I’m a wuss.
I figured that out on August 20, when a guard was leading me down the cellblock in manacles and leg irons, and I looked through the bars of one cage, and there was Dan Choi, the former Army lieutenant turned gay rights activist.
I knew he’d been arrested with us that morning outside the White House, protesting a climate-killing pipeline called Keystone XL, planned to run from the tar sands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. But it was only now, in the DC jail’s Central Cell Block, that it really struck me what his participation meant. He’d been down this road before—arrested three times outside the White House, galvanizing the successful effort to end “don’t ask, don’t tell”—so unlike the rest of us, he had a pretty good sense of how his day would end. He did it anyway.
He did it even though climate change isn’t his issue. I didn’t come forward to do time for gay marriage, or immigration reform or any of the other things I believe in; I’m an environmentalist. So looking at Dan made me understand what solidarity looks like—how those of us on the fringe should be uniting to provide common pressure on an administration and a Congress that rarely feels enough heat to veer from the corporate status quo.
Mostly, though, I felt like a wuss—and not just because I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to come back to prison (two nights in Central Cell Block is exactly as much fun as it sounds like). I felt like a wuss because this kind of tough politics scares me. It’s hard for me to take on a president I worked to elect, hard to say the plain truth: that on environmental issues he’s been content to make small changes around the edge but unwilling to use the power of his office to make real change.
Take this pipeline, for example; it should be the easiest of calls. It will be the main outlet for oil from what is the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet, after only Saudi Arabia. But when we struck oil in Saudi Arabia we didn’t know about global warming. Now we do—enough to know that if we fully develop this field, in the words of NASA scientist James Hansen, it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” Any president who heard those words from his most renowned federal atmospheric scientist would, you think, stop the project dead. Especially a president who, on the night of his nomination, promised that during his presidency the “rise of the oceans will begin to slow, and the planet begin to heal.”
And yet the administration has done nothing of the sort. The State Department gave the project a green light in its environmental impact statement, dismissing the threat of sharp increases in carbon emissions. The usual Washington chicanery has been fully in evidence: the pipeline company hired Hillary Clinton’s former deputy campaign manager as its chief lobbyist, and Wikileaks documents showed American envoys working with the Canadian oil barons to produce “favorable media coverage.” President Obama, by all insider accounts, is likely to sign the “certificate of national interest” the project requires. Faced with a choice between the base that elected him and Big Oil, everyone assumes the president will go with Exxon.