Scattered Thoughts from the #ForwardOnClimate Rally

I just got back from Washington, D.C., where I was taking part in the Sierra Club’s Forward On Climate rally against the Keystone XL pipeline, which is intended to carry crude oil from Canadian tar sands to American refineries. I’m still a bit washed out and don’t have anything profound to say, but here are some scattered impressions:

• It was cold in Washington, D.C. all weekend, with bitter, frigid winds lashing the National Mall, which made the immense turnout all the more surprising. The organizers estimated 30,000 people were present, but according to a co-founder of, the Park Service thought we exceeded our 50,000-person permit. Either way, it speaks well of the passion behind this movement that so many people were willing to brave the cold. (I didn’t get frostbite, although my hands and feet were painfully numb by the time the rally was over.)

• Rallies work better when they have a clear message. There were lots of scattered signs against coal, fracking and nuclear power, others in favor of solar and wind, but the majority spoke specifically to the Keystone project. This is a lesson I’m glad that liberals have learned; in the past, we’ve had too many protests derailed by people who wanted to hijack them for their own pet causes. I think protests also get a better turnout when it’s obvious who we’re aiming our efforts at and what we want them to do (in this case, President Obama could stop the pipeline with literally the stroke of a pen).

• I’m actually not against fracking, as long as it doesn’t poison the groundwater. (Does that make me a bad environmentalist?) In the long run we need to shift to a completely renewable energy infrastructure, but we’re going to be dependent on fossil fuels for a while. Given that fact, natural gas is at least cleaner than oil or coal, plus it can be produced domestically so as not to prop up foreign autocracies.

• Don’t listen to the naysayers – Amtrak is the only way to travel. With big, comfortable seats, free onboard wi-fi, and and none of the ridiculous, degrading security theater at airports, it beats flying hands down. If you’re traveling along the eastern seaboard, take the train!

• I also had a Daylight Atheism meetup on Saturday night. As always, I love the chance to meet readers, who invariably turn out to be smart and interesting people. Thanks to everyone who came!

• About the pipeline itself, I have to admit I’m pessimistic. I think there’s still a chance of stopping it – I wouldn’t have traveled to DC to take part in the rally if I didn’t. But despite his expansive State of the Union rhetoric about the importance of fighting climate change, Obama has a long history of disappointing his liberal supporters.

Image credit: Jenna Pope, via the Sierra Club

To be honest, even if the pipeline isn’t built, I’m not sure how much that will accomplish. It won’t prevent Canada’s tar-sands oil from being extracted, after all; it will just encourage the building of alternative routes to get it to refiners and distributors. Maybe the hope is that, the longer we delay this, the more gains renewable energy will make, and by the time tar-sands oil enters the market, it will no longer make economic sense. That seems like the most sensible strategy to me, but as I’ve written before, I fear that it’s already too late to avoid the brunt of climate change.

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Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Martin Penwald

    You point the main problem, which is not easy to address :
    « It won’t prevent Canada’s tar-sands oil from being extracted, after all; it will just encourage the building of alternative routes to get it to refiners and distributors. »
    Canada, and particularly Alberta for tar-sand oil, doesn´t have the refinery capacities to treat the output production. It needs to go somewhere else, and United States is the most logical way.
    And whatever opponents to tar-sands oil wants, there is some problem in opposing the Keystone project :
    - first, the oil already come from Canada to US, by train, which, in this case, is less efficient than a pipeline and pipelines.
    - second, Alberta´s tar sands are considered by US governement as essential for US energetic independance : plans are made for pipeline going through B.C to Kitimat, in order to send it to Asia. U.S lobbies are already financing local opponent to prevent that to append.
    - third, I highly doubt that current administration will go against the interests of petroleun companies.

    I´m very pessimistic for the future, whatever environmentalists says, majority of people will agree to pump oil until the last drop, whatever the cost.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Train travel is fantastic if you live in a region where there’s enough of a network to be efficient. I traveled by train over this last holiday break and it was absolute luxury; loads of room and no pat-downs, machine scans, or taking off your shoes and putting them in a bin. Unfortunately I live on the West Coast and trains aren’t generally that comprehensive here, though at least the bus system in Seattle is pretty nice. (I’ve heard people complaining about it, but it sure beats the pants off of everywhere else I’ve lived.) I wish we could have a whole lot more rail coverage, though.

  • RR

    Interesting Washington Post article today on two postdoctoral MIT students who have developed a cheaper and cleaner way to get rid of contaminated water produced by fracking. They will continue here in the United States IF they don’t have to move back to India because of expiring student visas:

  • Renshia

    Yeah, I can see the logic in stopping the pipeline. I guess drilling off in the gulf of Mexico is way better than an over land system that could be contained.

  • CelticLight

    Renshia – you raise a good point. Deep drilling leaks are a much bigger problem than an accessible pipeline.
    Also – is it better to ship oil from the Middle East by tankers ? or from Alaska by tanker ? Many may be too young to remember the Valdez.

    Obama will approve the pipeline, mainly because the unions favor it and they contribute a lot more money than environmentalists.