By Randy Cunningham, Captain of the Cleveland bus
The February 17th Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, DC is now being chewed on and digested by its friends, foes and pundits who are judging its significance in the long, discouraging story of how the US has both dealt with and refused to deal with climate change. I was part of the Ohio contingent that sponsored three buses from the Sierra Club. We joined many other Buckeyes in DC who risked hypothermia to demand that Obama match his lofty rhetoric about dealing with climate change with real action on the issue – starting by turning down the Keystone XL pipeline project.
It is hard to underestimate the significance of the Keystone XL pipeline project as a mobilizing focus for the broader movement to deal with climate change. Until Keystone, climate change was a difficult issue to get hold of for North American activists. That is, until the issue of the Keystone XL pipeline gained people’s attention. The project is a poster child for a fossil fuel industry gone berserk. The pipeline would carry tar sand oil from northern Alberta to the Gulf Coast for refining. Tar sand oil is not only a source of carbon pollution, the process that prepares it for refining uses breathtaking amounts of water, and energy to put it into a form where it can be shipped and refined. And god help you if it leaks – which all pipelines do – because unrefined tar sand oil is highly caustic. No one knows how to clean it up. Finally, tar sands mining has been a holocaust for the northern Alberta environment and the First Nations of Canada unlucky enough to be in its way. Finally, it is a project where the buck stops with President Obama. He alone has final say. In short, no more excuses about Congressional deadlock. Which is why when Bill McKibben of 350.org organized the first series of civil disobedience events in front of the White House in August 2011, he helped unlock a door which the rest of the climate movement has walked on through.
The main sponsors of the event provided their own unique resources. There was the entrepreneurial imagination of 350.org, the institutional heft and muscle of the Sierra Club, and the cultural appeal and civil rights era spirit of the Hip Hop Caucus. No one organization in the coalition could have pulled it off. Together they helped organize a demonstration that will be seen as the historic launching pad for a real climate movement in the US.
February 17th was large. It was colorful. It was another step in building a movement that is racially and ethnically diverse. It was inspiring. It was fun and, most important of all, it was young. As it should be since today’s youth are the ones who are in the crosshairs of climate change. No one else could have been a better master of ceremonies than Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus who spoke the cultural language of the young audience and got the crowd dancing and enthused for the march. Van Jones blew the doors off the White House when he said that the climate credibility and future legacy of President Obama depended on what he decides to do with the Keystone decision. Michael Brune of the Sierra Club exemplified the new activist focus he has brought to the organization. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Maria Cardona of Latinovations broke down the practical politics of what is ahead. There was also a significant presence of First Nations from all of North America, led by Chief Jacqueline Thomas of the Saik’us First Nation and Crystal Lamona of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation who is right in the middle of tar sands mining. Finally, gathered under our funny looking state flag, were the assorted delegations from Ohio who ably represented the Buckeye state.
Then the march began at our insistence, since we were cold and wanted to move. The march was a river with many different political eddies, from hyper militant socialists, to the representatives of staid and mainstream advocacy. But that is what a movement looks like! That is what makes a movement vital and let’s say it fun! We marched from the Washington Monument to the White House and back to vigorous chants and a mobile First Nation drum that gave the march its rhythm. Well, let me say that we oldsters marched, the youth more or less bounced down the street. Fantastic!
Thanks to Rashay Layman and Brian Kunkemoeller from the state office, who showed their skills at juggling numerous often-conflicting tasks while herding cats, Pat McKenna who saved our butts on the parking issue, and the rest of the Sierra Club crew from Cleveland – Akshai, Anne, Gabriela, Dave and many others who made this demonstration such a success.