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Do climate protests work?

On Monday, thousands of climate activists descended on Washington, D.C., to protest the Capitol Power Plant, a partly coal-fired plant that heats and air-conditions the seat of the US Congress and is the District of Columbia's largest source of air pollution and carbon emissions.

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Monday's protest was one of the largest demonstrations – if not the largest demonstration – against greenhouse-gas emissions in the United StatesTime magazine puts the number at 2,000. A spokesman for Greenpeace said perhaps 2,300 showed up.  [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized Bill McKibben's estimates of the size of the coal plant protest. In a story  for Mother Jones, McKibben that the PowerShift conference that took place beforehand to discuss clean energy solutions drew 12,000 participatns, a number that is not disputed.]

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That's a heck of a lot of people for an environmental demonstration in the United States. And the preemptive move by Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid suggests that Washington's leadership is willing to listen to protesters.

This willingness stands in sharp contrast to the political climate at the eve of the US-led invasion of Iraq, when President Bush compared heeding the 6 million to 10 million who took to the streets worldwide on Feb. 15, 2003, to "decid[ing] policy based on a focus group."

As this blog noted in November, climate-related civil disobedience has been more common in Australia and Europe, particularly in the UK, than in the US. But perhaps Monday's victory means that more American protests are on the way. Those willing to risk arrest for the climate seem to be gaining friends in high places: In September, Al Gore openly advocated civil disobedience to block the construction of new coal power plants.

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