Despite the biting cold weather they came in their thousands, prepared to undertake the largest-ever act of civil disobedience on climate change in the US. They were wrapped up warm, but wore hard hats, boiler suits and face masks, they dressed as dirty chimneys, or were in their “Sunday Best”.

There was a real festival atmosphere as music was played and people chanted “We don’t want the world to boil, no coal, no oil!” and “There is no such thing as Clean Coal”.

Their banners read “Coal – Times Up,” “Carbon-Free” “Coal is dirty” “Clean Coal is Like Dry Water”, “Coal is the Mother’s Liver”, “Topless Mountains Are Obscene”, and “Power Past Coal”.

Starting in a Park near Capital Hill they then marched to Washington’s Capitol power plant, and blockaded the gates for four hours. All were prepared to get arrested.

In front of the main gate, tribal members from Michigan, New Mexico and Arizona have testified to the disastrous impact of coal mining in their communities, and coal-fired waste and mercury emissions in their water.

Ahjani Yepa-Sprague, an American Indian who lives in Michigan, said coal is destroying her community’s way of life. “Every inland lake in Michigan is contaminated with mercury,” she said. “This is the first generation in the history of our people that our children cannot eat fish given to us by the creator.”

Others too implored the use of coal to stop. Voices from the day:

NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen: “What has become clear from the science is that we cannot burn all of the fossil fuels without creating a very different planet. The only practical way to solve the problem is to phase out the biggest source of carbon and that is coal.”

Robert F. Kennedy: The concept of “clean coal” is a “dirty lie”. “The most important thing you can do is not to change your light bulb but to change [members of Congress who have been] corrupted by … dirty, filthy industry.” America needs to be freed from the “carbon cronies,” who are part of the “biggest threat to civilization”.

Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said, “Bold measures are needed right now to reduce global warming emissions and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress and the new administration to send a clear signal to cities and states across the country that after eight long years, America is serious about clean energy and green jobs.”

Author Bill McKibben: “Coal is killing the planet. Green energy is going to drive us out of this recession.”

Taking preemptive political action before the protest, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released a letter last week calling for the plant to convert to 100 percent natural gas by the end of 2009.

“Taking this major step toward cleaning up the Capitol Power Plant’s emissions would be an important demonstration of Congress’ willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global warming, energy independence and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels,” they wrote.

And if Congress and Obama do not act and act soon, you can expect more civil disobedience. Never has the demand for change been greater.