It is perhaps fitting that Bill McKibben was among the first people arrested protesting climate change. After all, he had written The End of Nature, the first widely read book on the subject in 1989. At the time, though, he naively thought, as he often puts it now, that people would “read my book, then change.” But after 10 years of complete governmental inaction, McKibben was ready to try a different tack. And so, on April 21, 2000—a day before Earth Day—he joined a small group of campaign-finance activists in the Capitol Rotunda, where they were arrested with a banner that read, “Stop campaign contributions from global warmers.”
“That didn’t accomplish much,” he said, thinking back on it now. “It was maybe premature.”
McKibben should know. He has spent the better part of the next decade building a climate movement that in February showed up 50,000 strong on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Days earlier he had been arrested again, his third and most recent such offense—but this time he was joined by representatives of the nation’s largest environmental groups. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council was there, as were the heads of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. But of particular significance was the presence of Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune—who broke with the organization’s 120-year ban on civil disobedience by cuffing himself to the White House gate.
The occasion was not to stop something as extensive as campaign contributions but rather a single pipeline—the Keystone XL—which, if granted a special presidential permit, would carry dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands region in Northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. McKibben and a few organizers, who now work for his climate group 350.org, had made this pipeline a national issue in August 2011 when they held two weeks of sit-ins in front of the White House. This protest, which led to 1,253 arrests, was the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States in decades. [Full disclosure: I was one of those arrested.]
Still, many consider the construction of the Keystone pipeline inevitable—after all, even 54 percent of Democrats support it. It’s for this reason that critics such as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera have called the protests “boneheaded.” They believe environmental action could be better spent on some other goal, like perhaps encouraging people to reduce their carbon footprint.
But these critics are missing something vital about the anti-Keystone movement: It was never about just a pipeline. McKibben and a handful of others had another, less talked about goal—to remake the environmental movement into something far more active, creative, and formidable for years to come. The gap that once existed between mainstream environmental groups and grass-roots activists has now largely dissolved, resulting in widespread action that has not been seen in the United States for decades—perhaps even since the first Earth Day in April 1970.
On that day, mainstream environmental groups with roots going back to the conservation movement of the early 20th century united with grass-roots activists for a day of teach-ins, influenced by the burgeoning student anti-war movement. Amid the thousands of demonstrations that took place across the nation, there was at least one major act of civil disobedience, in which 15 people were arrested for holding a mock funeral inside Boston’s Logan Airport. Interestingly enough, it was a sort of proto-climate protest against a supersonic plane and its accompanying release of water vapor—a major greenhouse gas.
After that Earth Day, however, the two strands of environmentalism largely went their separate ways, with mainstream groups preferring a more professional approach that took them to courtrooms, shareholder meetings, and the halls of Congress rather than street demonstrations. And for a time, that approach succeeded wildly, earning some of the most important and long-standing environmental gains in this country’s history. But according to a 2012 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, such efforts have yielded no “significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s.” For perhaps no issue is that fact more clear than with climate change.
“We knew enough way back then to act,” says James Gustave Speth, who has advised two presidents on the environment and co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. “When I was chair of President Carter’s Council on Environmental Policy, we issued several reports calling for climate action. So much for my effectiveness.”
Speth has since turned to activism and was among the first people arrested during the two weeks of sit-ins outside the White House.
And he wasn’t the only former bureaucrat turned activist. NASA scientist James Hansen, who was the first to testify before Congress about the urgency of climate change in 1989, was also among those arrested at the White House, both in August 2011 and last February. In fact, his description of what would happen if Canada’s vast tar sands oil reserves were further developed—in short, “game over for the climate”—served as inspiration for the White House sit-ins. Recently, he has decided to step down from his post as the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and pursue activism full-time.
“Our scientists sounded an early warning, and explained it to the world,” McKibben said. “They were ignored because of the power of the fossil fuel industry. So, we’ve had to add moral suasion to reason.”
That, of course, wouldn’t have amounted to much more than his first attempt at civil disobedience in the Capitol Rotunda, had he not set about building a broad base of supporters over the last five years with 350.org. Known for its massive days of global action, the group drew people in with its creative approach to activism—from staging gigantic aerial art pieces that could be seen from space to holding work parties, where actual climate solutions such as solar panels and community gardens were implemented on the local level.
The real push toward civil disobedience, however, came from a University of Utah student named Tim DeChristopher, who disrupted a federal oil and gas auction in December 2008 by posing as a bidder. It wasn’t his plan. He actually didn’t have one. All he knew was that the protest outside the auction was going nowhere. So he walked in, thinking maybe he’d make a speech. But auctioneers handed him a paddle instead, which he used to buy 22,500 acres—worth nearly $1.8 million—before federal agents caught on to the ruse. DeChristopher quickly became a cult icon for a growing climate movement, particularly as his unrepentant nature forced a criminal case that landed him in jail for two years. Coincidentally, his first full day out of custody will be this Earth Day.
“Tim did something that really resonated with a lot of the general public, where they felt emboldened with power, and started to reassess their own capacity for what they can do to make this world a better place,” said Matt Leonard, the principle organizer of the White House sit-ins. “We’ve definitely seen a ton of stories from people who were inspired by Tim and said that was the tipping point for them.”
Knowing, however, that most people were not prepared to risk receiving long jail sentences, McKibben and his team of young organizers crafted an action that was both simple and symbolic. They decided on holding sit-ins because, as Leonard explained, “It’s a tactic that resonates with people’s historical understanding of civil disobedience—for instance the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement.” Also, it is something that anyone can do and the point, after all, was to turn passive allies into active members of a movement.
Tar Sands Action, as the campaign was known, positioned itself as a bridge between the grass roots and the mainstream. In effect, it was radicalizing the latter by using a very basic and low-risk tactic of the former. At the same time, it was making use of the mainstream groups’ strengths, such as generating publicity, writing reports, and coordinating legal action. Getting these groups to work together on the same project was a big accomplishment not only because some of them work in different areas but also because, as Leonard explained, “there’s actually some real political disagreements.”
Yet, as much as this newfound cooperation was the result of the organizers playing the middleman, it was also a direct result of what organizer Linda Capato called “the history of the last couple years in the environmental movement.” With nothing happening on the political front, everyone working on the climate issue realized that, as Capato explained, “We need to start showing up in mass numbers. The reason the president is able to ignore the environmental movement is because he doesn’t think the environment is an important issue to Americans.”
Tar Sands Action challenged that perception by creating the largest civil disobedience action in decades, followed several months later in November 2011 by 12,000 people encircling the White House.The president’s reluctance to make a final determination reflects this newfound environmental activism. But what may end up being more important, in terms of the bigger fight to stop climate change—is what comes next.
“We sort of opened up this realm of possibilities,” said Rae Breaux, another Tar Sands Action organizer. “In terms of organizing civil disobedience campaigns, it’s a thing that people consider an option now.”
Many other climate-oriented campaigns saw an influx of participants last summer, as major actions were held against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, fracking in the Northeast, and coal exports in the Northwest. But the biggest campaign that emerged from this was Tar Sands Blockade, which united Occupy activists, rural East Texas landowners, and indigenous and minority communities in a struggle to physically block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline already under way.
Since August, the group has coordinated 19 actions in more than a dozen counties in Oklahoma and Texas, leading to 68 arrests—including a 79-year-old grandmother who u-locked her neck to construction equipment. The campaign has also spurred nationwide protest. During one week in March there were 55 actions in 15 states, with hundreds risking arrest.
“It’s not just about the anti-KXL message,” said Kim Huynh, an organizer with Tar Sands Blockade, “but also the anti-KXL messenger. We have sought to elevate the voices and perspectives of the individuals and communities most impacted by tar sands—communities being poisoned like the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation at the point of tar sands extraction and like the primarily Latino neighborhoods in Houston at the point of tar sands refining.”
This kind of work has excited longtime environmentalists like James Gustave Speth, who says, “I think we will soon see a real climate victims movement. That is very different from a movement based on intellectual understanding and forecasts.”
No one knows how the Keystone pipeline decision will be decided, but even if it’s a loss for the environmentalists, it’s just one battle in a much bigger fight. And judging by a recent online “Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance”—which gathered nearly 60,000 signatures for acts of peaceful civil disobedience “should it be necessary”— people are ready for that fight.
“The success of the campaign is not measured just on the pragmatic side of stopping the pipeline,” Leonard said. “As far as that goes, I think we made a noble effort. I’m not going to say we’ve lost, but I think it’s certainly a deeper debate and question. In terms of being able to transform the movement in a really positive and productive way for any issue or campaign moving forward, we’ve had tremendous success there. To me, that’s arguably the more important side of things.”
For McKibben, the sight of nearly 50,000 people on the National Mall in February was more than he could have ever imagined on that day of his first arrest, when he and a few others were the only voices of resistance. Now, he sees an “emerging fossil fuel resistance,” adding, “and it’s nice to be a small part of it.”