Climate protesters wind through Washington on February 17, 2013. (Photo credit: Shadia Fayne Wood, 350.org)
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Two Sundays ago, I traveled to the nation’s capital to attend what was billed as “the largest climate rally in history” and I haven’t been able to get the experience—or a question that haunted me—out of my mind. Where was everybody?
First, though, the obvious weather irony: climate change didn’t exactly come out in support of that rally. In the midst of the warmest years and some of the warmest winters on record, the demonstration, which focused on stopping the Keystone XL Pipeline—it will bring tar-sands oil, some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-richest energy available from Alberta, Canada, to the US Gulf Coast—was the coldest I’ve ever attended. I thought I’d lose a few fingers and toes while listening to the hour-plus of speakers, including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, who were theoretically warming the crowd up for its march around the (other) White House.
And I also experienced a moment of deep disappointment. When I arrived early at the spot in front of the Washington Monument on the National Mall where we were to assemble, my heart sank. It looked like only a few thousand protestors were gathering for what had been billed as a monster event. I had taken it for granted that I would be adding one small, aging body (and voice) to a vast crowd at a propitious moment to pressure Barack Obama to become the climate-change president he hasn’t been. After all, he has a decision to make that’s his alone: whether or not to allow that pipeline to be built. Nixing it would help keep a potentially significant contributor to climate change, those Albertan tar sands, in the ground. In other words, I hoped to play my tiny part in preserving a half-decent future for this planet, my children and my new grandson.
Sixty environmental and other organizations were backing the demonstration, including the Sierra Club with its hundreds of thousands of members. Given what was potentially at stake, it never crossed my mind that the turnout wouldn’t be substantial. In fact, on that frigid day, lots of demonstrators did turn up. Evidently, they knew the dirty little secret of such events: that much talk would precede a modest amount of walking and inventive slogan shouting. So they arrived—poured in actually—late, and in real numbers.
In the end, the organizers estimated attendance at somewhere in the 35,000–50,000 range. Media reports varied between the usual “thousands,” generically used to describe (or, if you’re in a conspiratorial frame of mind, minimize) any demonstration, and tens of thousands. I have no way of estimating myself, but certainly the crowd was, in the end, sizeable, as well as young, enthusiastic and loud. It made itself heard passing the White House. Not that President Obama was there to hear anything. He was then on a golf course in the Florida warmth teeing up with “a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas, and pipeline players.” That seemed to catch another kind of climate-change reality of our moment and strongly hinted at the strength of the forces any such movement is up against. In the meantime, Keystone builder TransCanada was ominously completing the already green-lighted first half of the Texas-Oklahoma leg of itsprospective future pipeline.