A statue of Henry David Thoreau stands outside a replica of his cabin near the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
On a clear and seasonably cold Sunday morning in March, I made my way through the streets of an old neighborhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, and entered a large, converted brick building from some other century. Inside, in a cavernous room with worn floors and south-facing windows lit by the sun, a group of seventy or more young climate activists—mostly college students and recent graduates from the Boston area, along with a few veterans of the Occupy and global justice movements—were gathering for a full day and night of final preparations before carrying out a dramatic peaceful protest against the Keystone XL pipeline. The company building the pipeline, TransCanada Corporation, has its US Northeast office down the road in Westborough, and there, the next morning, twenty-five of these activists—accompanied by more than eighty others, young and old—would be arrested for conscientious, nonviolent civil disobedience.
These people, and those like me who support them, might with some fairness be called “radical”—not just because of their willingness to go to jail to express their principles, but because what they demand lies well outside the limits of mainstream partisan politics and conventional media wisdom.
How radical are they? They insist that those in power take seriously the international scientific consensus that says global greenhouse emissions must be cut at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and that two-thirds to three-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, if today’s young people and future generations are to have any reasonable hope of a livable climate. They insist, given this reality, that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry heed what leading scientists are telling them: that massive new long-term investments in fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL—which will only accelerate and prolong the extraction of carbon-heavy crude from the Alberta tar sands, one of the largest carbon pools on the planet—are unconscionable.
Those activists in Worcester and Westborough weren’t alone. As the battle over Keystone moves toward a climax this summer or fall, when Obama is expected to make a final decision, it has become the central rallying point for a broad and diverse climate movement at what looks like a pivotal, and “radicalizing,” moment. More and more, what Bill McKibben recently dubbed the “Fossil Fuel Resistance” is turning to nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience to make its demands seen and heard.
The resistance has spread across the country. The fights are intensifying against mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia, coal exports from the West Coast and shale-gas fracking in the Northeast, with waves of civil disobedience actions. Most dramatically, along the Keystone’s southern leg from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast in Texas (greenlighted by Obama last year during his re-election campaign), members of the Tar Sands Blockade—including climate activists, property owners, indigenous groups and people from frontline communities—have put their bodies in the way of the pipeline’s construction, often at great risk, both physical and legal. In early March, CREDO Action issued a call to activists to resist the pipeline, and more than 59,000 people have now pledged to engage in peaceful civil disobedience if Obama approves it. Even the Sierra Club officially decided in February to participate in civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history. Its executive director, Michael Brune, was among forty-eight protesters arrested at the White House on February 13, three days before some 50,000 people rallied and marched in Washington to oppose Keystone and call for serious action on climate change—the kind of action that science, and conscience, demand.