Environmental activists and ordinary citizens joined in what was heralded as the largest rally against climate change in American history on Sunday, marching past the White House to send an unmistakable message to President Obama against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Stakes are high in the fight to kill the proposed Keystone pipeline that would transport oil derived from tar sands to the US Gulf Coast from the Canadian wilderness. Scientists and environmentalists are up against enormous pressure on the White House from the oil industry and their political allies over a project that could determine whether fossil fuels retain their dominance or if renewable fuels can claim a more favorable position in national energy policy.
A crowd of at least 35,000 people from across the United States and the world descended on the White House for the biggest demonstration yet in the battle against Keystone. From well-known groups like the Sierra Club to retirees that paid their own way to Washington, tens of thousands delivered a unified message to the president calling on him to permanently shelve the controversial pipeline.
In what was billed as the largest climate rally in U.S. history, thousands of people marched past the White House on Sunday to urge President Obama to reject a controversial pipeline and take other steps to fight climate change.
Organizers, including the Sierra Club, estimated that more than 35,000 people from 30-plus states — some dressed as polar bears — endured frigid temperatures to join the “Forward on Climate” rally, although the crowd size could not be confirmed. Their immediate target is Obama’s final decision, expected soon, on the Keystone XL oil pipeline that would carry tar sands from Canada through several U.S. states.
“This movement’s been building a long time. 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,” Bill McKibben, founder of the environmental activist group, 350.org, said as protesters gathered on the National Mall.
Sunday’s rally is the latest example of how climate change and activism on issues directly linked to global warming have crested into the mainstream of political discourse. Participants in the anti-Keystone event and others that support their views on the environment are a powerful constituency that continues to grow as more and more Americans demand action on climate change in the wake of droughts, “superstorms,” and other high-profile climate disasters.
The vast majority of the demonstrators represent the core political base of Obama’s support in his two successful elections as well as the future base of the Democratic Party. Fresh off an electoral landslide last November, the president risks the future of his party and his own political legacy by acceding to the demands of a Canadian oil company.
Opponents of the project—environmental activists, indigenous Canadian groups, and landowners along the pipeline route—have cast the Keystone XL as a defining issue of Obama’s second term.
They said Obama’s legacy rests on the Keystone XL, which they framed as a test of the president’s environmental credentials and his sweeping promises to use the next four years to protect future generations from climate change.
“Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children,” said Michael Brune, the director of the Sierra Club. “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.”
Others said Obama owed it to his supporters to reject a project that would further ratchet up tar sands development. “I think it’s really important for Obama to realize that his base, the people who supported him, do not want this,” said Judy Dufficy, a former teacher from Chicago. She said she volunteered for Obama in Iowa in 2008.
With a decision to be made on whether the pipeline will be built coming by spring, pressure from opposing sides on the president will likely increase as opponents and proponents see an opening thanks to Obama’s waffling on the question of climate change.
After promising sweeping legislation to boost clean energy and cut carbon emissions during his 2008 campaign, President Obama mostly ducked the issue during his first term ,throwing in the towel after a limited push to pass a cap-and-trade bill. Climate change and the environmental disappeared entirely from the president’s agenda as well as the media’s during his reelection campaign, with not a single mention of global warming during three closely watched presidential debates. Instead, Obama and his campaign team touted his record on boosting domestic oil and gas production.
Now with Keystone looming as a transcendent environmental struggle, the president has notably shifted in his attitudes towards environmental policy, giving climate change top billing during both his inaugural address and his State of the Union. The president told Congress that it is vital that the government “respond to the threat” of climate change by working to reduce CO2 emissions and to protect Americans from the economic and ecological consequences of a warming planet.
Approving Keystone XL threatens to dismantle the Obama climate change agenda in its infancy, putting the president’s second term on a course of higher emissions, greater dependency on fossil fuels, and a clean break from the political base that allowed him to defeat Mitt Romney and seize another four years in office.
Despite the risks, conventional wisdom puts it as highly likely that the pipeline is built with support from the White House. While faced with unrest among his own base, the president is confronted with even greater pressures — and potential for greater political payoff — from a calculated group of Keystone backers that includes business interests, the oil industry, and moderate Democrats and Republicans who are closely linked to fossil fuels.
Gerald Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal that Obama’s advisers are carefully crafting a storyline that would allow the president to green-light the pipeline while ostensibly saving face with environmentalists by claiming partial victory. Having already delayed the project once, the White House could point to changes in the controversial original route — no longer running through a pristine section of Nebraska or threatening water supplies — as a reason that opposition to Keystone is no longer viable or necessary.
Seib reports that the highest priority for the administration is finding a way to approve Keystone while limiting the “political fallout” from the seemingly inevitable decision, mainly by hoping a broader — and far less robust — pro-green agenda as promised by Obama in his last two major speeches cancels out anger over the pipeline.
Now, the temperature is rising. Environmentalists, whose admiration for Mr. Obama is about matched by their hatred of the pipeline and the oil it would transport, were busy over the weekend protesting in Washington in an attempt to stop the pipeline.
Still, unions back the idea because of the construction and refining jobs it could create, and nine Democratic senators have joined 44 Republicans in a letter asking for approval. There is ample reason to think the second-term Obama White House, seeing openings to shake America’s dependence on Middle East oil, would like to find a way to give the green light.
And if that’s so, a combination of forces are lining up in a way that should make it possible for Mr. Obama to get to a “yes” answer, while limiting the political fallout. One argument Mr. Obama can muster for Keystone XL is that the delay in approval that he ordered last year has worked, at least as far as environmental concerns go. It bought time for a change that addresses a principal worry, which was the route of the pipeline.
Whatever the president has in mind specifically, it should be easier to sell Keystone XL if that decision is paired with one showing that the progress the U.S. already has made on climate change will continue, even if the U.S. can’t soon kick its oil habit. That is precisely the picture Mr. Obama ought to be able to paint as the big decision point nears.
The obvious missing link in the president’s strategy is that merely shifting by a few miles where the gusher of Canadian tar sands oil will flow across the Midwest does not address the overwhelming point of the activists and scientists that have lined up to oppose Keystone XL.
Approving the pipeline has been predicted by many to represent a crucial tipping point for climate change and the world’s dependency on fossil fuels. The reserves of tar sands in Canada are so vast that tapping into them will directly lead to massive amounts of future emissions that would likely swamp whatever nominal efforts are made by the United States or other governments to curb them.
Experts say the very best way to combat the effects of climate change and protect future generations is to leave fossil fuels in the ground and aggressively exploit renewable energy solutions. Kaystone and the tar sands are the exact opposite of this life-saving strategy, opening a new expanse of dirty energy that even the EPA says could push the planet to the brink of irreversible climate destruction.
The EPA also evaluated the greenhouse gas emissions specifically associated with the proposed Keystone pipeline which McKibben’s group is protesting.
“Recognizing the proposed Project ‘s lifetime is expected to be at least fifty years, we believe it is important to be clear that under at least one scenario, the extra GHG emissions associated with this proposed Project may range from 600 million to 1.15 billion tons CO2-e, assuming the lifecycle analysis holds over time”
Over 1 billion tons of equivalent CO2 emissions is a substantial chunk of emissions. We recently discussed The Critical Decade report produced by the Climate Commission established by the Australian government. Their report concluded that humanity can emit not more than 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 to have a probability of about 75% of limiting temperature rise to 2°C or less. According to the latest data, between 2000 and 2010 we emitted approximately 300 billion tons of CO2, so after 20% of the allotted timeframe, we’re already over 30% of the way through the allotted emissions.