WASHINGTON — Hoisting signs that read "Forward on Climate" and "No on Keystone XL," a massive group of protesters gathered on the National Mall Sunday to urge President Obama to take action on climate policy.
Organizers of the major rally, including the Sierra Club and environmental activist group 350.org, estimated that there were 40,000 protesters from 30 states in what the groups are billing as the largest climate rally in history.
"This movement's been building a long time," Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, told activists gathered at the Washington Monument. "One of the things that's built it is everybody's desire to give the president the support he needs to block this Keystone pipeline."
Participants braved 30-degree weather to hear speakers including McKibben and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — co-chair of the newly formed climate change task force — discuss the path forward on climate, before marching up 17th Street to rally at the White House.
"Congress is sleepwalking through this crisis," Whitehouse told the cold but spirited crowd. "There's a man over there in the White House who has found his voice on climate change. We are going to help Barack Obama win this fight and make this right. We are going to have the president's back and he's going to have our back, and we are going to look down the hallways of history and say, 'Yes we did!'"
Of particular concern to those attending the rally was one of the first climate-related decisions the president will face in his second term — whether to approve the construction of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
Environmental groups organized two rallies in Washington last year to protest the pipeline, which would carry dense fossil fuel from Alberta, Canada, to oil refineries along the Gulf Coast. Those high-profile actions, where hundreds of activists were arrested, likely factored into the administration's move to push the controversial Keystone decision back until after the election.
The project's developer, Calgary-based TransCanada, has broken the project into two parts. A 485-mile line from Cushing, Okla., to the Gulf Coast received approval last year. Obama's pending decision will involve the 1,179-mile, $5.3 billion northern stretch, from Alberta to Steele City, Neb.
Protesters included young children, senior citizens in wheelchairs, and one man clad entirely in garbage bags who described himself as "the enemy." Among them was Julia Trigg Crawford, a third-generation owner of a 650-acre cattle ranch and farm in Direct, Texas, who is challenging TransCanada for attempting to build the pipeline through her property under eminent domain. Eleanor Fairchild, 78, who owns a ranch in Winnsboro, Texas, has already watched the company build across her property, destroying trees and threatening water sources, she said.
"It's very difficult in Texas to get anyone in any office to be against the pipeline," Fairchild told HuffPost. "They're all for it because of the tax revenue. But if we're not careful, if the pipeline bursts and contaminates our land and our water, there's no amount of money that can make up for it."
The president has not detailed his plans for the pipeline or other environmental issues, other than to pledge in his State of the Union address to take executive action if Congress fails to pass a climate bill.
Such rhetoric has excited environmentalists, who've watched their issues move up on the national agenda since Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in October.
"I think we've got a president who, because he has kids, perhaps, or because he's not facing reelection, is willing to get some things done," said Robert Weismann, president of Public Citizen. And while the rhetoric is so far just rhetoric, Weismann noted, "It's a pretty big shift from October."
Will Mason, who traveled to the protest from Atlanta, Ga., was less impressed with the president's rhetoric. "I'm not taking his word for anything," Mason, an Occupy activist, told HuffPost at the rally.
Environmentalists were handed a number of victories through the Environmental Protection Agency in Obama’s first term: more stringent fuel efficiency standards for vehicles; emissions standards for new power plants; and investments in clean energy technology. Now green groups want the president to go further in limiting greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to renewable energy.
"Keystone is like page one in a book," said Sarah Gibbons, a sophomore at a community college in McKinney, Texas. "You can't write a book in one night."
Alexandra Moncrief, a 21-year-old from Austin, Texas, said she heard about the issue just moments before she decided to hop on a bus to D.C. She'd never seen the nation's capital, she said, and was looking for an adventure. "I'm here to learn," she said.
"Today was one of the best days of my life," tweeted 350.org's Bill McKibben, "because I saw the movement come together finally, big and diverse and gorgeous."