On February 17th, I was part of history. 50,000 people from around North America traveled to Washington DC for the Forward on Climate rally–the largest climate rally in US history. We protested the Keystone XL pipeline and the expansion of tar sands oil.
Tar sands exploitation was recently identified as one of 14 « carbon bombs. » A mixture of clay, sand, water, and bitumen (a hydrocarbon that can be processed into crude oil), tar sands is extracted from under Canada’s Boreal Forest. It is a gooey tar-like substance that must be diluted with toxic carcinogenic chemicals to get through a pipeline. Compared to conventional oil, it is 70 times more viscous, 20 times more acidic, and has three times the spill rate. Producing crude from tar sands also emits three times more greenhouse gas emissions than producing conventional oil. If fully exploited, the combustion of these fossil fuel reserves would cause global temperatures to rise between 5 and 6 degrees Celsius--a level of warming that the World Bank deemed un-adaptable. According to climate scientist James Hanse, « Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. »
What’s more: the extraction of tar sands has devastating effects on local communities, especially First Nation peoples. Chemicals from the extraction site contaminate local water sources, endangering drinking water and affecting wildlifein the region. These communities continue to live traditional lifestyles, living off of the land and depending on
a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth. Yet carcinogens from tar sands infect the air and water, pollution causes asthma and other health problems, and local ecosystems are threatened.
Clearly, tar sands is not merely an issue about climate. It is intrinsically tied to social justice and human rights. People are suffering now because of tar sands extraction. And many more will pay in the future for the price of uninhibited fossil fuel combustion. That is why it must stop.
Although 50,000 is a small number compared to all the climate activists and human beings out there, we still came together to cr
eate the largest climate rally in US history. And I felt hopeful. Our voices carry more moral authority than any other generations before us because, as Reverend Lennox Yearwood said at the rally: “While they [civil rights activists] were fighting for equality, we are fighting for existence.”
The rally began with a series of inspiring speakers, including Reverend Lennox Yearwood, Bill McKibben, Michael Brune (head of the Sierra Club), and First Nation representatives. But my favorite speaker was Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). He explained how the fossil fuel industry has control of the US government and how Congress was “sleepwalking” through the climate crisis. He said that it was the people’s responsibility to push their elected officials to take action, to wake up, to see the urgency, and to take a moral stand.
My philosophy and goal as an environmental activist has always been to focus on the grassroots. I believe in building a movement from the bottom-up, by talking with individuals and through education. Politicians will only act when they see that their constituents care. And so it is up to each individual to use their voice and make it heard. But although I have always focused on grass roots, I have never seen the national and international grassroots movements come together with so much power. We all create our movements locally. But it is combining our collective power that is our ultimate goal. Yesterday was a powerful example of solidarity.
Yet the tar sands are just one of 14 global carbon bombs that cannot go off. We are doing our best here in the US to stave off the fossil fuel industry. But this movement is needed in every single corner of the world. We are not talking about mobilizing one gender, class, or country as in past social movements. We are talking about touching every single human being on this planet. By understanding the problem, developing innovative solutions, focusing on grassroots power, and providing platforms for action, we can create the movement that will not only change our world–but save it.
This is why the work of CliMates is so crucial. We need to reach out beyond traditional audiences and develop new tactics for engagement and mobilization. We can’t rely on precedents because there is none. We are the generation that must develop new solutions. And it is our collective ingenuity, passion, and brain-power that will chart a new course for humanity!
by Chloe Maxmin