On the steamy hot morning of June 30, the Sierra Club’s new executive director, Michael Brune, stood on the Mall in Washington, surrounded by an estimated 10,000 American flags that had been hammered into the parched and scraggly-looking grass by a few dozen members of the club, the oldest and largest grassroots environmental group in the country.
Brune and his fellow demonstrators were there to call for an end to America’s dependence on oil within the next twenty years. The flags, which spelled out "Freedom From Oil," represented "tens of thousands of Americans who have watched the BP disaster in the gulf and want to make sure it never happens again," Brune declared. He called for bold leadership from President Barack Obama, who, at that moment, just happened to be flying overhead in his Marine One helicopter. The president was headed to a town hall–style meeting in Racine, Wisconsin, to address a subject that routinely receives more attention than environmental woes—the economy.
But the environment has commanded the president’s attention, and that of the media and general public, ever since BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, killing eleven workers and sending millions of gallons of crude oil cascading into the Gulf of Mexico. The onslaught of media images—oil-soaked ospreys, burning turtles and other dead and dying wildlife—has also highlighted the daunting environmental challenges facing the country. One potentially positive effect of the disaster, however, has been a resurgence of hope among environmental leaders that Congress and the president may finally be willing not simply to talk about moving the United States off fossil fuels and tackling climate change but to do something about it—or at least, that official Washington may now be more susceptible to pressure from activists pursuing that goal.
"People are watching oil spewing out into the gulf on their computers and television sets. They are desperate to help, and it’s not just the classic greenies who live in San Francisco," says Brune, who lives in the Bay Area, where the Club is headquartered. "The bigger challenge is one of confidence. People don’t necessarily believe that we can do it. There is a very defeatist attitude that permeates the national conversation on this topic." Though, he adds, "we actually do have very real-world solutions for getting off oil, but we don’t yet have politicians and corporate leaders who have the political will."
The Sierra Club hopes to change that by applying the same tactics it used to win perhaps the greatest victory yet achieved in the battle against climate change. Over the past few years, the Club and its state chapters have spearheaded a nationwide grassroots movement that has established a de facto national moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants. Uniting environmentalists, local public officials, health professionals, youth groups (especially at colleges and universities) and others, the Beyond Coal campaign used lobbying, demonstrations, legal challenges and other activist tools to block 129 of some 200 planned coal plants around the country. Now the Sierra Club will use the same methods against oil, employing "all means" at its disposal, Brune says.