by Duncan Gromko
More than 100 people showed up at the State Department early Monday morning to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama and the State Department have been considering the approval of the pipeline since 2011, repeatedly delaying their decision. In a recent speech, Obama said that the pipeline will not be approved if it has a significant impact on climate change.
The protestors were planning to block the entrance to the State Department and risk arrest from the Washington, D.C. metro police. In the past, Keystone critics have been arrested and these arrests brought attention to the environmental risks of the pipeline. However, on Monday, the police did not oblige and the protest received little attention.
Nearly a month ago, 54 people were arrested inside the lobby of the D.C.-based firm Environmental Resources Management (ERM). The group was protesting the consulting firm’s involvement in putting together the State Department’s report on the environmental impact of the Keystone XL pipeline. The report found that the pipeline would not lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that the tar sands moved by the pipeline would be extracted whether or not the pipeline is approved (here is the best analysis I’ve seen on the possible impact of the pipeline).
In addition to challenging the content of ERM’s report, the protestors claimed that ERM did not acknowledge a conflict of interest. Analysts that worked on the ERM report had previously worked for TransCanada – the company building the pipeline. The Department of State is now conducting an inquiry into whether or not that conflict exists.
As a supporter of more aggressive steps to address climate change, I’ve been thinking about the effectiveness of these actions while reading “Waging Nonviolent Struggle,” a tome by Gene Sharp on the history of civil disobedience. Sharp considers the history of nonviolent social movements, different tactics used, and their effectiveness. I think his key point is the following: “The persons who are at any point the rulers do not personally possess the power of control, administration, and repression they wield. How much power they possess depends on how much power society will grant them.” According to Sharp, nonviolent action is a movement’s way of taking back that power.
These Keystone protests and the climate movement in general sometimes differ from many of the nonviolent case studies in Sharp’s book: the Russian Revolution, Indian Independence Campaign, California Grape Worker’s Strike and Boycott, Ending Bus Segregation in Montgomery, etc. The actions taken in Sharp’s examples tend to directly express the protestors’ vision of the change they would like to see. In India, for instance, people collected and traded salt in defiance of British law. Grape pickers in California refused to work. Pipeline opponents have been arrested for actively blocking the construction of the pipeline. In comparison, the protestors at the ERM building were arrested for unlawful entry.
Indians wanted independence from the British, so they protested their laws. The situation for climate advocates is more complicated. Their goal is not to overthrow Obama. Instead, they want to change a carbon-based energy infrastructure on which we all depend. To get to the climate protests, activists drive, take trains, and even fly – all acts that emit carbon and work counter to their end goal. These actions do not undermine their cause. They simply illustrate our country’s total dependence on energy from carbon sources and the absence of alternative transportation choices.
The ideal climate nonviolent struggle would be an economic boycott of carbon (like the divestment push), where participants refused to use energy from carbon sources. Doing so would directly reduce emissions and take away power from fossil fuel interests that profit from carbon consumption. Some people have chosen this route, and I’m sure that most of the arrestees consciously reduce their carbon impact. But it’s nearly impossible to participate in American society without using carbon. For the millions living in suburbia and rural areas, cars are a necessity. Every time I turn on a light (or the computer used to write this blog), the electrons come primarily from carbon generating sources. In most cases, giving up carbon would mean withdrawing from society. Plus – and perhaps more importantly – no one would notice the act of not emitting carbon.
So climate advocates are left with options for nonviolent action that are less illustrative of their goals than those in Sharp’s book. A lunch counter sit-in actively demonstrates the change the protestor wishes to see by breaking the law he or she wants to remove. Being arrested at ERM shows protestors’ anger at the company’s role in encouraging the pipeline to move forward, but the act itself doesn’t illustrate what the protestors want. The law being broken – unlawful entry – isn’t the one they want repealed.
Climate change advocates are working in a complicated, complex setting. A great article I read last week expressed how nearly impossible it is to evaluate advocacy. Change from advocacy is non-linear – little or nothing might happen for decades, followed by a huge breakthrough (see marriage, gay). David Roberts writes a lot about the importance of social proof – demonstrating to the general public that it is socially acceptable to have a particular opinion – and these protests provide that proof. Keeping climate in the news cycle changes minds and generates interest.
And advocates have made huge strides. The pipeline decision still sits on Obama’s desk, years after it became an issue. The President released an ambitious climate plan in a speech where he explicitly encouraged climate advocates (by using the word “divest”). The integration and importance of carbon in our lives means that it’s likely to be a long, uphill fight. But in Sharp’s words, advocates are slowly taking back power from the fossil fuel industry.