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Tar Sands Chance for Revitalized Climate Movement at 11th Hour?

Setting Aside Differences, Seizing the Moral High Ground

Gary Houser

Momentum is now decidedly building for what might well become a breakthrough moment in the climate movement. This movement - attempting to address the transcendent issue which now threatens the very survival of civilization - has been hampered by a disempowering case of disunity. From the very beginning, there has been a divide between those seeking to affect the necessary change from within the system and those who held the belief that the process itself had already become corrupted through the inappropriate influence of the vested interests opposing any change.

There was an effort to move legislation through Congress, the main bills "in play"  channeled by Waxman-Markey in the House and Kerry in the Senate. On this side were  Al Gore and his Alliance for Climate Protection as well as the established groups such as  the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense Fund. Grassroots activists watched these bills essentially neutered as the fossil fuel lobby made its power play. They warned that the stakes were far too high to allow the climate issue to become a political football. They argued that the autonomous laws of physics pushing the disruption to a tipping point cannot be delayed to accomodate the "horse-trading" that occurs within the Beltway.   

Wherever one might have stood on this question, it is unarguable that the verdict is in.  Any hope of Congress being able to enact a meaningful climate bill has utterly collapsed. Not only has the specific legislation been abandoned, but also the issue itself. Currently, a serious plan to rein in greenhouse gases is not even on the agenda.

Given such paralysis, the path to such control must be found elsewhere. Enter the issue of a proposed pipeline to carry massive amounts of tar sands crude oil from Canada into the U.S.  This decision is not in the hands of Congress.  As the pipeline would cross an international border, the decision is entirely up to Obama as president.  As what is shaping up to be the largest scale civil disobedience on climate in U.S. history gains momentum (over 2000 people already signed up), a truly unique opportunity has emerged to place past differences aside and seize the moment to create the kind of empowered movement so totally necessary to prevent catastrophe.

There is nothing to gain at this time from any argument about which approach was correct. Facing a dead end in Congress, the avenue by which progress can be made on climate has become the office of the president.  Stopping the pipeline has become the ideal issue on which to appeal to Obama.

This is a winnable issue. But any chance of victory will be 100% dependent on bringing all forces to bear to place maximum moral pressure on Obama. Grassroots groups (including indigenous) are using primarily volunteer energy to nonviolently place bodies on the line in front of the White House. With limited financial resources, they are still pushing mightily to get the word out.

There is, however, a critically important role that could be played by the larger, more well-funded "big green" groups. Even if there are organizational constraints that prevent them from formally endorsing a civil disobedience, there are all kinds of ways they can be supportive short of that. Without issuing an official "approval", email alerts could be sent to their massive lists to at least inform their members about the actions and provide links which could allow them to make their own decisions as to whether to participate. There are also other ways they could help.    

We already know what tremendous pressure will be placed on Obama by the limitless wealth of the fossil fuel interests. The only hope our side has is to generate the kind of "people power" that can counteract this. The time has come for all who recognize our obligation to future generations to be willing to come together in common purpose. May all of us - the grassroots folks and the large organizations - open our hearts to the striking words of Terry Tempest Williams, “The Eyes of the Future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time.”

For more information on the historic tar sands actions, which will extend from Aug. 20 to Sept. 3:

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Gary Houser

Gary Houser

Gary Houser is a long-time public interest writer, currently a documentary producer working on climate tipping points, and a founding member of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. Email: mountainmist8 [at]

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