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143 coal plants and a punch in the face
Which do we, as a society, find more abhorrent?
The young people were angry. The man in the blue suit was angry.
They expressed their anger in different ways.
The young people, angry because of the U.S. government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis, organized a disruptive but non-violent protest at a policy conference last week, during which they confronted Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg onstage and expressed outrage at his department’s recent controversial decision to approve a massive new oil terminal offshore of Freeport, Texas.
The man in the blue suit, seemingly angry because of the 21-minute disruption, followed the protesters as they left and struck one of them in the head.
A brief video clip of the incident provided to HEATED shows the unidentified man forcefully grabbing and shoving Izzi C., a 24-year-old organizer with the new youth-led direct action group Climate Defiance, as they exit the stage area and enter the lobby at the one-day iMPACT MARYLAND conference.
“I did not see it coming at all,” said Izzi, who asked to withhold their last name to maintain privacy. “It felt like this person had fully punched me in the face.”
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The act of violence did not appear intended to stop the protest, nor did it appear intended to protect others. The also did not appear to be a member of law enforcement; a Department of Transportation spokesperson told HEATED he is not an agency employee or member of Secretary Buttigieg’s security.
“I was not in front of this person,” Izzi said. “It was a complete act of anger, and there was no reason for it.
What shocked Izzi most about the actual violence, however, was not the fact that it occurred. (This kind of thing happens all the time during acts of civil disobedience, they said, particularly from law enforcement). Rather, it was the lack of reaction from the dozens of conference attendees who witnessed it.
”None of the attendees asked if I was alright,” Izzi said. “Nobody around me said anything. Nobody did anything.”
It felt as if many of the attendees at Thursday’s seemingly climate-friendly conference believed the man in the blue suit was justified in his anger—but the young protesters were not justified in theirs.
Perhaps the attendees simply didn’t understand why the protesters felt the need to disrupt their professional event. If that is the case, we can explain.
80 new coal plants’ worth of emissions — and 63 more on the way
The answer lies in four massive, controversial proposed crude oil export projects currently planned off the Texas coast.
Should all of these projects be approved by the Biden Administration and operated at full capacity, The Guardian reports the four terminals “would expand U.S. oil exports by nearly 7 million barrels every day” and result in an astounding “24 billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions once the transported oil is burned.”
This is equivalent to operating 6,424 coal plants for one year—or, if divided by the average 45-year lifespan of a coal plant, 143 coal plants for 45 years.
This does not bode well for future generations, as the International Energy Agency has warned that no new major fossil fuel infrastructure can be built if the world is to avoid dangerous, irreversible levels of warming.
The Biden administration already “quietly approved” one of these facilities last year: The Seaport Oil Terminal, which received the sign-off from Buttigeig’s Department of Transportation “without any public announcement, a day after the United Nations’ annual climate conference wrapped up in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt,” the Texas Tribune reported.
Located off the coast of Brazoria County, Texas—an area already inundated with oil and petrochemical pollution—Seaport would export 2 million barrels of crude oil every day, “which could increase U.S. oil export volumes by as much as two-thirds,” according to environmental groups. The project’s annual carbon emissions—more than 200 million tons of CO2 equivalent per year—would be similar to operating 80 new coal-fired power plants, environmental groups claim.
Trevor Carroll, a Brazoria county resident who participated in the Climate Defiance protest, told HEATED his community has gone through all the so-called “official” channels to have their concerns taken seriously by federal regulars, and have been dismissed.
“They build a fake table for communities and they’re like, ‘You can sit here and tell us why you’re upset.’ But it’s not real—no decisions happen at that table,” he said. “I’m here because we’ve tried everything else.”
As the Department of Transportation continues to consider permits for the three other oil export projects, the protesters want Buttigieg to know that “quiet” approval of fossil fuel infrastructure is no longer an option—especially when Buttigieg claims, as he did during the protest, to sympathize with their concerns.
“We need to make him feel the pressure of knowing that eyes are on him and what he does,” Carroll said. “People think he’s a good guy because he gets on the news and talk about climate. No. He’s letting things happen that are really setting us back.”
Buttigieg’s response: “We will follow the law”
There are many in the climate space who believe that disruptive protest only results in needless noise; that it is, at its core, an unproductive tactic.
But in this case, Thursday’s protester actually achieved something no one has yet been able to get: A direct response from Buttigieg about the Seaport Terminal’s approval.
When the protesters walked onto the conference stage, the Q&A paused. And instead of physically forcing the protesters off—which admittedly would have been quite difficult to do—conference staff gave Buttigieg the mic.
His answer was similar to President Biden’s when confronted about his approval of the Willow Project. Essentially, Buttigieg said, the law required him to.
Here’s part of his response, which you can watch in full at the YouTube video at the top of this post:
“I believe we’ve demonstrated through the largest packet of climate legislation in the history of any country ever, we believe passionately in fighting climate change … At the same time, we follow federal law when it comes to permitting.
When a proect is seeking a permit, we don’t just decide whether we like it or not. And deciding whether to issue a permit is different from deciding whether to provide a federal grant, for example.
So what these folks exercising their First Amendment rights are concerned about is the impact that those projects could have on climate. And when they talk about cancer clusters, the other thing they’re concerned about … is the effect that this has … on public health in the immediate vicinity of these facilities.
That’s something we really care about. To the extent that that plays a role legally in the permitting process, we will take that seriously. But what I can’t do is commit to a certain policy choice because you interrupted the event and asked me to.
But I respect where you’re coming from, and we will follow the law.
The protest escalates
This answer was, expectedly, not enough for the Climate Defiance protestors. From their perspective, if the law requires you to destroy the climate, and you’re a person with political power, then you must work harder to change that law.
So instead of quietly leaving the stage after Secretary Buttigieg’s comments, they remained, chanting among other things: “Stop Petro Pete!”
The announced a ten minute break to clear the protesters out of the hall. After most of the attendees had filed out into the lobby, security came to escort the protesters out, too.
That’s when the violent incident—the sucker-punch, the grab, the shove, whatever you want to call it—occurred, as the protesters were being escorted through the lobby and toward the door.
To me, a person who understands where the protesters are coming from, it seemed a pretty extreme and unjustified reaction.
But I, too, noticed that not everyone feels that way.
What is appropriate context for violence?
After viewing the footage of the protest and the incident, I reached out to the PR firm in charge of the conference seeking more information on the incident.
After I asked for help identifying whether the aggressor was a member of security or law enforcement, a PR representative sent me a link to the full Climate Defiance protest, “for you to see for context of their time on the event stage, etc.”
I was confused by this statement, so I said as much. “I’m not sure I’m understanding why/how this contextualizes the clip of physical violence I shared,” I replied.
I didn’t receive a response to this, so I can’t confidently say what the rep was implying. But I know how it felt. Did you see how long they were on stage? Of course someone was going to hit them!
It feels wild to have to say this, but here we go: While a 21-minute disruption to a work conference may be annoying, it does not provide appropriate context for assaulting someone.
I can understand some level of outrage when activists block a public road, preventing folks who have nothing to do with the climate crisis from getting to work or the grocery store. But this was a conference about building a better future, featuring public officials with enormous power over fossil fuel infrastructure.
At this point, if you’re not expecting disruptive protest at events like this, it’s possible you may not fully grasp the dire nature of the climate crisis.
And if you do understand, then the Climate Defiance protesters have a message for you. “Every person can confront public figures alongside us,” said Izzi, whose head is now feeling just fine.
Bonus, spare observation: the coverage of climate protests seems lacking
It is possible that people do not grasp the rationale for non-violent civil disobedience when it comes to climate change because of the seemingly imbalanced political discourse around the subject.
Just look at the coverage of Thursday’s disruption. On the right, we’ve got Fox News, Newsmax, Sean Hannity, The Blaze, Daily Caller, Conservative News Daily, OANN, PJ Media, TownHall, IJR, Gateway Pundit, The Washington Examiner. On the non-right, we’ve got… E&E News and The Hill. Let me know if I missed any others.
For right-wing outlets, protests like these are the perfect opportunity to sow the type of anger that leads someone to hit a climate activist in the face.
But when it comes to sowing the type of anger that leads someone to defend a climate activist from getting punched in the face, it feels like we see very little of that.
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