This weekend hundreds of people are gathering in Washington, DC for one of the biggest acts of mass civil disobedience the climate movement has yet seen. Between August 20th and September 3rd, over two thousand people will risk arrest outside the White House, to protest one of the most massive new fossil fuel projects proposed in the United States.
Their focus is the Keystone XL pipeline—an oil pipeline that, if built, would transport some of the world’s dirtiest fuel from Canada, down through the Midwestern United States to Texas. Leading environmental groups and the nation’s most respected climate scientists say building the pipeline would be a disaster for the climate, cementing US dependence on oil while triggering a “carbon bomb” that could tip the planet toward irreversible global warming.
Oil companies hope to use Keystone XL to transport oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta to the US oil market. Tar sands oil is a particularly dirty form of petroleum, extracted from a tar-like rock called bitumen. Because large amounts of energy are needed to separate oil from bitumen, tar sands oil has a higher carbon footprint than almost any oil in the world.
The tar sands also happen to be the world’s second-largest known petroleum deposit. Tapping into that deposit could pave the way for continued reliance on oil for decades to come in the US, making catastrophic global warming all but impossible to avoid. According to NASA climate scientist James Hansen, opening the tar sands to unrestrained oil development would mean “essentially game over” for a stable climate.
Thus the sit-in that starts this weekend, during which over a thousand people will risk arrest for trespassing on the White House steps. They’re urging President Obama to withhold his approval of Keystone XL, and prevent the project from moving forward. But they aren’t planning a typical protest. Indeed, many participants will be wearing the Obama ’08 pins and buttons they sported during the presidential elections three years ago.
They are hoping to remind the president of his pledge to halt global warming, and convince him to nix one of the single largest threats to a stable climate. In this sense, the thousand-plus gathering isn’t about protesting President Obama’s policies, so much as reminding him of principles he pledged to fight for on the campaign trail.
Acts of civil disobedience are not particularly uncommon in Washington, DC, where protesters often risk arrest for trespassing. However the Keystone XL sit-in is different. Not only will it involve a much larger number of people than are usually arrested at any single action—it will go on for a much longer time.
Protesters are planning to descend on the White House steps in stages, over a period of two weeks. Every day between seventy-five and a hundred people will sit down in front of the White House and risk arrest, to be replaced by another wave of people the following day.
The sit-in will target President Obama, because the Obama administration must give the go-ahead before Keystone XL can break ground. The permitting process for pipelines that cut across national borders means the president himself must give a stamp of approval, quite independent from any act by Congress or other elected officials.
“For once,” wrote author and activist Bill McKibben in a recent piece for the Washington Post, “the president will get to make an important call all by himself.”
McKibben is one of twelve activists, scientists, and public figures who signed a letter earlier this year asking people from around the US to join the sit-in. That call has so far been answered more than two thousand times over, as groups of concerned citizens prepare to travel by carpool and caravan to the protest.
Success is certainly not guaranteed. But by harnessing the power of principled civil disobedience, the voters converging in Washington, DC hope to remind President Obama why he was put into office.
If they succeed, the forecast for the Earth’s future will look a lot brighter.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/tom_lohdan/4217661984/