More than 2,000 people marched Saturday through the streets of Richmond to the gates of the Chevron refinery, where 210 people were arrested as part of a protest against the oil giant and other fossil fuel companies.
Chanting "arrest Chevron," protesters sat in front of the refinery gates before being handcuffed by police in riot gear. The event was scheduled to mark the anniversary of the August 6 explosion and fire at the refinery that generated a huge plume of black smoke and sent 15,000 people to hospitals complaining of breathing problems.
The showdown was about more than one local community's battle with its largest employer and biggest polluter, however. It represents the latest example of a fast-growing movement by environmentalists across the United States to organize rallies, marches and civil disobedience for more action to reduce greenhouse emissions
"The pace is picking up very dramatically," said Bill McKibben, one of the event organizers.
McKibben is a Vermont writer who cofounded the nonprofit group 350.org, which has organized thousands of similar events in the past five years. He was among the first people arrested Saturday. McKibben said protests are increasing because people are frustrated that Congress has not passed national laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the coal, oil and other fossil fuel industries despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the planet is warming.
"Everybody thought at first that if you have a problem this big that scientists said is a problem, then our system would act," McKibben said. "That was my assumption. But at a certain point it became clear that wasn't happening. The science was no match for the money. They've purchased the U.S. Congress."
McKibben, a professor at Middlebury College who was awarded a 1993 Guggenheim Fellowship for nonfiction writing, said the movement's major goals include convincing President Obama to cancel the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would allow Canada to export tar sands oil to U.S. refineries in Houston and other cities. Boosting federal funding and tax credits for solar, wind and other renewable projects, is also among the goals, along with passing a federal carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, similar to California's, that would offer incentives for using fewer fossil fuels.
Police arrested 209 people on suspicion of trespassing and one person on suspicion of assault for punching a protester, according to Capt. Mark Gagan.
"But this is nowhere near a situation that is unmanageable," Gagan said. "We anticipated today's civil disobedience, and the organizers and public safety have worked together to plan."
Those arrested were processed at a nearby fire station and released, Gagan said. There were no injuries.
Scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm about climate change.
Earlier this week, researchers from Stanford University published a report in the journal Science that concluded that from 1980 to 2005, the earth warmed at a rate of nearly 4 degrees per century — a rate 10 times faster than at any time back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth 65 million years ago.
At the current rate of carbon dioxide emissions, the earth is on pace to become 9 degrees warmer by 2100, said Chris Field, a Stanford biology professor who co-authored the study. But if emissions are cut significantly in the coming decades, that could be kept to about 4 degrees, he said.
"We have an opportunity," Field said. "We can be in a world that is in many ways quite comparable to the one we have now. If we increase 9 degrees, the world will be very different, with more extreme heat waves, heavy precipitation, sea level rise, warming and challenges occurring so frequently we'll have to make fundamental changes — like where cities are located, what parts of the world can be populated."
Globally, the 10 hottest years on record back to the 1800s have all occurred since 1998. Sea level rose 7 inches in the 20th century as oceans warmed. Ice sheets in Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean are shrinking in size, as are most of the world's glaciers.
Field said he understands why people are marching. But shifting the world away from coal and oil to renewable energy and power plants that capture and store carbon will require working closely with industry as well, he said.
"The solution is not to just shut down the fossil industry," Field said. "It is to transition the energy system to a sustainable one. It has to have as much building as closing down."
Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State University, said that although polls show many Americans concerned about climate change, the economy in recent years has taken precedence.
"The fear that new regulations will take away jobs overcomes for many people whatever concerns there might have been about climate," he said. "So the ones you have left are the true believers, the activists."
Gerston noted that it is Republicans in the House of Representatives who are doing the most to block climate reform, and because of the way House districts are drawn, they are unlikely to lose power any time soon.
"Every time we see a Hurricane Sandy or a Katrina or a tremendous drought, these protesters have to connect the dots for people," he said. "The only way the message gets out is when people are hit on the head again and again."