As the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline has worn on — and it’s now well over two years old — it’s illuminated the Obama presidency like no other issue. It offers the president not just a choice of policies, but a choice of friends, worldviews, styles. It’s become an X-ray for a flagging presidency. The stakes are sky-high, and not just for Obama. I’m writing these words from Pittsburgh, amid 7,000 enthusiastic and committed young people gathering to fight global warming, and my guess is that his choice will do much to determine how they see politics in this country.

Let us stipulate at the start that whether or not to build the pipeline is a decision with profound physical consequences. If he approves its construction, far more of the dirtiest oil on Earth will flow out of the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and reach the U.S. Gulf Coast. Not just right away or for a brief period, but far into the future, since the Keystone XL guarantees a steady flow of profits to oil barons who have their hearts set on tripling production in the far north.

The history of oil spills and accidents offers a virtual guarantee that some of that oil will surely make its way into the fields and aquifers of the Great Plains as those tar sands flow south.  The greater and more daunting assurance is this, however: everything that reaches the refineries on the Gulf Coast will, sooner or later, spill into the atmosphere in the form of carbon, driving climate change to new heights.

In June, President Obama said that the building of the full pipeline — on which he alone has the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down — would be approved only if “it doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  By that standard, it’s as close to a no-brainer as you can get.

These days, however, as no one will be surprised to hear, brainless things happen in Washington more often than not, and there’s the usual parade of the usual suspects demanding that Keystone get built. In mid-October, a coalition that included Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable, sent Obama a letter demanding that he approve Keystone in order to “maintain investor confidence,” a phrase almost guaranteed to accompany bad ideas. A report last week showed that the Koch brothers stood to earn as much as $100 billion in profits if the pipeline gets built (which would come in handy in helping fund their endless assault on unions, poor people, and democracy).

But don’t think it’s just Republican bigwigs and oil execs rushing to lend the pipeline a hand. Transcanada, the pipeline’s prospective builder, is at work as well, and Obama’s former communications director Anita Dunn is now on the Transcanada dime, producing TV ads in support of the pipeline.  It’s a classic example of the kind of influence peddling that knows no partisan bounds. As the activists at Credo put it: “It’s a betrayal of the commitments that so many of us worked so hard for, and that Dunn herself played a huge role in shaping as top strategist on the 2008 campaign and communications director in the White House.”

Credo’s Elijah Zarlin, who worked with Dunn back in 2008, wrote that attack on her. He was the guy who wrote all those emails that got so many of us coughing up money and volunteering time during Obama’s first run for the presidency, and he perfectly exemplifies those of us on the other side of this divide — the ones who actually believed Dunn in 2008, the ones who thought Obama was going to try to be a different kind of president.

On energy there’s been precious little sign of that. Yes, the Environmental Protection Agency has put in place some new power plant regulations, and cars are getting better mileage. But the president has also boasted again and again about his “all of the above” energy policy for “increasing domestic oil production and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” It has, in fact, worked so well that the United States will overtake Russia this year as the biggest combined oil and natural gas producer on the planet and is expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the number one oil producer by 2017.

His administration has okayed oil drilling in the dangerous waters of the Arctic and has emerged as the biggest backer of fracking.  Even though he boasts about marginal U.S. cuts in carbon emissions, his green light to fracking means that he’s probably given more of a boost to releases of methane — another dangerous greenhouse gas — than any man in history. And it’s not just the environment.  At this point, given what we know about everything from drone warfare to NSA surveillance, the dream of a progressive Obama has, like so many dreams, faded away.

The president has a handy excuse, of course: a truly terrible Congress. And too often — with the noble exception of those who have been fighting for gay rights and immigration reform — he’s had little challenge from progressives. But in the case of Keystone, neither of those caveats apply: he gets to make the decision all by himself with no need to ask John Boehner for a thing, and people across the country have made a sustained din about it. Americans have sent record numbers of emails to senators and a record number of comments to the State Department officials who oversee a “review” of the pipeline’s environmental feasibility; more have gone to jail over this issue than any in decades. Yet month after month, there’s no presidential decision.

There are days, in fact, when it’s hard to muster much fire for the fight (though whenever I find my enthusiasm flagging, I think of the indigenous communities that have to live amid the Mordor that is now northern Alberta). The president, after all, has already allowed the construction of the southern half of the Keystone pipeline, letting Transcanada take land across Texas and Oklahoma for its project, and setting up the beleaguered communities of Port Arthur, Texas, for yet more fumes from refineries.

Stopping the northern half of that pipeline from being built certainly won’t halt global warming by itself. It will, however, slow the expansion of the extraction of tar sands, though the Koch brothers et al. are busy trying to find other pipeline routes and rail lines that would get the dirtiest of dirty energy out of Canada and into the U.S. via destinations from Michigan to Maine.  These pipelines and rail corridors will need to be fought as well — indeed the fights are underway, though sometimes obscured by the focus on Keystone. And there are equally crucial battles over coal and gas from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast. You can argue that the president’s people have successfully diverted attention from their other environmental sins by keeping this argument alive long past the moment at which it should have been settled and a decision should have been made.

At this point, in fact, only the thought of those 900,000 extra barrels a day of especially nasty oil coming out of the ground and, via that pipeline, into refineries still makes the fight worthwhile. Oh, and the possibility that, in deciding to block Keystone, the president would finally signal a shift in policy that matters, finally acknowledge that we have to keep most of the carbon that’s still in the ground in that ground if we want our children and grandchildren to live on a planet worth inhabiting.

If the president were to become the first world leader to block a big energy project on the grounds of its effects on climate, it might help dramatically reset the international negotiations that he allowed to go aground at Copenhagen in 2009 — the biggest foreign policy failure of his first term.

But that cascade of “ifs” depends on Obama showing that he can actually stand up to the oil industry. To an increasingly disillusioned environmental movement, Keystone looks like a last chance.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of a new book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben

 

X-Ray of a Flagging Presidency

The history we grow up with shapes our sense of reality — it’s hard to shake. If you were young during the fight against Nazism, war seems a different, more virtuous animal than if you came of age during Vietnam.  I was born in 1960, and so the first great political character of my life was Martin Luther King, Jr. I had a shadowy, child’s sense of him when he was still alive, and then a mythic one as his legend grew; after all, he had a national holiday. As a result, I think, I imagined that he set the template for how great movements worked. They had a leader, capital L.

As time went on, I learned enough about the civil rights movement to know it was much more than Dr. King.  There were other great figures, from Ella Baker and Medgar Evers to Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Malcolm X, and there were tens of thousands more whom history doesn’t remember but who deserve great credit. And yet one’s early sense is hard to dislodge: the civil rights movement had his face on it; Gandhi carried the fight against empire; Susan B. Anthony, the battle for suffrage.

Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to look around and realize that most of the movements of the moment — even highly successful ones like the fight for gay marriage or immigrant’s rights — don’t really have easily discernible leaders. I know that there are highly capable people who have worked overtime for decades to make these movements succeed, and that they are well known to those within the struggle, but there aren’t particular people that the public at large identifies as the face of the fight. The world has changed in this way, and for the better.

It’s true, too, in the battle where I’ve spent most of my life: the fight to slow climate change and hence give the planet some margin for survival. We actually had a charismatic leader in Al Gore, but he was almost the exception that proved the rule. For one thing, a politician makes a problematic leader for a grassroots movement because boldness is hard when you still envision higher office; for another, even as he won the Nobel Prize for his remarkable work in spreading climate science, the other side used every trick and every dollar at their disposal to bring him down. He remains a vital figure in the rest of the world (partly because there he is perceived less as a politician than as a prophet), but at home his power to shape the fight has been diminished.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the movement is diminished.  In fact, it’s never been stronger. In the last few years, it has blocked the construction of dozens of coal-fired power plants, fought the oil industry to a draw on the Keystone pipeline, convinced a wide swath of American institutions to divest themselves of their fossil fuel stocks, and challenged practices like mountaintop-removal coal mining and fracking for natural gas. It may not be winning the way gay marriage has won, but the movement itself continues to grow quickly, and it’s starting to claim some victories.

That’s not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders, I think. It’s because of it.

A Movement for a New Planet

We live in a different world from that of the civil rights movement. Save perhaps for the spectacle of presidential elections, there’s no way for individual human beings to draw the same kind of focused and sustained attention they did back then. At the moment, you could make the three evening newscasts and the cover of Time (not Newsweek, alas) and still not connect with most people. Our focus is fragmented and segmented, which may be a boon or a problem, but mostly it’s just a fact. Our attention is dispersed.

When we started 350.org five years ago, we dimly recognized this new planetary architecture. Instead of trying to draw everyone to a central place — the Mall in Washington, D.C. — for a protest, we staged 24 hours of rallies around the planet: 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries, what CNN called “the most widespread of day of political action in the planet’s history.” And we’ve gone on to do more of the same — about 20,000 demonstrations in every country but North Korea.

Part of me, though, continued to imagine that a real movement looked like the ones I’d grown up watching — or maybe some part of me wanted the glory of being a leader.  In any event, I’ve spent the last few years in constant motion around the country and the Earth. I’d come to think of myself as a “leader,” and indeed my forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, reflects on that growing sense of identity.

However, in recent months — and it’s the curse of an author that sometimes you change your mind after your book is in type — I’ve come to like the idea of capital L leaders less and less.  It seems to me to miss the particular promise of this moment: that we could conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways.

For environmentalists, we have a useful analogy close at hand. We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this “distributed generation,” and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel. The same principle, it seems to me, applies to movements.

In the last few weeks, for instance, 350.org helped support a nationwide series of rallies called Summerheat. We didn’t organize them ourselves.  We knew great environmental justice groups all over the country, and we knew we could highlight their work, while making links between, say, standing up to a toxic Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, and standing up to the challenge of climate change.

From the shores of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, where a tar-sands pipeline is proposed, to the Columbia River at Vancouver, Washington, where a big oil port is planned, from Utah’s Colorado Plateau, where the first U.S. tar-sands mine has been proposed, to the coal-fired power plant at Brayton Point on the Massachusetts coast and the fracking wells of rural Ohio — Summerheat demonstrated the local depth and global reach of this emerging fossil fuel resistance. I’ve had the pleasure of going to talk at all these places and more besides, but I wasn’t crucial to any of them.  I was, at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.

Or consider a slightly older fight. In 2012, the Boston Globe magazine put a picture of me on its cover under the headline: “The Man Who Crushed the Keystone Pipeline.” I’ve got an all-too-healthy ego, but even I knew that it was over the top. I’d played a role in the fight, writing the letter that asked people to come to Washington to resist the pipeline, but it was effective because I’d gotten a dozen friends to sign it with me. And I’d been one of 1,253 people who went to jail in what was the largest civil disobedience action in this country in years.  It was their combined witness that got the ball rolling. And once it was rolling, the Keystone campaign became the exact model for the sort of loosely-linked well-distributed power system I’ve been describing.

The big environmental groups played key roles, supplying lots of data and information, while keeping track of straying members of Congress.  Among them were the National Resources Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and the National Wildlife Federation, none spending time looking for credit, all pitching in. The Sierra Club played a crucial role in pulling together the biggest climate rally yet, last February’s convergence on the Mall in Washington.

Organizations and individuals on the ground were no less crucial: the indigenous groups in Alberta and elsewhere that started the fight against the pipeline which was to bring Canadian tar sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast graciously welcomed the rest of us, without complaining about how late we were.  Then there were the ranchers and farmers of Nebraska, who roused a whole stadium of football fans at a Cornhuskers game to boo a pipeline commercial; the scientists who wrote letters, the religious leaders who conducted prayer vigils. And don’t forget the bloggers who helped make sense of it all for us.  One upstart website even won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the struggle.

Non-experts quickly educated themselves on the subject, becoming specialists in the corruption of the State Department process that was to okay the building of that pipeline or in the chemical composition of the bitumen that would flow through it.  CREDO (half an activist organization, half a cell phone company), as well as Rainforest Action Network and The Other 98%, signed up 75,000 people pledged to civil disobedience if the pipeline were to get presidential approval.

And then there was the Hip Hop Caucus, whose head Lennox Yearwood has roused one big crowd after another, and the labor unions — nurses and transit workers, for instance — who have had the courage to stand up to the pipeline workers’ union which would benefit from the small number of jobs to be created if Keystone were built. Then there are groups of Kids Against KXL, and even a recent grandparents’ march from Camp David to the White House.  Some of the most effective resistance has come from groups like Rising Tide and the Tarsands Blockade in Texas, which have organized epic tree-sitting protests to slow construction of the southern portion of the pipeline.

The Indigenous Environmental Network has been every bit as effective in demonstrating to banks the folly of investing in Albertan tar sands production. First Nations people and British Columbians have even blocked a proposed pipeline that would take those same tar sands to the Pacific Ocean for shipping to Asia, just as inspired activists have kept the particularly carbon-dirty oil out of the European Union.

We don’t know if we’ll win the northern half of the Keystone fight or not, although President Obama’s recent pledge to decide whether it should be built — his is the ultimate decision — based on how much carbon dioxide it could put into the atmosphere means that he has no good-faith way of approving it. However, it’s already clear that this kind of full-spectrum resistance has the ability to take on the huge bundles of cash that are the energy industry’s sole argument.

What the Elders Said

This sprawling campaign exemplifies the only kind of movement that will ever be able to stand up to the power of the energy giants, the richest industry the planet has ever known. In fact, any movement that hopes to head off the worst future depredations of climate change will have to get much, much larger, incorporating among other obvious allies those in the human rights and social justice arenas.

The cause couldn’t be more compelling.  There’s never been a clearer threat to survival, or to justice, than the rapid rise in the planet’s temperature caused by and for the profit of a microscopic percentage of its citizens. Conversely, there can be no real answer to our climate woes that doesn’t address the insane inequalities and concentrations of power that are helping to drive us toward this disaster.

That’s why it’s such good news when people like Naomi Klein and Desmond Tutu join the climate struggle.  When they take part, it becomes ever clearer that what’s underway is not, in the end, an environmental battle at all, but an all-encompassing fight over power, hunger, and the future of humanity on this planet.

Expansion by geography is similarly a must for this movement. Recently, in Istanbul, 350.org and its allies trained 500 young people from 135 countries as climate-change organizers, and each of them is now organizing conferences and campaigns in their home countries.

This sort of planet-wide expansion suggests that the value of particular national leaders is going to be limited at best. That doesn’t mean, of course, that some people won’t have more purchase than others in such a movement. Sometimes such standing comes from living in the communities most immediately and directly affected by climate change or fossil fuel depredation.  When, for instance, the big climate rally finally did happen on the Mall this winter, the 50,000 in attendance may have been most affected by the words of Crystal Lameman, a young member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation whose traditional territory has been poisoned by tar sands mining.

Sometimes it comes from charisma: Van Jones may be the most articulate and engaging environmental advocate ever. Sometimes it comes from getting things right for a long time: Jim Hansen, the greatest climate scientist, gets respect even from those who disagree with him about, say, nuclear power. Sometimes it comes from organizing ability: Jane Kleeb who did such work in the hard soil of Nebraska, or Clayton Thomas-Muller who has indefatigably (though no one is beyond fatigue) organized native North America. Sometimes it comes from sacrifice: Tim DeChristopher went to jail for two years for civil disobedience, and so most of us are going to listen to what he might have to say.

Sometimes it comes from dogged work on solutions: Wahleah Johns and Billy Parish figured out how to build solar farms on Navajo land and crowdfund solar panels on community centers. Sometimes truly unlikely figures emerge: investor Jeremy Grantham, or Tom Steyer, a Forbes 400 billionaire who quit his job running a giant hedge fund, sold his fossil fuel stocks, and put his money and connections effectively to work fighting Keystone and bedeviling climate-denying politicians (even Democrats!). We have organizational leaders like Mike Brune of the Sierra Club or Frances Beinecke of NRDC, or folks like Kenny Bruno or Tzeporah Berman who have helped knit together large coalitions; religious leaders like Jim Antal, who led the drive to convince the United Church of Christ to divest from fossil fuels; regional leaders like Mike Tidwell in the Chesapeake or Cherri Foytlin in the Gulf or K.C. Golden in Puget Sound.

Yet figures like these aren’t exactly “leaders” in the way we’ve normally imagined.  They are not charting the path for the movement to take. To use an analogy from the Internet age, it’s more as if they were well-regarded critics on Amazon.com review pages; or to use a more traditional image, as if they were elders, even if not in a strictly chronological sense. Elders don’t tell you what you must do, they say what they must say. A few of these elders are, like me, writers; many of them have a gift for condensing and crystallizing the complex. When Jim Hansen calls the Alberta tar sands the “biggest carbon bomb on the continent,” it resonates.

When you have that standing, you don’t end up leading a movement, but you do end up with people giving your ideas a special hearing, people who already assume that you’re not going to waste their energy on a pointless task. So when Naomi Klein and I hatched a plan for a fossil fuel divestment campaign last year, people paid serious attention, especially when Desmond Tutu lent his sonorous voice to the cause.

These elders-of-all-ages also play a sorting-out role in backing the ideas of others or downplaying those that seem less useful. There are days when I feel like the most useful work I’ve done is to spread a few good Kickstarter proposals via Twitter or write a blurb for a fine new book. Conversely, I was speaking in Washington recently to a group of grandparents who had just finished a seven-day climate march from Camp David. A young man demanded to know why I wasn’t backing sabotage of oil company equipment, which he insisted was the only way the industry could be damaged by our movement. I explained that I believed in nonviolent action, that we were doing genuine financial damage to the pipeline companies by slowing their construction schedules and inflating their carrying costs, and that in my estimation wrecking bulldozers would play into their hands.

But maybe he was right. I don’t actually know, which is why it’s a good thing that no one, myself included, is the boss of the movement. Remember those solar panels: the power to change these days is remarkably well distributed, leaving plenty of room for serendipity and revitalization. In fact, many movements had breakthroughs when they decided their elders were simply wrong. Dr. King didn’t like the idea of the Freedom Summer campaign at first, and yet it proved powerfully decisive.

The Coming of the Leaderless Movement

We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands.  You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one. We see such leaders regularly at 350.org.  When I wrote earlier that we “staged” 5,200 rallies around the globe, I wasn’t completely accurate. It was more like throwing a potluck dinner. We set the date and the theme, but everywhere other people figured out what dishes to bring.

The thousands of images that accumulated in the Flickr account of that day’s events were astonishing.  Most of the people doing the work didn’t look like environmentalists were supposed to. They were largely poor, black, brown, Asian, and young, because that’s what the world mostly is.

Often the best insights are going to come from below: from people, that is, whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it. That’s why frontline communities in places where global warming’s devastation is already increasingly obvious often produce such powerful ideas and initiatives.  We need to stop thinking of them as on the margins, since they are quite literally on the cutting edge.

We live in an age in which creative ideas can spring up just about anywhere and then, thanks to new forms of communication, spread remarkably quickly. This is in itself nothing new.  In the civil rights era, for instance, largely spontaneous sit-in campaigns by southern college students in 1960 reshuffled the deck locally and nationally, spreading like wildfire in the course of days and opening up new opportunities.

More recently, in the immigration rights campaign, it was four “Dreamers” walking from Florida to Washington D.C. who helped reopen a stale, deadlocked debate. When Lieutenant Dan Choi chained himself to the White House fence, that helped usher the gay rights movement into a new phase.

But Dan Choi doesn’t have to be Dan Choi forever, and Tim DeChristopher doesn’t have to keep going to jail over government oil and gas leases.  There are plenty of others who will arise in new moments, which is a good thing, since the physics of climate change means that the movement has to win some critical victories in the next few years but also last for generations. Think of each of these “leaders” as the equivalent of a pace line for a bike race: one moment someone is out front breaking the wind, only to peel away to the back of the line to rest for a while. In movement terms, when that happens you not only prevent burnout, you also get regular infusions of new ideas.

The ultimate in leaderlessness was, of course, the Occupy movement that swept the U.S. (and other areas of the world) in 2011-2012.  It, in turn, took cues from the Arab Spring, which absorbed some of its tricks from the Serbian organizers at Otpor, who exported many of the features of their campaign against Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s around the planet.

Occupy was exciting, in part, because of its deep sense of democracy and democratic practice.  Those of us who are used to New England town meetings recognized its Athenian flavor. But town meetings usually occur one day a year.  Not that many people had the stomach for the endless discussions of the Occupy moment and, in many cases, the crowds began to dwindle even without police repression — only to surge back when there was a clear and present task (Occupy Sandy, say, in the months after that superstorm hit the East coast).

All around the Occupy movement, smart people have been grappling with the problem of democracy in action.  As the occupations wore on, its many leaders were often engaged as facilitators, trying to create a space that was both radically democratic and dramatically effective.  It proved a hard balancing act, even if a remarkably necessary one.

How to Save the Earth

Communities (and a movement is a community) will probably always have some kind of hierarchy, even if it’s an informal and shifting one. But the promise of this moment is a radically flattened version of hierarchy, with far more room for people to pop up and propose, encourage, support, drift for a while, then plunge back into the flow. That kind of trajectory catches what we’ll need in a time of increased climate stress — communities that place a premium on resiliency and adaptability, dramatically decentralized but deeply linked.

And it’s already happening. The Summerheat campaign ended in Richmond, California, where Chevron runs a refinery with casual disregard for the local residents.  When a section of it exploded last year, authorities sent a text message essentially requesting that people not breathe. As a result, a coalition of local environmental justice activists has waged an increasingly spirited fight against the plant.

Like the other oil giants, Chevron shows the same casual disregard for people around the world.  The company is, typically enough, suing journalists in an attempt to continue to cover up the horrors it’s responsible for in an oil patch of jungle in Ecuador. And of course, Chevron and the other big oil companies have shown a similar recklessness when it comes to our home planet.  Their reserves of oil and gas are already so large that, by themselves, they could take us several percent of the way past the two-degree Celsius temperature rise that the world has pledged to prevent, which would bring on the worst depredations of global warming — and yet they are now on the hunt in a major way for the next round of “unconventional” fossil fuels to burn.

In addition, as the 2012 election campaign was winding down, Chevron gave the largest corporate campaign donation in the post-Citizens United era. It came two weeks before the last election, and was clearly meant to insure that the House of Representatives would stay in the hands of climate deniers, and that nothing would shake the status quo.

And so our movement — global, national, and most of all local. Released from a paddy wagon after the Richmond protest, standing in a long line of handcuffees waiting to be booked, I saw lots of elders, doubtless focused on different parts of the Chevron equation.  Among them were Gopal Dayaneni, of the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, who dreams of frontline communities leading in the construction of a just new world, and Bay Area native activist Pennie Opal Plant, who has spent her whole life in Richmond and dreams, I suspect, of kids who can breathe more easily in far less polluted air.

I continue to hope for local, national, and global action, and for things like a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme that would play a role in making just transitions easier. Such differing, overlapping dreams are anything but at odds.  They all make up part of the same larger story, complementary and complimentary to it. These are people I trust and follow; we have visions that point in the same general direction; and we have exactly the same enemies who have no vision at all, save profiting from the suffering of the planet.

I’m sure much of this thinking is old news to people who have been building movements for years. I haven’t.  I found myself, or maybe stuck myself, at the front of a movement almost by happenstance, and these thoughts reflect that experience.

What I do sense, however, is that it’s our job to rally a movement in the coming years big enough to stand up to all that money, to profits of a sort never before seen on this planet. Such a movement will need to stretch from California to Ecuador — to, in fact, every place with a thermometer; it will need to engage not just Chevron but every other fossil fuel company; it will need to prevent pipelines from being built and encourage windmills to be built in their place; it needs to remake the world in record time.

That won’t happen thanks to a paramount leader, or even dozens of them.  It can only happen with a spread-out and yet thoroughly interconnected movement, a new kind of engaged citizenry. Rooftop by rooftop, we’re aiming for a different world, one that runs on the renewable power that people produce themselves in their communities in small but significant batches. The movement that will get us to such a new world must run on that kind of power too.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. His next, to be published this September, is Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist.

Copyright 2013 Bill McKibben

Movements Without Leaders

A few weeks ago, Time magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.

Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the “environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline.  And there’s good reason to put pressure on.  After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.

Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown DC.)

It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body.  In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic senators Mark Warner of Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.

Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.

Fiddling While the Planet Burns

Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole, they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said). Every Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the pipeline — every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you know exactly what you’re getting from them.

With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their Senate caucus — about a third — joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone XL. As the Washington insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate: Senate Democrats.”

Which actually may have been generous to the president.  It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change.  His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.

Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough, that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientist James Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week, simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.

All these men and women have excuses for their climate conservatism.  To name just two: the oil industry has endless resources and they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic and pragmatic, as far as they go: if you can’t get re-elected, you can’t do even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of voting records than party affiliation.

Anyway, aren’t all those apologias wearing thin as Arctic sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights.  Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost.  At least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: if the Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able to marry.

Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit.  Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers.  What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.

Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for Action, for instance — an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org — has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great, but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly the kind that makes the administration and Congressional “moderates” nervous.

Energy Independence: Last Century’s Worry

So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is now badly weakened: plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways, including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).

Recently, I had a long talk with an administration insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our energies on “killing coal.”  Why? Because it was politically feasible.

And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic — from Greenland to its seas — essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing. You’d panic.

There is, however, no panic in Washington.  Instead, the administration and Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia, even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into more decades of fossil fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last century’s worry.  It dates back to the crises set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early 1970s, not long after… Stonewall.

So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been decisive in nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments. But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont).  It’s not clear to me how that will effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism.  It makes it harder to follow one’s heart.

Along with some way to make a third party truly viable, we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform — not just a change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see broad new campaigns underway around them.  It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the scientists tell us that we have no hope of holding the rise in the planetary temperature below two degrees unless global emissions peak by 2015.

Of course, climate-change activists can and should continue to work to make the Democrats better.  At the moment, for instance, the 350.org action fund is organizing college students for the Massachusetts primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not okay.  Maybe electing his opponent, Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said, demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might actually start to shake things up.

It will take a while, though.  According to press reports, Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your number one concern.”

By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage.  At this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase actually mean “underwater.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he said, is “going to take people in Washington who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve — not two miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”

That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.

And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head, I keep coming to the same conclusion: we probably need to think, most of the time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.

The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time. He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.

A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global warming summit he convened in Vermont’s state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”

“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he replied.

And so, down to work.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Is the Keystone XL Pipeline the “Stonewall” of the Climate Movement?

At a moment when megafires are sweeping the southwest and heat records continue to be set across the country, climate-change deniers are finally having a few problems of their own.  As Bill McKibben begins his latest, typically timely piece for TomDispatch, “It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.”  And it all started when the Heartland Institute, that nerve-center of climate-change denial, put the Unabomber on a billboard to stigmatize the global warming crowd and experienced a little blowback of its own.

It’s a fascinating story and McKibben uses it to offer an anatomy of a denial job disastrously well done until now, despite the fact that the deniers have no serious scientists to back up their position.  He then vividly describes the hapless crew the climate-change deniers tend to cite as authorities — only to add: “If your urge is to laugh at this kind of clown show, the joke’s on you — because it’s worked.”

This is a story about how, with various right-wing billionaires and energy companies bankrolling them, the deniers have intimidated climate-changers and helped wreck our future planet.  McKibben offers an unnerving success story — and the first hints that this may be turning around.  He concludes:  “But damn, it’s a hard fight, up against a ton of money and a ton of inertia. Eventually, climate denial will ‘lose,’ because physics and chemistry are not intimidated… But timing is everything — … a crew of certified planet wreckers delay action past the point where it can do much good, they’ll be able to claim one of the epic victories in political history — one that will last for geological epochs.”

Another McKibben must-read!

 

The Planet Wreckers, Climate-Change Deniers Are on the Ropes – But So Is the Planet

My resolution for 2012 is to be naïve — dangerously naïve.

I’m aware that the usual recipe for political effectiveness is just the opposite: to be cynical, calculating, an insider. But if you think, as I do, that we need deep change in this country, then cynicism is a sucker’s bet. Try as hard as you can, you’re never going to be as cynical as the corporations and the harem of politicians they pay for.  It’s like trying to outchant a Buddhist monastery.

Here’s my case in point, one of a thousand stories people working for social change could tell: All last fall, most of the environmental movement, including 350.org, the group I helped found, waged a fight against the planned Keystone XL pipeline that would bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf Coast. We waged our struggle against building it out in the open, presenting scientific argument, holding demonstrations, and attending hearings.  We sent 1,253 people to jail in the largest civil disobedience action in a generation.  Meanwhile, more than half a million Americans offered public comments against the pipeline, the most on any energy project in the nation’s history.

And what do you know? We won a small victory in November, when President Obama agreed that, before he could give the project a thumbs-up or -down, it needed another year of careful review.  (The previous version of that review, as overseen by the State Department, had been little short of a crony capitalist farce.)  Given that James Hansen, the government’s premier climate scientist, had said that tapping Canada’s tar sands for that pipeline would, in the end, essentially mean “game over for the climate,” that seemed an eminently reasonable course to follow, even if it was also eminently political. 

A few weeks later, however, Congress decided it wanted to take up the question. In the process, the issue went from out in the open to behind closed doors in money-filled rooms.  Within days, and after only a couple of hours of hearings that barely mentioned the key scientific questions or the dangers involved, the House of Representatives voted 234-194 to force a quicker review of the pipeline.  Later, the House attached its demand to the must-pass payroll tax cut.

That was an obvious pre-election year attempt to put the president on the spot. Environmentalists are at least hopeful that the White House will now reject the permit.  After all, its communications director said that the rider, by hurrying the decision, “virtually guarantees that the pipeline will not be approved.”

As important as the vote total in the House, however, was another number: within minutes of the vote, Oil Change International had calculated that the 234 Congressional representatives who voted aye had received $42 million in campaign contributions from the fossil-fuel industry; the 193 nays, $8 million.

Buying Congress

I know that cynics — call them realists, if you prefer — will be completely unsurprised by that. Which is precisely the problem.

We’ve reached the point where we’re unfazed by things that should shake us to the core. So, just for a moment, be naïve and consider what really happened in that vote: the people’s representatives who happen to have taken the bulk of the money from those energy companies promptly voted on behalf of their interests.

They weren’t weighing science or the national interest; they weren’t balancing present benefits against future costs.  Instead of doing the work of legislators, that is, they were acting like employees. Forget the idea that they’re public servants; the truth is that, in every way that matters, they work for Exxon and its kin. They should, by rights, wear logos on their lapels like NASCAR drivers.

If you find this too harsh, think about how obligated you feel when someone gives you something. Did you get a Christmas present last month from someone you hadn’t remembered to buy one for? Are you going to send them an extra-special one next year?

And that’s for a pair of socks. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who insisted that the Keystone approval decision be speeded up, has gotten $1,111,080 from the fossil-fuel industry during his tenure. His Senate counterpart Mitch McConnell, who shepherded the bill through his chamber, has raked in $1,277,208 in the course of his tenure in Washington.

If someone had helped your career to the tune of a million dollars, wouldn’t you feel in their debt? I would. I get somewhat less than that from my employer, Middlebury College, and yet I bleed Panther blue.  Don’t ask me to compare my school with, say, Dartmouth unless you want a biased answer, because that’s what you’ll get.  Which is fine — I am an employee.

But you’d be a fool to let me referee the homecoming football game. In fact, in any other walk of life we wouldn’t think twice before concluding that paying off the referees is wrong. If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, everyone in America would be outraged to see owner Robert Kraft trot out to midfield before the game and hand a $1,000 bill to each of the linesmen and field judges.

If he did it secretly, the newspaper reporter who uncovered the scandal would win a Pulitzer. But a political reporter who bothered to point out Boehner’s and McConnell’s payoffs would be upbraided by her editor for simpleminded journalism.  That’s how the game is played and we’ve all bought into it, even if only to sputter in hopeless outrage.

Far from showing any shame, the big players boast about it: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, front outfit for a consortium of corporations, has bragged on its website about outspending everyone in Washington, which is easy to do when Chevron, Goldman Sachs, and News Corp are writing you seven-figure checks. This really matters.  The Chamber of Commerce spent more money on the 2010 elections than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined, and 94% of those dollars went to climate-change deniers.  That helps explain why the House voted last year to say that global warming isn’t real.

It also explains why “our” representatives vote, year in and year out, for billions of dollars worth of subsidies for fossil-fuel companies. If there was ever an industry that didn’t need subsidies, it would be this one: they make more money each year than any enterprise in the history of money. Not only that, but we’ve known how to burn coal for 300 years and oil for 200.

Those subsidies are simply payoffs. Companies give small gifts to legislators, and in return get large ones back, and we’re the ones who are actually paying.

Whose Money?  Whose Washington?

I don’t want to be hopelessly naïve. I want to be hopefully naïve. It would be relatively easy to change this: you could provide public financing for campaigns instead of letting corporations pay. It’s the equivalent of having the National Football League hire referees instead of asking the teams to provide them.

Public financing of campaigns would cost a little money, but endlessly less than paying for the presents these guys give their masters. And it would let you watch what was happening in Washington without feeling as disgusted.  Even legislators, once they got the hang of it, might enjoy neither raising money nor having to pretend it doesn’t affect them.

To make this happen, however, we may have to change the Constitution, as we’ve done 27 times before. This time, we’d need to specify that corporations aren’t people, that money isn’t speech, and that it doesn’t abridge the First Amendment to tell people they can’t spend whatever they want getting elected. Winning a change like that would require hard political organizing, since big banks and big oil companies and big drug-makers will surely rally to protect their privilege.

Still, there’s a chance.  The Occupy movement opened the door to this sort of change by reminding us all that the system is rigged, that its outcomes are unfair, that there’s reason to think people from across the political spectrum are tired of what we’ve got, and that getting angry and acting on that anger in the political arena is what being a citizen is all about.

It’s fertile ground for action.  After all, Congress’s approval rating is now at 9%, which is another way of saying that everyone who’s not a lobbyist hates them and what they’re doing. The big boys are, of course, counting on us simmering down; they’re counting on us being cynical, on figuring there’s no hope or benefit in fighting city hall. But if we’re naïve enough to demand a country more like the one we were promised in high school civics class, then we have a shot.

A good time to take an initial stand comes later this month, when rallies outside every federal courthouse will mark the second anniversary of the Citizens United decision. That’s the one where the Supreme Court ruled that corporations had the right to spend whatever they wanted on campaigns.

To me, that decision was, in essence, corporate America saying, “We’re not going to bother pretending any more. This country belongs to us.”

We need to say, loud and clear: “Sorry. Time to give it back.”

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of the global climate campaign 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  To catch Timothy MacBain’s first Tomcast audio interview of the new year in which McKibben discusses how the rest of us can compete with a system in which money talks, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2012 Bill McKibben

Armed With Naïvete

Conventional wisdom has it that the next election will be fought exclusively on the topic of jobs. But President Obama’s announcement last week that he would postpone a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election, which may effectively kill the project, makes it clear that other issues will weigh in — and that, oddly enough, one of them might even be climate change.

The pipeline decision was a true upset.  Everyone — and I mean everyone who "knew" how these things work — seemed certain that the president would approve it. The National Journal runs a weekly poll of “energy insiders” — that is, all the key players in Washington. A month to the day before the Keystone XL postponement, this large cast of characters was “virtually unanimous” in guaranteeing that it would be approved by year’s end.

Transcanada Pipeline, the company that was going to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the tar-sands fields of Alberta, Canada, through a sensitive Midwestern aquifer to the Gulf of Mexico, certainly agreed.  After all, they’d already mowed the strip and prepositioned hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pipe, just waiting for the permit they thought they’d bought with millions in lobbying gifts and other maneuvers. Happily, activists across the country weren’t smart enough to know they’d been beaten, and so they staged the largest civil disobedience action in 35 years, not to mention ringing the White House with people, invading Obama campaign offices, and generally proving that they were willing to fight.

No permanent victory was won. Indeed, just yesterday Transcanada agreed to reroute the pipeline in Nebraska in an effort to speed up the review, though that appears not to change the schedule.  Still, we're waiting for the White House to clarify that they will continue to fully take climate change into account in their evaluation.  But even that won't be final.  Obama could just wait for an election victory and then approve the pipeline — as any Republican victor certainly would.  Chances are, nonetheless, that the process has now gotten so messy that Transcanada’s pipeline will die of its own weight, in turn starving the tar-sands oil industry and giving a boost to the global environment.  Of course, killing the pipeline will hardly solve the problem of global warming (though heavily exploiting those tar sands would, in NASA scientist James Hansen’s words, mean “game over for the climate.”) 

In this line of work, where victories of any kind are few and far between, this was a real win.  It began with indigenous activists, spread to Nebraska ranchers, and eventually turned into the biggest environmental flashpoint in many years.  And it owed no small debt to the Occupy Wall Street protesters shamefully evicted from Zuccotti Park last night, who helped everyone understand the power of corporate money in our daily lives.  That these forces prevailed shocked most pundits precisely because it’s common wisdom that they’re not the sort of voters who count, certainly not in a year of economic trouble. 

In fact, the biggest reason the realists had no doubts the pipeline would get its permit, via a State Department review and a presidential thumbs-up of that border-crossing pipeline, was because of the well-known political potency of the jobs argument in bad economic times. Despite endless lazy reporting on the theme of jobs versus the environment, there were actually no net jobs to be had from the pipeline. It was always a weak argument, since the whole point of a pipeline is that, once it's built, no one needs to work there.  In addition, as the one study not paid for by Transcanada made clear, the project would kill as many jobs as it would create. 

The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson finally demonstrated this late in the game with a fine report taking apart Transcanada’s job estimates. (The 20,000 jobs endlessly taken for granted assumed, among other stretches, that modern dance troupes would move to Nebraska, where part of the pipeline would be built, to entertain pipeline workers.)  Still, the jobs trope remained, and you can be sure that the Chamber of Commerce will run 1,000 ads during the 2012 presidential campaign trying to hammer it home. And you can be sure the White House knew that, which was why it was such a tough call for them — and why the pressure of a movement among people whose support matters to them made a difference.

Let’s assume the obvious then: that one part of their recent calculations that led to the postponement decision might just be the suspicion that they will actually win votes thanks to the global-warming question in the next election. 

For one thing, global warming denial has seen its apogee. The concerted effort by the fossil-fuel industry to underwrite scientific revision met its match last month when a team headed by Berkeley skeptic and prominent physicist Richard Muller– with funding from the Koch Brothers, of all people — actually found that, what do you know, all the other teams of climate-change scientists were, um, right. The planet was indeed warming just as fast as they, and the insurance companies, and the melting ice had been insisting.

Still, scientific studies only reach a certain audience.  Weird weather is a far more powerful messenger. It’s been hard to miss the record flooding along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and across the Northeast; the record drought and fires across the Southwest; the record multi-billion dollar weather disasters across the country this year; the record pretty-much everything-you-don’t-want across the nation. Obama certainly noticed.  He’s responsible for finding the cash every time some other state submerges.

As a result, after years of decline, the number of Americans who understand that the planet is indeed warming and that we’re to blame appears to be on the rise again. And ironically enough, one reason may be the spectacle of all the tea-partying GOP candidates for the presidency being forced to swear fealty to the notion that global warming is a hoax. Normal people find this odd: it’s one thing to promise Grover Norquist that you’ll never ever raise taxes; it’s another to promise that you’ll defeat chemistry and physics with the mighty power of the market.

Along these lines, Mitt Romney made an important unforced error last month. Earlier in the primaries, he and Jon Huntsman had been alone in the Republican field in being open to the idea that global warming might actually be real. Neither wanted to do anything about it, of course, but that stance itself was enough to mark them as realists.  It was also a sign that Romney was thinking ahead to the election itself, and didn’t want to be pinned against this particular wall.

In late October, however, he evidently felt he had no choice but to pin himself to exactly that wall and so stated conclusively: “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” In other words, he not only flip-flopped to the side of climate denial, but did so less than six months after he had said no less definitively: “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer… And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.”  Note as well that he did so, while all the evidence, even some recently funded by the deniers, pointed the other way.

If he becomes the Republican presidential candidate as expected, this may be the most powerful weathervane ad the White House will have in its arsenal.  Even for people who don’t care about climate change, it makes him look like the spinally challenged fellow he seems to be. But it’s an ad that couldn’t be run if the president had okayed that pipeline. 

Now that Obama has at least temporarily blocked Keystone XL, now that his team has promised to consider climate change as a factor in any final decision on the pipeline’s eventual fate, he can campaign on the issue. And in many ways, it may prove a surprise winner.

After all, only people who would never vote for him anyway deny global warming.  It’s a redoubt for talk-show rightists. College kids, on the other hand, consistently rank it among the most important issues. And college kids, as Gerald Seib pointed out in the Wall Street Journal last week, are a key constituency for the president, who is expected to need something close to the two-thirds margin he won on campus in 2008 to win again in 2012.

Sure, those kids care about student loans, which threaten to take them under, and jobs, which are increasingly hard to come by, but the nature of young people is also to care about the world.  In addition, independent voters, suburban moms — these are the kinds of people who worry about the environment.  Count on it: they’ll be key targets for Obama’s presidential campaign.

Given the economy, that campaign will have to make Mitt Romney look like something other than a middle-of-the-road businessman.  If he’s a centrist, he probably wins. If he’s a flip-flopper with kooky tendencies, they’ve got a shot. And the kookiest thing he’s done yet is to deny climate science.

If I’m right, expect the White House to approve strong greenhouse gas regulations in the months ahead, and then talk explicitly about the threat of a warming world. In some ways it will still be a stretch.  To put the matter politely, they’ve been far from perfect on the issue: the president didn’t bother to waste any of his vaunted “political capital” on a climate bill, and he’s opened huge swaths of territory to coal mining and offshore drilling.

But blocking the pipeline finally gave him some credibility here — and it gave a lot more of the same to citizens' movements to change our world. Since a lot of folks suspect that the only way forward economically has something to do with a clean energy future, I’m guessing that the pipeline decision won’t be the only surprise. I bet Barack Obama talks on occasion about global warming next year, and I bet it helps him.

But don’t count on that, or on Keystone XL disappearing, and go home.  If the pipeline story (so far) has one lesson, it’s this: you can’t expect anything to change if you don’t go out and change it yourself.

Bill McKibben is a founder of 350.org, a TomDispatch regular, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben

Obama’s Positive Flip and Romney’s Negative Flop

For connoisseurs, Barack Obama’s fundraising emails for the 2012 election campaign seem just a tad forlorn — slightly limp reminders of the last time ‘round.

Four years ago at this time, the early adopters among us were just starting to get used to the regular flow of email from the Obama campaign. The missives were actually exciting to get, because they seemed less like appeals for money than a chance to join a movement.

Sometimes they came with inspirational videos from Camp Obama, especially the volunteer training sessions staged by organizing guru Marshall Ganz. Here’s a favorite of mine, where a woman invokes Bobby Kennedy and Cesar Chavez and says that, as the weekend went on, she “felt her heart softening,” her cynicism “melting,” her determination building. I remember that feeling, and I remember clicking time and again to send another $50 off to fund that people-powered mission. (And I recall knocking on a lot of New Hampshire doors, too, with my 14-year-old daughter.)

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m still on the email list. But I haven’t been clicking through this time. Not even when Barack Obama himself asked me to “donate $75 or more today to be automatically entered for a chance to join me for dinner.” Not even when campaign manager Jim Messina pointed out that, though “the president has very little time to spend on anything related to the campaign… this is how he chooses to spend it — having real, substantive conversations with people like you” over the dinner you might just win. (And if you do win, you’ll be put on a plane to “Washington, or Chicago, or wherever he might be that day.”)

Not even when deputy campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon offered to let me “take ownership of this campaign” by donating to it and, as an “added bonus,” possibly find myself “across the table from the president.” Not even when Michelle lowered the entry price from $75 to $25 and offered this bit of reassurance: “Just relax. Barack wants this dinner to be fun, and he really loves getting to know supporters like you.” Not even when, hours before an end-of-September fundraising “deadline,” Barack himself dropped the asking price to three dollars. God, have a little self-respect man!  Three dollars?

Here’s the thing I’m starting to think Obama never understood: yes, for most of us the 2008 campaign was partly about him, but it was more about the campaign itself — about the sudden feeling of power that gripped a web-enabled populace, who felt themselves able to really, truly hope. Hope that maybe they’d found a candidate who would escape the tried-and-true money corruption of Washington.

None of us gave $50 hoping for a favor. Quite the opposite. You gave $50 hoping that, for the first time in a long while in American politics, no one would get a favor. And the candidate, it must be said, led us on. His rhetorical flights were dazzling — to environmentalists like me, he promised to “free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all,” and pledged that his administration would mark the moment when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Once in office, it was inevitable that he’d disappoint us to some degree.  In fact, we knew the disappointment would come and braced ourselves for it. After all, our movement was up against the staggering power of vested corporate and financial interests. It’s hard to beat big money. Still, we didn’t mind thinking: Yes, we can. We’ll work hard. We’ve got your back. Let’s go!

What we completely missed was that Obama didn’t want us at his back — that the minute the campaign was over he would cut us adrift, jettison the movement that had brought him to power. Instead of using all those millions of people to force through ambitious health-care proposals or serious climate legislation or [fill in the blank yourself here], he governed as the opposite of a movement candidate.

He clearly had not the slightest interest in keeping that network activated and engaged. Though we had brought him to the party, it was as if he didn’t really want to dance with us. Instead — however painful the image may be — he wanted to dance with Larry Summers. (Fundraising idea: I’d pay $75 to be assured I never had to have dinner with Summers.)

As the months of his administration rolled into years, he only seemed to grow less interested in movements of any sort. Before long, people like Tom Donahue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were topping the list of the most frequent visitors to the White House.  And that was before this winter when — after they’d been the biggest contributors to GOP congressional candidates — Obama went on bended knee to Chamber headquarters, apologizing that he hadn’t brought a fruitcake along as a gift. (What is it with this guy and food?  At any rate, he soon gave them a far better present, hiring former Chamber insider Bill Daley as his chief of staff.)

Now, his popularity tanking, Obama and his advisors talk about “tacking left” for the election. A nice thought, but maybe just a little late.

Increasingly, it seems to me, those of us who were ready to move with him four years ago are deciding to leave normal channels and find new forms of action. Here's an example: by year's end the president has said he will make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. The nation's top climate scientists sent the administration a letter indicating that such a development would be disastrous for the climate.  NASA's James Hansen, the government's top climate researcher, said heavily tapping tar-sands oil, a particularly “dirty” form of fossil fuel, would mean “game over for the climate.” Ten of the president's fellow recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates pointed out in a letter that blocking the prospective pipeline would offer him a real leadership moment, a “tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal, and gas.”

But every indication from this administration suggests that it is prepared to grant the necessary permission for a project that has the enthusiastic backing of the Chamber of Commerce, and in which the Koch Brothers have a “direct and substantial interest.”  And not just backing.  To use the words of a recent New York Times story, they are willing to "flout the intent of federal law" to get it done.  Check this out as well: the State Department, at the recommendation of Keystone XL pipeline builder TransCanada, hired a second company to carry out the environmental review.  That company already considered itself a "major client" of TransCanada.  This is simply corrupt, potentially the biggest scandal of the Obama years.  And here's the thing: it's a crime still in progress.  Watching the president do nothing to stop it is endlessly depressing.

For many of us, it’s been an overdue wake-up call, a sharp reminder of just who the president was really listening to. In mid-summer, several leaders of the environmental movement, myself included, put out a call for nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House over the upcoming Keystone pipeline decision. And more people — 1,253 in total — showed up to be arrested than at anytime in the last 40 years. (One reason Obama’s emails stink this time around: the guy who used to write many of them, Elijah Zarlin, not only isn’t working for the campaign any more, but got hauled off in a paddy wagon.)

Bare months have past and already that arrest record is being threatened, thank heavens, by the forces of #OccupyWallStreet, a movement that includes plenty more of the kind of people who rallied so enthusiastically behind Obama back in 2008. 

Obama had mojo when he knew it wasn’t about him, that it was about change. But when you promise change, you have to deliver. His last best opportunity may come with that Keystone Pipeline decision, which he can make entirely by himself, without our inane Congress being able to get in the way. So on November 6th, exactly one year before the election, we’re planning to circle the White House with people. And the signs we’ll be carrying will simply be quotes from his last campaign — all that stuff about the tyranny of big oil and the healing of the planet.

Our message will be simple: If you didn’t mean it, you shouldn’t have said it. If you did, here’s the chance to prove it.  Nix the pipeline.

We don’t want dinner. We want action.

Bill McKibben is an organizer at tarsandsaction.org, a TomDispatch regular, and Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben

Obama’s Failing Emails

I didn’t think it was possible, but my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., grew even stronger these past days.

As I headed to jail as part of the first wave of what is turning into the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement for many years, I had the vague idea that I would write something. Not an epic like King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but at least, you know, a blog post. Or a tweet.

But frankly, I wasn’t up to it. The police, surprised by how many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson. As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone else from coming — and so with our first crew they were… kind of harsh.

We spent three days in D.C.’s Central Cell Block, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the high heat; the din is incessant; there’s one baloney sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.

I didn’t have a pencil — they wouldn’t even let me keep my wedding ring — but more important, I didn’t have the peace of mind to write something. It’s only now, out 12 hours and with a good night’s sleep under my belt, that I’m able to think straight. And so, as I said, I’ll go to this weekend’s big celebrations for the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more respect for his calm power.

Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we’ve experienced in the last few days. When the police cracked down on us, the publicity it produced cemented two of the main purposes of our protest:

First, it made Keystone XL — the new, 1,700-mile-long pipeline we’re trying to block that will vastly increase the flow of “dirty” tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico — into a national issue. A few months ago, it was mainly people along the route of the prospective pipeline who were organizing against it. (And with good reason: tar sands mining has already wrecked huge swaths of native land in Alberta, and endangers farms, wild areas, and aquifers all along its prospective route.)

Now, however, people are coming to understand — as we hoped our demonstrations would highlight — that it poses a danger to the whole planet as well.  After all, it’s the Earth’s second largest pool of carbon, and hence the second-largest potential source of global warming gases after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. We’ve already plumbed those Saudi deserts.  Now the question is: Will we do the same to the boreal forests of Canada. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has made all too clear, if we do so it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” That message is getting through.  Witness the incredibly strong New York Times editorial opposing the building of the pipeline that I was handed on our release from jail.

Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism. For once Congress isn’t in the picture.  The situation couldn’t be simpler: the president, and the president alone, has the power either to sign the permit that would take the pipeline through the Midwest and down to Texas (with the usual set of disastrous oil spills to come) or block it.

Barack Obama has the power to stop it and no one in Congress or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so.  That means — and again, it couldn’t be simpler — that the Keystone XL decision is the biggest environmental test for him between now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they were so enthused in 2008.

That’s why many of us were wearing our old campaign buttons when we went into the paddy wagon.  We’d like to remember — and like the White House to remember, too — just why we knocked on all those doors.

But as Dr. King might have predicted, the message went deeper. As people gather in Washington for this weekend’s dedication of his monument, most will be talking about him as a great orator, a great moral leader. And of course he was that, but it’s easily forgotten what a great strategist he was as well, because he understood just how powerful a weapon nonviolence can be.

The police, who trust the logic of force, never quite seem to get this. When they arrested our group of 70 or so on the first day of our demonstrations, they decided to teach us a lesson by keeping us locked up extra long — strong treatment for a group of people peacefully standing on a sidewalk.

No surprise, it didn’t work.  The next day an even bigger crowd showed up — and now, there are throngs of people who have signed up to be arrested every day until the protests end on September 3rd.  Not only that, a judge threw out the charges against our first group, and so the police have backed off.  For the moment, anyway, they’re not actually sending more protesters to jail, just booking and fining them.

And so the busload of ranchers coming from Nebraska, and the bio-fueled RV with the giant logo heading in from East Texas, and the flight of grandmothers arriving from Montana, and the tribal chiefs, and union leaders, and everyone else will keep pouring into D.C. We’ll all, I imagine, stop and pay tribute to Dr. King before or after we get arrested; it’s his lead, after all, that we’re following.

Our part in the weekend’s celebration is to act as a kind of living tribute. While people are up on the mall at the monument, we’ll be in the front of the White House, wearing handcuffs, making clear that civil disobedience is not just history in America.

We may not be facing the same dangers Dr. King did, but we’re getting some small sense of the kind of courage he and the rest of the civil rights movement had to display in their day — the courage to put your body where your beliefs are. It feels good.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben

Arrested at the White House