McKibben calls protest a success

WASHINGTON, D.C. — To Ripton resident Bill McKibben, the best measure of success in the two-week Tar Sands Action protest in front of the White House was the 1,253 arrests of protesters.
People concerned about global climate change flocked to the Washington, D.C., from across the nation for a two-week protest that drew to an end Sept. 3, with 243 arrests happening on that final day, according to
The protesters, who made headlines in national news, called on President Barack Obama to veto the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile-long pipe that would pump oil from the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada, to oil refineries in Texas. It’s a project that some scientists say would irreversibly tip the climate change scales, opening the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet to unbridled human use.
McKibben said that if the protest hadn’t drawn attention to the topic, the sheer amount of money behind pro-pipeline interests would have ensured the project was approved.
“We had to find a different currency,” McKibben said in an interview this week. “For a while, that was our bodies.”
Because the pipeline would cross the international border it requires the approval of President Obama. Protesters stationed themselves in front of the White House, where it is legal to pass by but not to remain stationary; when the protesters refused police orders to move along they were arrested.
The protests raised the pipeline to a level of national awareness, ensuring the topic’s prominence as a political issue.
“We did manage to take what had been a regional issue and make it a national one,” said McKibben. “We managed to make it the central environmental issue for President Obama between now and the election.”
To those who question the efficiency of bringing masses of people to Washington, D.C., to protest — presumably burning fossil fuel along the way — McKibben said raising the issue into a national and international eye has become paramount.
“Personal action is very important — that’s why organizations like (the Addison County Relocalization Network) are so important,” he said. “But unfortunately, given the scant time that chemistry and physics are giving us to deal with this problem, we’re not going to work by addition — we’re also going to have to work by multiplication.”
This, he explained, means that individual carbon savings, while helpful and important, won’t be significant enough to counteract the threat of climate change. He said for large-scale change, it’s also necessary that politicians and governments address the issue.
“We’re going to need a big political movement if we’re going to get anything done about climate change,” he said.
And for the environmental movement, McKibben said the event was a win — though younger people are typically the ones found at environmental events, a poll of all protesters found that the largest cohorts had been born during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman administrations. On the last day, he said, an 86-year-old protester with a sign saying “World War II vet — handle with care” was arrested.
“This was the most unified the environmental movement’s been in a long time,” said McKibben. “It was very good to see other forces joining in — the head of the NAACP and several unions were fighting alongside us.”
McKibben said he was especially touched to see a busload of Vermonters show up at the protest just days after Tropical Storm Irene hit the state, stating that they felt it was important to reverse climate change, which scientists say is causing stronger and more unpredictable weather events.
“In the long run, this is the only way we’re going to slow down the disastrous weather,” said McKibben.
For McKibben, however, the action has only just begun. He said will be announcing events and actions across the country in the coming months, and he said he and other protesters will reconvene at the White House on Nov. 6, exactly one year before the election. There, they will form a circle around the building to ask for a greater focus on climate change issues.
“We’re asking and expecting (Obama) to live up to his words from the last election,” said McKibben.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent

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