now passed through the House and awaits consideration in the Senate, calls for a cap-and-trade system, where nearly 85 percent of emission permits will be freely distributed (meaning only about 15 percent will be auctioned). The renewable-energy standard was lowered to 15 percent by 2020, but that can be offset in various ways, meaning that realistically only about 9 percent of energy will have to come from renewables over the next decade. The bill passed out of committee by a 33 to 25 vote. The full House vote was 219 to 212. Matheson voted against in both instances.

As watered-down as the bill has become, it is hard to deny that it does represent a policy shift towards the regulation of carbon emissions. Both Al Gore and the big environmental groups have urged passage of the bill, and President Obama has signaled that he will sign it.

But Peaceful Uprising was outraged by how the bill evolved, decrying it on the group’s blog as a dangerous half-measure. DeChristopher, for his part, seemed to know from the start that the group’s efforts were not going to be enough. The frustration was visible on his face at the Peaceful Uprising meeting.

TDC: Certainly we are not doing enough, because we are still losing (chuckle). You know, the bill that is working through Congress, though, is not going to protect our future. And I think that this bout of playing by the rules has taught a lot of people in the organization something.

We played very hard by the rules, and yet, it clearly wasn’t enough. Jim Matheson wouldn’t even show up to the hearings. And, all indications of what he did behind closed doors were that he did a lot to weaken the bill and give more handouts to the fossil-fuel industry. And, what he was saying after he voted “no” on the bill anyway was the exact same stuff he was saying after the draft bill was written in March. It’s like he wasn’t even paying attention.

LG: The bill may be far from perfect, but it may also be the extent of what is politically possible right now. Is it possible to get a bill you would consider adequate?

TDC: Not with the tactics that we are using right now. I don’t think there is any way that we can get a really adequate climate bill without jail cells being full of young people fighting for their future, and old people fighting for their children’s future. I think it would take something on the order of a national student strike to make that happen. And, I think a lot of the other groups out there think that that is impossible, or they aren’t willing to take those types of actions. And so, they say this is the best that we can get.

But, I interject, it was those other groups, like NRDC and the Sierra Club that, through lobbying and lawsuits, pressured the new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to invalidate the results of the BLM auction. DeChristopher rejects this argument, saying that those lawsuits did not put any real pressure on the Obama administration, but this comes off as an emotional argument rather than a factual one.

A few weeks later, in late May, I attended a second Peaceful Uprising meeting—this time at the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City—to discuss how to respond to the final version of Waxman-Markey. On the agenda was everything from organizing teach-ins on climate change to the possibility of direct action, and even civil disobedience, demanding that the bill be scrapped and replaced.

Newcomers dominated the meeting, with only a few core members in attendance. The free-flowing single-mindedness that defined the previous meeting evaporated at the start. The newcomers shoved aside the agenda with questions about the group’s structure, ideology and issues only loosely related to climate change. But, more disconcerting for core members was that newcomers felt the need to raise their hands and be called on before they spoke.

“It was a learning experience for us,” DeChristopher said. “We had never before had a meeting where people had felt the need to raise their hand [to speak]. And, afterwards, some of us realized that we are not trying to breed obedience, you know, we are not trying to teach people that they need to be called upon. (laugh)

“What we are trying to teach people is that if they feel this passionate about the issue, they need to stand up and take action on it.”

Teaching disobedience is something of a contradiction in terms, though. Disobedience is not an intellectual exercise but a physical expression of the sentiment in one’s heart. And, for most members of Peaceful Uprising, it is not clear to them what exactly is in their hearts. The group defines itself strictly in terms of what they are not—the closest thing they have to a mission statement is that they are willing to do what the other environmental groups won’t.

Activism, particularly when it comes to climate change, is often derided as a form of secular religion. This is a crude assertion, but not a totally unfair one. Activism is not a religion, but it does require faith—faith not just in the righteousness of one’s cause, but in one’s ability to take meaningful action, to change the minds of others, to influence a process that is so much bigger than the self.

Activists, particularly young activists, seem to be drawn to DeChristopher because they see him as confirmation of that faith. He shows that it is possible to set aside one’s privileged background and concern for security and take direct and meaningful action. It’s a faith I recognize, because I myself was once an aspiring activist. While attending a small liberal arts college in upstate New York in the early ‘00s, I helped organize anti-war demonstrations and plan a civil-disobedience action on an Army base in Georgia.

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Louis Godfrey

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