The protesters, who delayed the event for roughly seven minutes amid the talk by the next speaker, sang a version of the country music song “God Bless the U.S.A.” with lyrics altered for an anti-coal message.
“Excellent singing,” said Banks. “I think we should do Karaoke after this.”
The interruption underscores the controversy over the panel, as well as the broader animosity toward the Trump administration at the climate conference.
President Trump has announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, but technically the country cannot withdraw for three more years. Meanwhile, the few remaining countries not initially part of the agreement — Syria, Nicaragua — have since voiced their support, leaving the United States isolated and upping the frustration with the Trump administration’s climate policies.
That frustration spilled over at the panel event. Banks and other panelists, including Holly Krutka, an official at major U.S. coal company Peabody Energy, argued that coal will be with us for some time and it should be made as clean as possible.
This argument is consistent with a number of scientific reports that have suggested a role for nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, applied to coal plants, to help solve the climate change problem. The reports conclude renewable energy cannot expand quickly enough to meet all demands, and that therefore, a diverse supply of energy sources will be required to shrink emissions.
Beyond energy efficiency and renewable energy, “a wider package of technologies and actions is also needed, including carbon capture and storage (CCS), nuclear energy and end-use fuel switching” to achieve the Paris goals, says the International Energy Agency.
“The question in the discussion today needs to be about not if we will use coal, but how,” Krutka said after the interruption.
Yet critics contend the ongoing use of fossil fuels hurts the effort to avoid the worst effects of climate change, as they add heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollutants that can’t, with current technology, be removed from the atmosphere.
Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, argued in a Twitter post that “promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” Washington State governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, showed up to criticize it before it began.
The panel, one of few U.S. government public events, was originally slated to focus on renewable energy, but its focus was later switched to coal and nuclear power, the Guardian reported last week.
After being kicked out of the presentation, the protesters assembled outside in the main hall and began loudly chanting.
“Climate justice now! Keep it in the ground!” they shouted, according to videos posted online.
Others sang, “We the people are ready to lead, because the White House [is] making it hard to breathe.”
Some held banners and signs reading “the era of fossil fuels is over” and “less CO2!”
Despite the interruption, not everyone was in a contentious mood at the event.
“I really appreciate the young people that were in here earlier voicing their opinion,” said Lenka Kollar, the last speaker at the event and the director of business strategy at NuScale Power, a company developing small modular nuclear reactors.
“I think it’s important to do that, and I only wish they had stayed in the room. . . . We need to listen to each other. We don’t do that enough.”
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.