Demonstrators march with a replica of a pipeline during a protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline outside the White House on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
“As visionary as Obama is, he is hamstrung by his pragmatism.” So says Michael Marx of the Sierra Club, America’s largest grassroots environmental organization. It is therefore “incumbent on our movement,” Marx continues, to press the president to be more visionary than pragmatic during his second term—above all on climate change, the make-or-break challenge for our civilization.
One way to push Obama is through “a show of force,” Marx says, by turning out large numbers of people at two big climate demonstrations planned this year in Washington. The rallies, on Presidents’ Day weekend (February 17) and Earth Day (April 22), will bookend a 100-day Obama Climate and Clean Energy Legacy campaign intended to press the president to show much stronger environmental leadership in his second term.
The Sierra Club is upping the ante another way as well: its board of directors has authorized the use of peaceful civil disobedience for the first time in the club’s 120-year history. “For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest,” wrote Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, in announcing the decision. The wrong in this case, he continued, “is the possibility that the United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our planet’s climate.” In an interview with The Nation, Brune declined to specify what kind of civil disobedience was planned, or for when, saying only, “It’ll be focused on Obama.”
The campaigners will appeal both to Obama’s visionary and pragmatic sides. With climate change arriving much sooner and nastier than even the most pessimistic scientists had predicted, activists will argue that Obama must regard this crisis as fundamental to his legacy: history will remember whether this president avoided the climate cliff, not the fiscal one. Obama seems receptive to this argument; in his second inaugural address, he declared that Americans must “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
Pragmatically, activists are urging Obama to use his executive authority and take immediate actions, which he can do without approval from congressional Republicans who refuse even to acknowledge the existence of climate change, much less move against it. These actions include the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline; Obama’s decision on the pipeline, currently under review by the State Department, is expected this spring. Activists will also be pressing the administration to use the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act to slash US greenhouse gas emissions, with different groups pushing for a range of approaches (more on these below).
“To build the political space for the president and EPA to take the necessary steps, our movement needs to show some numbers and some militancy,” says Marx, who directs the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil campaign. “We need to turn out 25,000 people or more at the Presidents’ Day rally and another 100,000 or more on Earth Day. And we need to show that it’s not only the environmental community that cares. It’s also the faith community, because climate change is the ultimate moral issue of our times. It’s also the consumer community, because oil companies take money out of consumers’ pockets every time we pull up to the pump. It’s the healthcare community, because fossil fuels not only overheat the atmosphere, they also give people cancer and asthma. It’s people of color, because they live closest to and get the most sick from coal plants.”