Climate advocates made history this past weekend in Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, February 17, more than 40,000 people gathered at the base of the Washington Monument for what was billed as the largest U.S. climate rally in history. It was a culmination of two years of work that has given activists the strongest voice in Washington they’ve had in a while.
“This movement’s been building a long time,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, speaking to the sea of people gathered on the Mall. “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.”
McKibben was referring to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a 1,700-mile project that would pipe tar sands crude—the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive form of oil—out of Canada and down to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. In the summer and fall of 2011, Washington insiders believed the pipeline was a “done deal.”
But when activists seized on the project as a broader symbol for inaction on climate, they changed the political dynamic in Washington.
In 2010, tar sands were on the radar screens of local activism groups working in Canada and the U.S. While they were certainly one of the many issues that mainstream environmental groups in Washington discussed, they were not a central priority. That is, until NASA climatologist James Hansen started warning about the climate impacts of massively expanding one of the biggest pools of carbon on the planet.
“Exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts,” wrote Hansen in 2010. “The tar sands are estimated to contain at least 400 GtC (equivalent to about 200 ppm C02). Easily available reserves of conventional oil and gas are enough to take atmospheric CO2 well above 400 ppm, which is unsafe for life on earth.”
In other words, locking in investments in tar sands would continue us on a path toward unmitigated global warming.
Hansen’s warning—along with the local environmental concerns being raised by groups organizing near the route of the proposed pipeline—sparked alarm within the climate movement. Soon after, the activist behemoths 350.org and CREDO Action got into the mix, realizing they had a new symbolic target in the effort to mobilize activism around climate change. Tar Sands Action was born, forming a coalition among numerous environmental groups.
In the summer of 2011, McKibben and the folks at 350.org organized a peaceful protest at the White House where 1,252 people were arrested (on purpose). Later that fall, McKibben and a group of other leading activists held a 12,000-person protest outside the White House to put pressure on the President and the State Department—the agency responsible for permitting the project across the Canadian/U.S. border.
The following week, the State Department delayed the decision on whether to build the pipeline. The decision was based on concerns about the proposed route of the pipeline, which would have crossed over the Ogallala Aquifer, a water resource that provides 30 percent of America’s irrigation groundwater.
But the Keystone XL pipeline had also become a jobs issue during the election season. The delay set off a firestorm among Republicans in Congress, who passed a bill requiring the President to make a decision in 60 days.
The President didn’t bite. In January 2012, he delayed permitting the pipeline, saying that there wasn’t enough time to “assess whether the project, in its current state, is in the national interest.”
Environmentalists rejoiced cautiously. While the decision to build the pipeline was only delayed until another environmental review could be conducted, it was clear that local and national activists had put enough pressure on public officials to influence the process. For the first time throughout the process, the pipeline didn’t look like a done deal.
Activists had found a plan of action that was putting climate back into the spotlight—one that was ruffling a lot of feathers in Washington and in the media. So the pressure continued.
As 2012 unfolded, McKibben and 350.org doubled down on their strategy, forming a campaign to encourage colleges, universities, churches, municipalities and other institutions to divest from fossil fuels.
The strategy, called Fossil Free, was based on numbers from the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the International Energy Agency showing we need to keep roughly two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. As of January, the campaign had spread to 252 college campuses.
Now that the election is over and President Obama is back in the White House, this broad coalition of environmental groups is once again stepping up the pressure.
During his acceptance speech after getting re-elected, Obama said that failing to act on climate change would “betray our children and future generations.” And in an interview shortly after, Obama said that climate change would be a top priority in a second term.
Which brings us to 40,000 people gathered in Washington over the weekend calling for the President to make tough choices and live up to his words. Denying Keystone XL, they said, would prove his commitment to action.
Is this strategy enough? President Obama still needs to make a decision on the pipeline. And some believe there’s still a good chance he’ll approve it now that a new route has been proposed.
Is it effective? A lot of people have disdain for this type of single-minded activist strategy—including those who think climate change is a serious problem.
Whatever the outcome, it’s certainly had an impact on the discourse.
Two years ago, environmental groups were feeling rundown after the defeat of a comprehensive climate bill. But a small group of local and national activists took it upon themselves to draw a line in the sand, frame the debate within a moral context, and energize people to make their voices heard.
The tens of thousands of people demonstrating in Washington are proof that people are hungry for action.
Here’s a powerful video of activists engaging in civil disobedience last Friday in the lead up to the rally:
Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he reports on the business of cleantech. He was formerly Deputy Editor of Climate Progress, a leading climate and energy blog run by the Center for American Progress. He writes daily on clean energy policy, technologies, and finance. He received his B.A. in journalism from Franklin Pierce University.