The Largest Environmental Action Ever—What Motivated Citizens to Walk the Talk?

Via on Feb 27, 2013
Photo: 350.org
Photo: 350.org

“We’re up against the most profitable, powerful, and dangerous industry in history. But we have our own currency: creativity, courage and, if needed, our bodies.”

~ Bill McKibben

Two weeks before Christmas, Bill McKibben, the environmentalist, author, teacher and lately, the face of climate change activism in the United States, sent out the call to the faithful again.

This time it was an email, summoning as many people as possible to the mall in Washington D.C. on President’s Day to help give the newly reelected President even more reason to keep climate change at the forefront of his second term.

The fact that the President underscored a commitment to climate change and the environment in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses was welcome news to the movement that had helped elect him twice.

McKibben had just finished his highly successful Do the Math Tour that began the day after the November 6th election last year, speaking to sold-out crowds in many of the 20 cities he spoke in in as many nights. The tour shot down the West coast, jumped to the East coast, then bisected the country from North Carolina to Wisconsin to Utah to bring home the points he had brought out in his July, 2012 interview in Rolling Stone that had promptly scared the pants off even the most jaded veterans of climate change headlines.

Taking a thread from a new meme published by financial analysts in the U.K, McKibben drove home a harrowing set of facts.

  1. Clearly the planet is already heating up. In the past 30 years, it’s risen about .8 degrees Celsius (about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit). As the planet heats, we must do all we can to keep the earth’s temperature from rising rise more than two degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).
  2. At the outside we can pour as much as 565 gigatons of more CO2 into the atmosphere by 2050 and still stay within that two degree Celsius range.
  3. Here’s the showstopper: The team of London-based financial analysts and environmentalists who make up the Carbon Tracker Initiative estimate that the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves currently on track to be dug up and burned is 2,795 gigatons, or roughly five times higher than what the atmosphere can tolerate.

But there’s more. This isn’t just theoretical best-guess amount of fossil fuel still buried and in the “maybe” column on corporate budgets, says McKibben. These are ongoing sure-thing projects already figured into share prices and downstream profits. And that’s why the fossil fuel lobbyists fight so hard to defund alternative fuels (including trying to prevent the Defense Department from investing in biofuels), ban regulation of CO2 and move full speed ahead on fracking nationwide, build massive coal transport depots on the west coast, drill deeper into vast untapped pockets of oil in the ocean (including the fast-melting Arctic) and push through approvals on projects like Canada’s tar sands.

Clearly, said McKibben, something’s gotta give. And apparently a growing number of people agree with him.

In what has been called the largest environmental action ever undertaken in the United States, from 40,000 to 50,000 people of all ages from all over the country showed up in the shadow of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. on a frigid February 17th to register their concern and outrage and enjoy the considerable amount of camaraderie borne from being with so many dedicated kindred spirits.

Photo: Kris Kaczor | 750Productions.com
Photo: Kris Kaczor | 750Productions.com

People had different reasons for showing up but there was a common thread among their reactions to any questions about why they came: a sense of urgency.

Documentary filmmaker Kris Kaczor took a Sierra Club bus down from New York, partly because he was inspired by a colleague to check it out and partly because this wasn’t his first time to hear about the tar sands.

He had just made a film (Divide in Concord) about 85-year-old Jean Hill’s successful fight to ban plastic water bottles where she lived in Concord, Massachusetts. The idea for the ban had taken root after her grandson told her about the so-called Pacific garbage patch of plastic, reportedly now twice the size of Texas. She investigated and discovered that much of the garbage comes from unrecycled plastic bottles like the ones she saw everyone toting (and tossing out) around town.

Kaczor saw the story in the New York Times and was intrigued. “I followed the story and thought it was an important one but that it would be lost to the media so my goal was to immortalize what Jean did,” he said. “So that’s what I did.”

During the three-year effort to get the ban passed, he got to know local activist Jill Appel, also from Concord, who helped Hill see the ban through. In the summer of 2011, Appel went to Washington, D.C. and was arrested with more than 1,200 other climate activists in the highly publicized protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. The action impressed Kaczor and stuck with him.

“In the past I hadn’t been in these types of things but I’m very glad I went. It was very inspiring. I definitely felt the moment. I wanted to sincerely appreciate the severity of the situation that made the rally necessary.”

As with his effort to record Jean Hill’s effort to limit the amount of plastic in Concord’s landfill, he felt his place was to witness the rally and document what he saw going on but not try to sway viewers one way or the other.

“I literally have tried to take on the idea of peaceful resistance and the way I see that most effectively done is to present things in such a flat objective manner that the facts come through as they truly unfold. That’s basically what I did with the pictures I took.”

Photo: Ellen Gunter (left) freezing in D.C. with Lynn Hasselberger

Andy Stevens was among 125 Chicagoans (including me) who climbed aboard two buses and a passenger van and drove 12 hours through a nighttime blizzard to spend half a day walking around in bitterly cold temperatures first at the Washington monument, then at the action that followed as the swelling, exuberant crowd snaked down 17th Street NW, turned right on Pennsylvania Avenue, passing the White House, then returned to the monument site via 15th Street NW.

“If I didn’t go and the Keystone XL pipeline was approved and went through, I’d be kicking myself.”

Fellow Chicagoan Laura Sabransky agreed.

“It’s not activism unless your body is in the street or you’re writing letters or making phone calls.”

A longtime supporter of environmental awareness and grassroots activism, Laura credits a viewing of the recent documentary Chasing Ice with galvanizing her back into action. Watching the overwhelming footage showing the massive calving of giant glaciers made her weep.

“The immediacy of it rushed at me. I thought, oh my god, nothing matters in my daily life or in the future except for this. If there’s no planet, there’s no food, no life. Why would I work on anything else?”

Photo: Laura Sabransky
Photo: Laura Sabransky (Laura holding the sign, far right)

Environmental activist Danielle Richardet and her husband packed their three children (aged six to 10) into their Prius and made their way north for the five and a half hour drive from Wilmington, North Carolina. It was their first ever trip to the nation’s capital.

“As an activist, I am always one to say that I can’t sit around and wait for someone else to do things for me. I feel like the rally was all of these people who think the same thing. My voice matters. Knowing that so many people showed up, tells me that we’re gaining momentum. I feel like a revolution is afoot.”

Despite the sunny skies that predominated all day, a freezing wind kept most visitors hopping around to stay warm through the 90 minutes of speeches. Still, the crowd was in high spirits, punctuating every speech with chants and loud cheers, pumping their homemade signs up and down. One of the speakers, Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, periodically invited everyone to dance around to keep the blood flow going.

“Unfortunately,” Richardet added, “the weather took its toll on my kids.” Coming from North Carolina, they weren’t really equipped with the kind of cold weather attire needed to brave the bitter winds that had people jumping up and down to stay warm and her husband had to leave with them.

“Nothing was missing from the experience for me except I would have loved for my family to have been with me as we marched in front of the White House.

Photo: Ellen Gunter
Photo: Ellen Gunter

An active member of the Moms Clean Air Force online blog, Tiffany Washko carpooled for the seven-hour trip from Columbus, Ohio to the rally with her 12-year-old son.

“I primarily went to set an example for my children and show them that we must do more than gripe and complain about the issues and problems we see, that we have to take action. I took my son so he could experience the rally and learn from those that attended it.”

Although the Canadian tar sands and the Keystone pipeline were definitely the focus of much of the day’s action, attendees also saw that the rally enabled the showcasing of a wide variety of environmental issues.

“They all had different reasons for being there. Tar sands, coal, gas fracking, clean water, clean food, clean air, species protection, toxic environments for children, etc. There were also people there from a variety of states showing how the issues impact them personally. The large Ohio group, for instance, was very concerned about fracking. It’s big issue for us here in the Buckeye state.”

Photo: Kris Kaczor |  750Productions.com
Photo: Kris Kaczor | 750Productions.com

The former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is credited with saying, “All politics is local.” Increasingly, so are environmental issues.

A member of one of the rally’s sponsors, 350.org, Jill MacIntyre Witt is a teacher and college recruiter for the Peace Corps. She’s also the mother of two teenaged girls and an environmental activist and educator, helping to bring awareness and a sense of urgency to citizens about climate change in general as well as one particular local issue, the dangers inherent in the proposed Cherry Point coal terminal in the college town where she lives, Bellingham, Washington (her travel to D.C. was covered by carbon offsets, she noted on her Facebook page).

If approved, Cherry Point would become the largest coal export terminal in North America with an estimated nine mile-long trains per day carrying coal shipments bound for energy-hungry Asia (and another nine empties returning for more), delivering a total of 48 million metric tons annually. There are four other ports proposed for Washington and Oregon but this project is the closest to home for Witt, her neighbors and family.

One of the reasons she attended the rally was to help bring more public awareness about issues in her own backyard.

“I knew a lot of the rally would be about the Keystone XL but I wanted to get the news out there about the Northwest coal exports too.”

Photo: Ellen Gunter
Photo: Ellen Gunter

In an age when what affects one state or region affects all, this increasingly makes sense. With a degree in environmental biology and as a longtime grassroots organizer, Witt is probably more familiar than most with both how climate change is affecting the planet and how little of that information has been on the public radar.

“I detected a shift when Obama was first elected. Then Copenhagen (the 2009 meeting of the IPCC that failed to gain support for the Kyoto Protocol dealing with climate change and global warming) was disappointing in terms of taking big action that was called for. But I’m a pathological optimist and I think that the disappointment ignited people to a different level of activism. It woke people up to acknowledging that it’s up to us.”

Witt is also a Climate Leader with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit organization that gives free lectures to groups who want to know more about climate change and its effects on all the elements of life on the planet. (She gave 17 talks to more than 1,000 people in the last six months alone.)

“I remember what Al Gore said, that we have to demand change from our legislators. And what President Obama said during the 2008 campaign, that change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington. What a beautiful thing that Obama has now talked about it at his inauguration and in his State of the Union address. The fact that the President is addressing it means we’re there.”

She doesn’t see the rally as a stopping point but rather a way to ignite a bigger movement.

“We have to take what we heard and go home and share that with people, feed the fire. Climate change is seriously upon us. We have to get this fire burning to a roar. It has to happen now. The fact that the Sierra Club has lifted its ban on civil disobedience sends a strong message to do something besides sign petitions.”

At the beginning of his Do The Math Tour, Bill McKibben reinforced that point when he told an audience at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King, Jr. High school: “We’re up against the most profitable, powerful, and dangerous industry in history. But we have our own currency: creativity, courage and, if needed, our bodies.”

Photo: Ellen Gunter
Photo: Ellen Gunter
ellen gunter

Ellen Gunter is a journalist, environmental advocate, author of REUNION: How We Heal Our Broken Connection to the Earth and a Tar Sands Action arrestee. She is also a Climate Change presenter with Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. You can connect with Ellen on twitter (@ellengunter) and Facebook.

Like elephant green and enlightened society on facebook.

Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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One Response to “The Largest Environmental Action Ever—What Motivated Citizens to Walk the Talk?”

  1. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Bravo! In Canada the Green party is small, but most vocal in BC thanks to Elizabeth May. One of the greatest deterrents against fracking and pipelines is the Idle No More movement of Canadian aboriginals.

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