Bill McKibben’s 350.org helped orchestrate one of the largest civil disobediences in U.S. climate-activism history in August of 2011. More than 1,200 protesters were arrested in Washington D.C. to protest the planned construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. At the time, construction of the pipeline was deemed all but certain, with top energy insiders predicting it to be built by the end of 2011.
Two years later, and thanks to many protests more — including the largest climate justice rally in U.S. history this February — President Obama is still wavering on the construction question. With the pipeline’s northern segment waiting final approval from the State Department, 350.org and its allies gathered in Washington once more this weekend to ramp up their pressure on the administration.
The events were part of 350.org’s Summer Heat, a series of direct actions across the country to draw attention to the Keystone XL pipeline and protest fossil fuel dependence.
On Friday, 54 people were arrested inside the headquarters of Environmental Resources Management, the third-party contractor that in March downplayed the environmental impact of the pipeline in a report to the State Department. Protesters targeted the firm for failing to disclose its ties to fossil fuel companies standing to profit from the pipeline’s construction. On Saturday, hundreds marched and rallied outside the White House in Lafayette Park, calling on Obama to halt construction of the pipeline and for fossil fuels to “stay in the ground.”
Many protesters were taking part in civil disobedience for the first time, like Beverly Kimbel, a 71-year-old grandmother from Asheville, N.C., who sat down with about 40 others in the lobby of the ERM building (a smaller group went upstairs to the ERM office). “I’ve always cared about the environment,” she told In These Times when asked what made her willing to risk arrest for the cause. “It’s sort of like, if not now, when?”
Kimbel was not the only grandparent to be arrested on Friday. In fact, many of the arrestees had just completed the Walk for Our Grandchildren, a 60-mile walk from Camp David to Washington, meant to emphasize the moral imperative of reducing fossil fuel consumption for the sake of future generations. Many of those walkers were drawing attention to the urgency of meaningfully reversing climate change.
“It seems like we’re headed toward some really bad times. We don’t pay attention to what we’re doing right now,” Sandra Lubarsky, 59, a sustainable development professor at Appalachian State University, told In These Times about an hour before being arrested. “I really feel that people who live as long as we have lived ought to have some foresight. And this seemed like a foresight-ful event. We’ve got to bring attention to what we’re doing to the climate.”
Ian Oxenham, 21, a student at Haverford College was also engaging in civil disobedience for the first time. And like a handful of others arrested at the ERM, he works on the divestment movement at his college campus and travelled to Washington for the weekend.
“I feel at this point it’s really become necessary to do as much as possible, given the time we have left, given how important this thing is,” Oxenham says of the pipeline, which NASA scientist James Hansen has famously declared would mean “game over” for the climate if constructed. “Also just for myself, practicing what I preach to a certain degree, not just saying ‘we should be doing this, but I can’t do it for all these various reasons.’”
The protest locked the ERM building down for several hours on Friday afternoon, with police officers refusing entrance to employees. As the protesters were hauled away into paddy-wagons by the Metropolitan Police Department, supporters rallied, chanting slogans like “ERM, professional liars, hurry up and get them fired!” and “Pipelines spill! Tar sands kill!” The latter takes on a particularly tragic relevance, weeks after a runaway train transporting oil crashed in Quebec, killing more than 40 people and effectively demolishing the small downtown area of Lac-Mégantic.
The weekend’s protests offered a cross-section of the growing climate justice movement in the United States. For these activists, it’s obvious that the movement goes well beyond just stopping the pipeline, and many of them are engaged on a variety of different environmental battles in their communities. Tellingly, the protest attracted a wide range of participants: seasoned environmental activists who have organized for decades, students involved in the growing divestment movement on college campuses, others calling for divestment at the municipal level, families and children with little protest experience, church members, and eco-socialists (in February, the International Socialist Organization — ISO, Solidarity and Green Party formed the Eco-Socialist Contingent) connecting climate change to global capitalism.
At a June speech at Georgetown University, the President said the pipeline will be built only if it does not “significantly exacerbate” greenhouse gas emission. Since then, he has remained mostly quiet on the Keystone XL. But in a recent New York Times interview, Obama appeared to flatly reject one of the main arguments used by pipeline supporters.
“Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator. There is no evidence that’s true,” Obama told a reporter, according to the interview transcript. “And my hope would be that any reporter who is looking at the facts would take the time to confirm that the most realistic estimates are this might create maybe 2,000 jobs during the construction of the pipeline — which might take a year or two — and then after that we’re talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 [chuckles] jobs in an economy of 150 million working people.”
Those are surprisingly encouraging remarks from a President who has remained largely ambivalent on the Keystone XL in public thus far. For McKibben and other opponents of the pipeline, not building the northern segment would set a bold precedent and mark a major symbolic victory.
“It’s become the biggest environmental battle in a very long time and if he does the right thing, it will have tremendous significance,” McKibben says of the movement that he helped trigger less than two years ago. “It will be a powerful statement that for the first time a world leader has said we’re not going to take a major action because of what it will do to the climate.”
Of course, it’s not just about Obama. As Kurt Walters, who organizes with a divestment group in D.C., put it at the rally on Saturday, “We don’t need a hero; we need a movement.”