Historic rally set to push climate movement forward

Despite a strategy of ignoring climate change during his first term, President Obama appears ready to make it a top priority. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he told the American people, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

Yet, many have learned not to take the president at his word. And so, thousands are expected to arrive in Washington, D.C. on Sunday for what organizers are billing as potentially the largest climate demonstration in U.S. history, called the Forward on Climate rally.

They have good reason to doubt the president’s sincerity. Moments after noting that the “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 mouths were speaking to opposing constituencies. On the one hand, there’s the American people, the majority of whom believe it’s time for climate action. On the other, there’s the fossil fuel lobby, who, for what they lack in numbers, they make up for in spending power.

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 the 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 should tar sands crude make it there.

“The science is crystal clear,” said James Hansen, Chair of NASA’s 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 will continue to rise and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy will grow more severe.

“We have thousands of cities on coastlines around the world,” said Hansen, outlining what’s at stake. “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 the difference between scenes of poor, huddled climate refugees fleeing their wave-shattered homes and a safer, more stable future hinging on whether Obama allows the Keystone XL to be completed, activists have been working for nearly two years to ensure the latter. After a similar mass demonstration in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2011, Obama denied TransCanada’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 Sunday’s 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 a whole new swath of young climate activists. Hundreds of divestment campaigns have sprung up on campuses across the country, comprising a major base 350.org hopes to draw from on Sunday.

In a prelude to the big demonstration, James Hansen and nearly 50 others engaged in a sit-in at the White House on Wednesday. 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 cuffs, 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. Down 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 TransCanada, brutalized by the company’s security personnel along 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. Back in December, three activists barricaded themselves inside a mile-long segment of the pipe, where they 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. But his message was drowned out by a sound system that was blaring soft jazz.

While lone activists yelling within the confines of suburban hotel convention centers can be easily ignored, it will be harder to overlook the 20,000 people projected to arrive in front of the White House on Sunday. They will be raising a ruckus that they hope will sway the president’s final decision — one that will not only set the course of his administration’s future climate policies, but also determine whether the climate, as we know it, has a future at all.

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