It wasn’t the first time tens of thousands of concerned citizens have taken the time to stand out front of the White House to make sure the president was listening. But Sunday, when more than 40,000 people showed up to tell U.S. President Barack Obama to get serious about climate change, might be the most ambitious. After all, nothing short of a stable climate for the entire planet is at stake.
Unlike the last climate rally at the White House in 2011, this one had a more youthful vibe, as young people from across the country made their voices heard loud and clear. Hip Hop Caucus President & CEO Reverend Lennox Yearwood, who MCed the event at the National Mall, compared the historic gathering to Martin Luther King’s 1963 March on Washington for civil rights as he kept the crowd pumped up despite the frigid temperatures.
Before marching to the White House, Lennox Yearwood introduced a long list of speakers from Canada and the United States, who inspired participants with words of inspiration and wisdom: NRDC Trustee and Green for All Founder Van Jones; Chief Jacqueline Thomas, immediate past Chief of the Saik’uz First Nation in British Columbia and co-founder of the Yinka Dene Alliance; Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation; Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Latinovations Founder and Dewey Squre Group Principal Maria Cardona; Tom Steyer, Investor and founder of the Center for the Next Generation; Mike Brune, Sierra Club Executive Director; and 350.org President Bill McKibben.
Van Jones reminded everyone why they had come: “You elected this President,” he said. “You made history… he needs to give you a chance to have a future. Stop being chumps.” In addition to calling on us to continue fighting for our future, he called on President Obama to make the right decision, saying “all the good work you’ve done will be wiped away if you approve Keystone XL,” and that approving the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would be like jabbing a dirty needle into the U.S.
“Today, we were not just unshakeable but unified – young people and old people, Nebraska ranchers, members of First Nations and Native American tribes, environmental groups, labor activists, doctors and nurses, entrepreneurs, investors, and many more,” wrote NRDC’s Elizabeth Shope about the rally. “We marched. We danced to the marching bands that mixed themselves in with the crowds. We chanted.
Why all the fuss?
Although the Forward on Climate march wasn’t focused solely on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline—it was really about demanding that America gets serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which includes rejecting KXL and the tar sands oil it would transport, as well as setting carbon standards for dirty power plants and regulating GHG emissions across the board—Keystone XL is a big ticket item. Despite the claims of KXL supporters, it will kill more jobs than it creates, and because the dirty oil it will transport will be exported, it won’t do much to ensure America’s energy security, either.
What it will do is contribute significantly to expanding tar sands development in Alberta, and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), increase carbon pollution by as much as 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to seven coal-fired power plants operating continuously or putting 6.2 million cars on the road for 50 years.
“Twenty years from now on President’s Day, people will want to know what the president did in the face of rising sea levels, record droughts and furious storms brought on by climate disruption,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune told the crowds gathered in Washington. “President Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children. Today, we are asking him to use that pen to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous, export pipeline will never be built.”
Why Forward on Climate Matters
Some policy wonks and journalists questioned the virtues of marching against a single pipeline, taking to the Twittershpere to argue that the rally and the campaign behind it, as Grist’s David Roberts put it, “are misdirected, absolutist, confused, and bereft of long-term strategy.” But Roberts also saw through the misdirected, absolutist, confused” musings of these wonkish pundits (who have no long-term strategy of their own), writing in a column entitled “The virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone” that,
The argument of Keystone protestors is not that there’s One True Way, but that eventually there has to be some way. Somebody’s got to start taking these dire warnings seriously and do something, something specific and concrete. You can’t support Doing Something but oppose Doing This Particular Thing forever. Sooner or later, people have to draw lines and take sides. Progress does not happen without struggle…. The situation calls for large-scale, rapid, systemic change. That kind of change doesn’t happen when wonks and bloggers agree on the perfect solution and achieve multiple PDFs. It happens when people put their asses on the line and fight. It happens
You could feel the power make a tectonic shift last Sunday. “For 25 years our government has basically ignored the climate crisis,” 350.org President Bill McKibben told the feverish crowd. “Now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work. We shouldn’t have to be here – science should have decided our course long ago. But it takes a movement to stand up to all that money.”
The Globe and Mail was skeptical that “tens of thousands” of people would show up, but if they did, wrote Paul Koring, “then the political balance could tip against Keystone.” Well, we did it, and Sunday’s Forward on Climate Rally was not the end but a beginning. Let’s not forget that the tens of thousands of people who descended on D.C. represent hundreds of thousands of North Americans—and millions of people worldwide—who couldn’t make it to Washington on Sunday, people who want meaningful action on climate change from the world’s most powerful nations.
Those who braved the bitter cold last weekend represent not the dirty-energy past but the clean-energy future. And they remind us that in a present that often seems inextricably bound to the status quo, there is hope and a fever for change. Let’s hope President Obama has the courage to make their dreams reality.