WASHINGTON – Thousands of protesters braved the cold Sunday and marched to urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and to show leadership on other climate issues they called urgent.
Organizers of the “Forward on Climate” event estimated that 35,000 people turned out for what they said was the biggest climate rally in U.S. history. Police did not verify the crowd size.
The group rallied on a slice of the Mall just north of the Washington Monument before heading down Constitution Avenue, up 17th Street and past the White House chanting slogans such as “We are unstoppable, another world is possible” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Keystone pipeline’s got to go.”
The president wasn’t home, however. He was in Florida playing golf with Tiger Woods and Jim Crane, a Houston businessman who owns the Houston Astros as well as the residential compound where Obama is spending the holiday weekend.
But the demonstrators tried to send him a message nonetheless, carrying signs opposing not only the proposed pipeline from Canada to Texas, but also opposing hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and coal plants. “Windmills, not oil spills,” one placard said. Another said: “Fossil fuels? Fossil fools.” And another: “Read my lips: no new carbons.”
Leaders of the rally said they wanted to press Obama to follow up on the strong rhetoric in his inaugural address about the need to slow climate change. The official posters at the rally borrowed Obama’s campaign slogan “Forward.” They read: “Mr. President, Forward — on Climate.”
“Mr. President, we have heard what you’ve said on climate; we have loved a lot of what you’ve said on climate,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Our question is: What will you do?”
For many of the rally leaders, the first test will be whether the president and Secretary of State John Kerry approve a construction permit for the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude from the oil or tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.
The energy-intensive methods needed to extract that crude emit more greenhouse gases than oil production methods from conventional reservoirs.
“Mr. President, you hold the pen and the executive power of hope in your hands,” said Brune, who was arrested Wednesday at a pipeline protest outside the White House. “Take out that pen, Mr. President, and write down the words ‘I reject the Keystone XL pipeline.’ “
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told members of the crowd that they could help encourage Obama: “We are going to have the president’s back and he is going to have our back.”
But the rally had an edge of uncertainty about how hard Obama will push to take legislative or executive action. And most of the speakers zeroed in on the impending Keystone XL decision.
Those speakers included Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor who has led the fight to stop the pipeline; two leaders of First Nation tribes in Canada; and Tom Steyer, an investment fund manager in California and major fundraiser for Obama. All are strong foes of the Keystone project.
“For 25 years, our government has basically ignored the climate crisis. Now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work,” said McKibben, founder of the grass-roots environmental group 350.org.
Affiliates of 350.org — including 350 Maine and 350 New England — organized a Jan. 26 rally in Portland in opposition to what protesters say is an emerging proposal to send tar sands oil from Canada through a pipeline to Portland Harbor.
“If this pipeline goes through, your government will help in the raping and pillaging of the land of my ancestors,” said Chrystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Canada. “Then (the companies) promise to give back what was never theirs in the first place.”
Steyer said: “I get the argument for the Keystone. The argument is that it is business as usual because we use fossil fuels. But the time for business as usual has passed.”
Afterward, Whitehouse said, “If the president and Secretary Kerry choose to approve the pipeline and proceed, there will be a massive credibility gap between that and what he said in the inauguration, especially if this is the first deed out of the box. That will be a problem for him.”