A Voice for Climate, 40,000 Strong

Drew Angerer/SIPA via AP Images

Allison Chin, president of the Sierra Club, knows now is the moment to think big on climate. It’s been a year of “records”: A record number of droughts have hit towns across the country, record temperatures slowly roast the planet, and storms have left record amounts of snow and rain in their wake. Finally, too, a record number of people have conceded that we’re changing the environment for the worse. “Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, businessmen, people of the faith—it’s not just environmentalists that are affected by this,” Chin says. She knows that environmentalists need to be practical—they need concrete demands that all people left adrift by a changing climate can endorse. But facing such long odds and high stakes, how can they be anything but ardent about the environment?

Yesterday’s climate rally, which supporters billed as the largest in history, proved a near perfect mix of the practical and the passionate. Facing a chilly February wind, a crowd 40,000 strong congregated in the shadow of the Washington Monument, chanting, dancing, and marching to Obama's doorstep to announce that they've got some demands now that they've helped him keep his job. Organized by 350, a climate advocacy group, and the Sierra Club, one of the largest grassroots environmental organizations, the “Forward on Climate” rally kicked off with speeches from environmental activists Van Jones and Bill McKibben, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, actress Rosario Dawson, and other prominent faces of the climate movement. But the image that will rule the day is the prismatic sea of hats, gloves, and animal costumes—polar bears, a moose, a cow, a wolf, and one velour dolphin suit cut off at the elbows and knees. Under the hats were all ages and genders and races and socioeconomic backgrounds, a coalition of the willing that grafts neatly onto the group responsible for Obama's November victory. An issue ignored for years by politicians and the public, climate activism seemed finally to have grown into a formidable movement. Whether politicians decide to listen remains to be seen.

This movement had a clear, achievable goal: getting Obama to pull the kill switch on the proposed Keystone XL, a pipeline that would carry tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur, Texas, where refineries strong enough to handle the thick sludge already exist. The pipeline is currently under review by the State Department. Once that process is done this spring, it’s up to Obama whether to continue the project, which has already begun construction at its southern end, into Canada. Those pushing for the pipeline—oil companies, Republican politicians, some labor unions counting on the construction work—point to Keystone’s ability to make the United States energy independent, reduce gas prices, and create jobs. The ralliers have a quick counter, loudly announced in their banners, speeches, chants, and soundbites offered up to the press: Keystone’s oil is intended for export and will likely increase gas prices, the pipeline’s job projections are inflated, and the tar sands oil threatens to push an extra 1.15 billion tons of greenhouse gases into our already sickly atmosphere. 

Sister Sarah Fahy, who was at Sunday's rally carrying a sign for the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, was at the first White House civil-disobedience action in August 2011, when around 160 people were arrested over the course of a weekend. When she left the police station that day, she was welcomed by people who had fled their office buildings after a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the Capitol. "The Earth had actually shook after our action!" she said. 

The Earth was again shaking on Sunday as a large number of old men hopped to a Gangnam Style-chant of "Power Shift" during the speeches warming up to the day's big march. Decked out in candy-cane striped slacks, Wayne Montecalvo of Rosendale, New York, traded out clapping and whooping for a baritone bleat from his sousaphone. When one of the speakers said something especially stirring, the rest of the Rosendale Improvement Association Brass Band and Social Club would join in, whether with matching sousaphone or saxophone or snare drum. It was hard not to get swept up in the excitement—tourists who were crossing monuments off their vacation checklist were soon carrying the signs being passed out by volunteers. For the climate activists, this was the mobilization they had been waiting for. 

It's not just the rally's distinction as the largest and loudest climate rally ever that's getting it attention; it’s the resonance of the message across the country. "The first arrest, no one was covering," says Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "Now, it's not just The New York Times and progressive bloggers; it's newspapers and TV stations along the pipeline, and not only along the pipeline, but in Baltimore and Richmond and other places too." If you get 150 buses from 30 states to descend on D.C. for your rally, you get dozens of newspapers that would never have thought about covering a climate rally to give it a few inches in next week's edition. The Pioneer Press wrote about 72 Minnesotans who took Amtrak to the capital in a trip dubbed the "Earth Train." A paper in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania wrote of 169 locals taking four buses to the rally. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced the arrival of "five busloads of Mainers." West Coast media wrote about the satellite rallies happening in Monterey and San Francisco and Los Angeles and Portland, and the Independent Record wrote of the five rallies held in Montana. 

How did a movement once relegated to the edge of the progressive agenda and the national consciousness exert such a magnetic pull on people and press from across the country? There's a couple of factors. First, a poll from this month shows 69 percent of Americans think the president needs to address climate change, now. Second, 2012 marked the year when climate change made itself impossible to ignore. As Tidwell puts it, when it comes to mobilizing people other than already avowed environmentalists, "the climate is doing that on its own. Between Hurricane Sandy and the fact that half the country is in drought, it's too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, wherever you go."

First-hand knowledge of the havoc climate change can wreak is what brought Occupy Sandy to the capital. Eight people, swept into action by the hurricane, came from the Rockaways, says 19-year-old native Robert Rodriguez, arriving in a bus just as the march was about to begin. The group held a meeting on Valentine's Day discussing how to pressure the government for more money to rebuild their home, and just held a drive to give out 200 space heaters to those in need, free of charge. "We're pretty loud," he said, shouting over his comrades' chant of "The Rockaways are everywhere." "So we can make a difference.”


Some of the ralliers shared their knowledge of the toll tar sands pipelines are already taking, and not just on the environment. Hilton Kelley came to the rally from Port Arthur, Texas, the home of the refinery at the end of Keystone XL's route. Port Arthur has an unemployment rate of 13.7 percent and 35 percent of its residents—mostly black—live under the poverty line. They have learned to just deal with the eminent domain snatching up family lands and leaving their community a battleground in the Keystone fight. Kelley says this isn't right, and that's why he's in D.C. "We've got to protect the least of us,” he says. “Low-income communities are hurting enough.” Small-scale actions protesting the pipeline have occurred in Texas—one man rode a bike from Alberta, Canada to Port Arthur, mirroring Keystone's intended path—but Kelley hopes that national exposure, like the kind awarded to the climate movement on Sunday, might be just what his home needs. 

Chief Jackie Thomas of Saik'uz First Nation has been fighting the tar sands battle on the other side of the border for years. The Yinka Dene Alliance held a big pipeline protest last year in Canada. The Freedom Train brought them from their base in British Columbia to Toronto, where Enbrigde, the company planning to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to transport tar sands through First Nations land, was holding a big shareholders' meeting. There were many stops along the way, which like yesterday's rally were notable because they showed that not only climate activists care about the environment. "We met tons of regular people, and they gave us money and support." Winnipeg was her favorite stop, because there, women were running the anti-pipeline show. "When women are on the front lines, when women are on the war path, you know change is a comin'." Thomas is in D.C. because she thinks Obama needs to not only stop the Keystone pipeline, but the Northern Gateway one too. "His re-election, we celebrated it in our community because we saw it as a victory for us," she said. "We're rooting for him."

As the front lines of the marchers reached the White House, they began chanting, "Obama come out, we've got something to talk about." Unfortunately, the president wasn't home to hear them; he was out on the golf course with Tiger Woods in Florida. Given Obama's record when it comes to heeding the environmental movement, it's no guarantee that the largest climate rally ever will be able to shake an administration that has rested its environmental laurels on small, if still important, policies: raising fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks, creating a grant program and extending tax credits for residential renewable energy, etc. Nixing Keystone would be a big, unprecedented move on climate change. Between the renewed pressure from his base, and his own refrain on stopping climate change—repeated at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, his 2013 inaugural address, and last Tuesday's State of the Union address—the White House may finally be ready to push back.

At the end of the day, with the crowd dispersed and a movement's foundation perhaps planted, what was McKibben's verdict on the rally? "Definitely the most remarkable day in the history of the climate movement," he wrote in an email. "My hope is that the administration will recognize that it really is a movement, and that if it works with it by blocking KXL, it will have a powerful ally at its back going forward on the one issue that will ultimately determine its legacy."

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