More than a thousand students from over 200 colleges and universities are descending on Washington, D.C. this weekend to deliver a stern message to a president they are not yet convinced is listening to dire warnings about climate change, the destructive impacts of a completed Keystone XL pipeline, and the fossil fuel paradigm overall.
And just to be sure President Obama cannot easily ignore their demand that he prove himself serious about tackling global warming and ending the nation's obsessive reliance on coal, oil, and gas—over 300 of those traveling to the nation's capitol have vowed to put their bodies on the line Sunday, participating in what they say will be the largest student-led civil disobedience action at the White House in a generation.
In his efforts to combat climate change, Michael Greenberg, a 20-year-old sophomore at Columbia University, told Common Dreams he has "lobbied, fundraised, petitioned, written letters to the editor, and organized his peers." But now, he says, he's ready to go further. "What we face is a crisis," said Greenberg, "which is why I will be getting arrested for the first time in my life this weekend."
Like Greenberg, other student organizers for the weekend summit and protest—which they're calling XL Dissent—told Common Dreams that this weekend's action is neither the beginning nor the end of their involvement in the climate justice movement. For them, however, the specific moment is an important time for them (and others) to increase the pressure on Obama as he enters what appears to be the final stretch of his decision-making process on approving or rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.
Earlier this week, Obama told the nation's governors that they could expect a final decision on the pipeline within "a couple of months." The official public comment period on the State Department's overall assessment of the project ends next week on Friday, March 7.
"XL Dissent is about young people standing together and engaging in a bold act of civil disobedience, and through this, demonstrating our commitment to making this world a more humane, peaceful, and inclusive place to live."
—Michael Greenberg, student organizer
"Our message to President Obama is that if he is serious about acting on climate, he will block the Keystone XL Pipeline," said Aly Johnson-Kurts, 20, of Smith College. If the president won't stop it, she added, "people power will."
The students also agree that their activism—both on their respective campuses and this weekend at the White House—goes beyond a singular focus on Keystone XL, saying their concerns go deeper than just one pipeline or one presidential decision.
"This protest is about so much more than just one pipeline," said Greenberg. "For me XL Dissent is about young people standing together and engaging in a bold act of civil disobedience, and through this, demonstrating our commitment to making this world a more humane, peaceful, and inclusive place to live."
And Matthew Goodrich from Bowdoin College in Maine told Common Dreams: "The protest shows how serious the youth of the nation are about holding President Obama accountable on his promise to not betray future generations—our generation—by dooming the planet to climate change."
For Johnson-Kurts, the student-led protest is also about standing in solidarity with others in the U.S., Canada, and around the world who are fighting for environmental justice in the places they live. Citing First Nations, those living near refineries, ranchers and farmers along the proposed pipeline route, and all those fighting tar sands expansion in various frontline communities, she says XL Dissent is "about turning up the heat on Obama to live up to his promises to protect us from a future of environmental catastrophe, as these people are already experiencing."
Though all the students that spoke with Common Dreams acknowledged that Keystone XL has been a galvanizing symbol of the climate movement over the last few years, they say the pipeline is not the sole focus of their own work on the issue of climate change. All three have been involved in the student-led divestment movement at their own schools, urging administrators and trustees to withdraw endowments investments from fossil fuel-related companies and industries.
"Rejecting the pipeline is an important step, but stopping Keystone on its own will not solve climate change," acknowledged Greenberg.
And Goodrich added, "Obama needs to protect human lives, not oil profits. Climate change was not the change we voted for."
"The young people taking part in XL Dissent are demonstrating theirs. Now, it’s time for the President to show his."
—Jamie Henn, 350.org
As they made their way towards Washington on Friday, older members of the climate justice movement—more veteran organizers with groups like Sierra Club and 350.org—were cheering them on in anticipation of the weekend.
“All Americans deserve to live safe and healthy lives that aren’t shadowed by worsening superstorms, droughts, floods, and wildfires brought on by dirty fossil fuels," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in a statement in which he offered the XL Dissent students and participants his organization's full support.
It’s America’s youth and student-aged adults, declared Brune, "who have the greatest stake in the Keystone XL tar sands decision."
Jamie Henn, a co-founder of 350.org, writing for Common Dreams on Friday, reflected: "I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the students involved in XL Dissent and the thing that continues to strike me is how level-headed and pragmatic they are. They’re risking arrest this weekend not because they’re wild-eyed radicals, but because they agree [...] that power responds to a demand, and that getting that demand heard often requires working outside traditional channels."
The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, continued Henn, is more than an environmental issue, but a test of character. "The young people taking part in XL Dissent are demonstrating theirs," he wrote. "Now, it’s time for the President to show his."
As for the students and their relationship to the only president they've known as young adults: It seems they are, in fact, reclaiming some of the "hope" they offered over to Obama, and putting it back in themselves.
"Our generation is going to be stuck with the reality of decisions made now about whether to invest in destruction or the future," said Johnson-Kurts. "We are realizing we cannot sit idly by, or we will not have a future to fight for."
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