Thousands launch mass protest in Washington, D.C. against tar sands pipeline

Canadian First Nations activists protest the Tar Sands in London, U.K., in 2009. Photo: fotdmike/Flickr

A climate-related record is about to be broken this summer, joining the others that have already been experienced so far. However, it's not in the form of the devastating heat waves, droughts, storms and torrential floods we have been seeing around the world. Consider it, instead, as a sign of hope, as Washington, D.C. hosts the largest act of civil disobedience for the climate ever seen in America.

From tomorrow through Sept. 3, a wild range of protesters -- including Nebraskan ranchers, teachers from Wisconsin, Texan landowners and Canadian indigenous leaders, alongside some of the country's top scientists and a few celebrities -- will gather outside the White House for a series of mass sit-ins. Their demand is that President Barack Obama deny a permit for a pipeline that would further hook his country to Alberta's tar sands, the world's dirtiest oil. 

Up to 1.1 m barrels of crude a day will be carried along TransCanada's 2,700-km Keystone XL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting through the sensitive heartland of the country while massively enriching big corporations.

It is certain to spill: when, how often, and with what kind of human and environmental toll are the only pieces of information missing.

As an added bonus, the pipeline will aid in the overheating of the planet. Respected climate scientist James Hansen concludes only drastic measures will prevent a catastrophic rise in temperature: phasing out coal over the next 20 years, and immediately ending the use of unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands. Burn the murky and gigantic pool of Canadian carbon, and it is "essentially game over" for our climate. The pipeline's go-ahead ultimately and fortuitously rests with Obama alone -- and so too will the power to rewrite this ecological horror story. Organizers hope persuasion with their bodies will help: some 2,000 people are willing to risk arrest.

They are up against a Canadian government that has transformed itself into the foreign branch of the tar sands industry. It wants to beat back resistance -- what officials describe in internal documents as a "ferocious attack by the U.S. environmental movement." TransCanada has hired George Bush's former ambassador to Canada as a lobbyist, alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's former deputy campaign director. Just two weeks ago, Canada's foreign and natural resource ministers went to Washington to remind Clinton of their part in U.S. "energy security" -- the notion that the U.S. can safely suck Canada's oil, instead of going to unfriendly Venezuela or the unstable Middle East.

Canada's global PR strategy aims to sow confusion about what is genuine energy security: that we move away from dirty crude and eventually oil itself, and move on to renewables. Secret British memos revealed that the Canadian government is "acutely aware" that "CO2-intensive oil sands might become less desirable to the U.S. in the future." Canada knows European governments -- which are trying to label the tar sands as contributing to greenhouse gases -- have seen through this; they are worried the U.S. may follow suit.

Stopping the Keystone XL's construction would bolster the climate justice movement. Indeed, Alberta's energy minister, Ron Liepert, expressed his worry about the nonviolent resistance to the tar sands oil patch, telling The Globe and Mail in June: "If there was something that kept me up at night, it would be the fear that before too long, we're going to be landlocked in bitumen."

Pipelines are the arteries of the infrastructure of fossil fuel pollution. Cut these service points one by one and you disable the destruction: keeping the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole and the tar in the sands.

Oil companies won't easily abandon the lucrative promise of fossil fuel addiction. In a Washington dominated by the corporate class (among whom there is no shortage of climate change deniers), lobbying for strong climate legislation has failed.

Hence the shift in strategy. It appears the Obama administration will only act like there is no Planet B if we mount a Project C -- a full-scale confrontation along the lines of the civil rights movement's blueprint for action in Birmingham, Alabama. The potency of direct action is not that it will physically stop pipeline construction, just as it didn't by itself make racism evaporate in the deep south. What it may do is provoke a crisis as that will ensure the issue becomes unavoidable by the media, thereby forcing the hand of the U.S. government.

It is Canada's turn in September, when some environmental organizations plan to target the Harper government with civil disobedience of their own. Whatever approvals TransCanada needed from the federal government for the Keystone XL on this side of the border, it has already received. But in view of their longer-term objectives for unbridled expansion, there is no doubt that the oil industry and their government enablers dread the prospect of masses of Canadians taking direct action to dramatize the injustices and folly of the tar sands.

Those hoping to halt runaway global warming could not sooner start promoting this crucial lesson: the most important lifestyle change to save the climate won't be biking to work, replacing your light bulbs, or eating local. It will be acquiring the habit of civic defiance. The bigger and better-funded groups in this fight can encourage this shift by providing resources and support to direct action-oriented grassroots campaigns and the struggles of frontline communities, the most dynamic and powerful dimension of the growing climate justice movement. The urgency of the ecological crisis demands we not allow the narrower compulsions of individual organizations or campaigns to eclipse the need to build a broad, inclusive mass movement.

This year of uprisings from Egypt to Tunisia, Spain to Greece, has so far bypassed our two countries. It's about time people power came to North America.

Martin Lukacs is a writer, activist and an editor with the Dominion.

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