The Climate Math: Three Out of 40,000 Share Their Stories

Melinda Tuhus

Tens of thousands attended the Forward on Climate rally on February 17, including members of the Tar Sands Blockade, which is seeking to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline's southern leg through direct action.

The climate movement’s math may be beginning to add up, but there’s still not much consensus on the exact sum. As Grist reported, there are widely-ranging estimates on how many attended Sunday’s historic rally, as well as varying views on what it will take to move forward on climate,” the day’s rallying cry. Yesterday, rally-goer Jimmy Higgins wrote a post at Fire on the Mountain scoffing at the 40,000 estimate, and cautioning that inflating crowd counts makes it more difficult to realistically assess a movement’s strength. 

But a random sample of participants at Sunday’s Forward on Climate rally in D.C. turned up three who have dedicated their lives full-time to sounding the alarm about climate change — which seems like a decent indication of the seriousness with which at least a subset of Americans is taking the issue.

Alongside the rally’s main sponsors and green jobs guru Van Jones, several indigenous women spoke, including Jackie Thomas, a chief of the Saik’uz First Nation. Thomas leads the Yinka Dene Alliance, a coalition of first nations and others working to stop the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline from taking tar sands from Alberta through British Columbia to the Pacific for export.

Never in my life have I seen white and native work together until now,” said Thomas. Thank you, Enbridge, for doing this work for me. In Canada, the First Nations are always expected to be the sacrificial lambs for our government in terms of the economy, like the economy is a human being, like the economy is more important than our land and our water.”

As marchers passed the U.S. Department of Commerce, a quote carved over the door seemed to confirm her sentiment: Commerce defies every wind, outrides every tempest and invades every zone.”

Coastal First Nations who would potentially be impacted by the pipeline this month pulled out of an ongoing federal review of the proposal, citing a lack of funding to engage effectively in the process. According to Thomas, the Canadian government has made it clear they will approve the Enbridge pipeline. She asked those at the rally to stand with us” in continuing to fight back, to some of the loudest cheering of the day.

The kind of solidarity Thomas has in mind may take different forms. While many rally attendees came out to ask President Obama to do the right thing” when making a final decision on the Keystone XL pipleine, others believe it’s going to take more than a gentle nudge. Alec Johnson was marching with a group from the Tar Sands Blockade, the folks carrying out more militant non-violent civil disobedience — like locking down inside the pipeline—in an effort to disrupt construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL, which had already received Obama administration approval.

Johnson, who organized to end the war in Vietnam and was involved with the struggle for civil rights, believes that the climate movement today is the most important effort in human history.” He added, If we don’t get this right, human history is over in this century.”

After getting arrested at the White House in a mass action against the Keystone XL pipeline in August 2011, Johnson is now living out of his car as he travels around to work on climage change campaigns. I’m the father of two daughters, so I’m concerned about my children but I’m concerned about everyone’s children,” he says. This ought to be a no-brainer; Barack Obama’s got two daughters, too. I’m delighted to be part of the Tar Sands Blockade. These people amaze me. They feel like family. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. He said his daughters, 31 and 24, are not involved, but they support their father.”

Ducking into a coffee shop to warm up after several hours in the biting wind, this reporter was in line behind a young father whose toddler was having a melt-down in her mother’s arms. She was doing great all day until we turned a corner and she got hit with a big blast of wind,” explained Gavan Uprichard. His wife, Dana McGuire, was marching while more than 8 months pregnant. They took the train in from Missouri, where they live out a green lifestyle with two nearby intentional communities.

Spurred by last year’s devastating drought in the Midwest, they said they’ve set aside their day to day life” to work full-time on climate change. We realized we don’t have enough time to just live green and model that way of living for other people and expect that they will joyfully join in,” McGuire said. The couple just started a project called Pacing the Planet, for which they’re walking across America’s rural highways — with their children, two donkeys and a wagon emblazoned with Climate Change Cometh” in tow — in order to raise awareness of climate change.

They did some fundraising to get started, so we’re living off the generosity of other people,” said Gavan. And very modestly,” added Dana with a smile. We’re also relying on faith a lot,” she said, oriented to the big oneness that some people call God.”

Gavan said some of the people they’ve encountered are genuinely curious about what they’re doing, while others are waiting for us to get back to our normal lives.”

They think we’ve gone off the deep end,” Dana added.

Asked if they plan to spend the rest of their lives doing this, Gavan said, The time frame that we’re looking at from the research we’ve done is that the next four years are critical so there’s a good chance we’ll be doing this for the next few years in a pretty concerted way.”

Melinda Tuhus is an independent journalist with 25 years of experience in print and radio, including In These Times, The New York Times, Free Speech Radio News and public radio stations.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.