There is no doorbell at the front gates of the White House—at least not for the public anyway—but the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 people who stood before 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Sunday, February 17 made perhaps the largest human buzzer in the history of the U.S. climate movement.
Despite a strategy of ignoring climate change during his first term, President Barack Obama claims he’s ready to make it a top priority. In his State of the Union address on February 12, he said: “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”
But the president has so far failed to back up his words with any meaningful action and there’s good reason to doubt his sincerity. Moments after noting that “the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15,” Obama boasted that his “administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits.”
The president’s dueling words were spoken to opposing constituencies. On the one hand, there’s the American people, the majority of whom believe it’s time for action on climate change. On the other, there’s the fossil fuel lobby, which certainly isn’t as big as half the U.S. population, but makes up for it in spending power.
Indeed, the president wasn’t at home when demonstrators came calling. He was in Florida, golfing with Houston Astros owner Jim Crane, who has interests in fracking and natural gas pipelines, and who even invested in the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform that dumped oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the spring and summer of 2010.
Between the two sides rests the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry nearly a million barrels of raw bitumen crude oil from the deforested tar sands region in Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The multinational oil industry and Wall Street banks that fund them have a lot riding on this pipeline and they want to see it bring tar sands oil to the global market. The problem with that, however, is there might not be much of a globe left, once the tar sands crude makes it to the market.
“The science is crystal clear,” said James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “We have to stabilize atmospheric composition if we want to have a stable climate.” This requires that we reduce and eventually halt the flaring of fossil fuels. The Keystone XL would do just the opposite.
If the total crude from Alberta’s tar sands were burned, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere would increase from its current 390 parts per million to 600 ppm, sending our planet over a climate cliff. Sea levels would continue to rise and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy would grow more severe.
“We have thousands of cities on coastlines around the world,” said Hansen, outlining what’s at stake. “We have governments that are coal-fired and well-oiled. If we allow fossil fuel use to continue business as usual, we guarantee that over the coming decades we will begin to see large changes in sea level and we will lose all of those cities.” The Keystone XL pipeline, Hansen added, “wills young people a future of economic devastation.”
With that threat hinging on whether Obama allows the Keystone XL to be completed, activists have been working for nearly two years toward a different future. After a similar mass demonstration in Washington in fall 2011, Obama denied Trans-Canada’s initial permit application, kicking the pipeline down the road into his second term.
“He doesn’t have to go through Congress,” said Belinda Rodriguez, an organizer with the environmental group 350.org, which put out the initial call for the mass mobilization. “He doesn’t have to slog through forming some complicated cap and trade legislation. All he has to do is reject the permit.”
Rodriguez, a recent New York University graduate, helped organize a divestment campaign on campus that is pressuring the academic institution to remove its investments from the fossil fuel industry. While some, including the Nation Institute’s Christian Parenti, have argued that divestment will do little to hurt the bottom line of fossil fuel companies, it has helped mobilize young climate activists. Hundreds of divestment campaigns have sprung up on campuses across the country.
In a prelude to the big demonstration, James Hansen and nearly 50 others engaged in a sit-in at the White House on February 13. Among those arrested was Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, marking the first time a leader of the organization had taken part in civil disobedience since it was founded by John Muir 120 years ago. Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actress Daryl Hannah were also led away in handcuffs, lending their celebrity to the cause.
But far from the click of cameras, dust has yet to settle on another arena in the battle against the Keystone XL. In Texas, activists with the Tar Sands Blockade have been locking down to equipment, occupying trees in the pipeline’s path and otherwise stalling construction since August. For their efforts, they’ve been sued by Trans- Canada, brutalized by the company’s security personnel in collusion with local law enforcement, and endured long stays in jail thanks to overzealous prosecution of their nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.
They’ve also uncovered damning evidence that the Keystone XL will be seeping oil all along its planned route. In December 2012, three activists barricading themselves inside a mile-long segment of the pipe, spotted light pouring through a welded segment. Once the trio was forcibly removed, the pipeline went into the ground.
While it was just one section of the XL, which will be making its way across America’s wildlife habitats, playgrounds, and backyards if completed, who knows how many segments contain leaks?
“Tar Sands Blockade has proof positive that the welds are false,” hollered Ramsey Sprague, an organizer with the group, while disrupting a talk by a TransCanada quality control manager last month at Marriot Hotel in Woodlands, Texas.
While lone activists yelling within the confines of suburban hotel convention centers can be easily ignored, the tens of thousands of people raising their voices surely shook the walls of the highest office in the land. Demonstrators, however, remained divided over whether they were there to support Obama by showing that they’ll have his back if he rejects the XL Pipeline—or to demand that he do so.
At a rally near the Washington Monument before the march to the White House, Obama’s fired green jobs adviser Van Jones reminded the crowd that he had had “the honor” of serving the president. He went on to say that Obama shouldn’t inject America with a “dirty needle from Canada,” since that would undermine the credibility of the executive office. The Sierra Club’s Michael Brune, who has previously said he believes Obama has a “strong moral core,” made similar appeals as Jones.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer also spoke at the rally. Steyer told the Washington Post recently that when it comes to climate change, “I feel like the guy in the movie who goes into the diner and says, ‘There are zombies in the woods and they’re eating our children’.”
But as often happens in horror movies, those who you think are your friends turn out to be brain-eaters. Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Steyer’s Farallon Capital Management holds stock in NRG Energy, operators of several coal plants and one nuclear facility, as well as Ram Energy Resources and Sandridge Energy, both oil and natural gas firms.
“Having a representative of the 1 percent just because he happens to be against this particular investment is extremely short-sighted and naïve,” said author and environmental activist Chris Williams. “This is a struggle for justice against the ruling class, and they’re completely the wrong choice for an ally—just like Obama.”
Williams helped organize an EcoSocialist contingent at the February 17 demonstration. Chants of “One, two, three, four/climate change is class war” rose from the contingent, offering a sharp contrast to the innocuous politics of many of the moderate green groups they marched beside. As Williams said: “Obama has repeatedly boasted about how much pipeline has been laid on his watch and how his administration has gone the extra mile to cut red tape and facilitate offshore, deep-shore and any-shore drilling—all while opening up more federal lands and the Arctic in order to wring every last drop of oil and gas from the North American continent.
Williams added that Obama’s drone strikes and kill lists further cast dispersions on the “moral core” of the president. Speaking with Williams the night before the rally in the packed hall of a church in Washington’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein agreed. “Why should we have Obama’s back when he keeps stabbing us in ours?”
Just as the climate is reaching a tipping point, so too is the climate movement. “If the president rejects the pipeline,” said Williams, “It will encourage all of us to ask the question, ‘what next?’” If Obama approves the XL, it could serve to highlight the fact that this struggle is larger than any one individual. “This is about a system that depends on the production of fossil fuels for energy, and profit and endless growth as the engine of progress within capitalism.”
Peter Rugh is a writer and activist based in Brooklyn, NY. Earlier versions of this article appeared at WagingNonviolence.org .