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 350.org, 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!
• 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.
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.