On February 17, I answered the call to go to Washington D.C. for the Forward On Climate rally, which was spearheaded by 350.org.
Next to me on the bus was a young woman who helps manage a software company that monitors buildings’ energy efficiency. Across the aisle from us was a former Wall Street securities trader who abandoned the chance to be a Master of the Universe to pour heart and soul into a start-up creating walls of decorative and edible hydroponic gardens. The bus (one of many that went from New York City) was packed to the gills with people of all ages and backgrounds.
In the seat behind me were the two people who were the main emotional reason for my willingness to get up at 5:30am on a bitterly cold winter day to make the 7am bus from Brooklyn’s Barclay Center to the rally in D.C., stand freezing in the whipping wind to hear, among others, Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and billionaire private equity investor and founder of Farallon Capital Management Tom Steyer exhort the swelling crowd on the historic importance of the rally (the largest climate rally ever), and then march a frigid mile or so to the White House.
Those two people were my son and my 8-year-old granddaughter (see below - with the sign – complete with gushing Keystone XL pipeline -- she drew for the rally.) They will bear the brunt of climate change. (And for you aging baby boomers like me out there: have you thought of what it will be like to be old and frail with extreme weather disasters coming ever faster and fiercer?)
Billionaire Investor: Pipeline Bad For Business
Tom Steyer knows that.
In addition to managing some $8 billion in private equity assets, he’s the founder of the nonprofit, The Center For The Next Generation and he has made climate change one of its central foci. He’s thinking about the economics, too. Steyer told the crowd that the Keystone XL pipeline was “bad for business” and that we can’t afford 40 more years of dirty energy.
If 35,000+ People March In A Media Blackout, Did It Happen?
The crowd was impressive: more than 35,000 people showed up in the depth of winter to tell Obama to keep his promise to tackle climate change – and to urge him to show his good faith on that promise by denying the XL Keystone pipeline a permit for the northern leg of its route (he’s already allowed the southern leg to go forward.) The rally’s slogan and logo were take-offs on those of Obama’s 2012 campaign.
But who was listening?
The event went virtually uncovered in the large media outlets –and absent from the front pages. Compare this to the wall-to-wall coverage – little of it critical – of the tens (not tens of thousands) of Tea Partiers who harassed hapless Democratic congressional representatives in 2010. One could argue that the press had a substantial part to play in making the Tea Party into the political force it became.
In contrast, why was such an historic event as Forward On Climate in the post-Sandy era so passed over by the media? The answer can only be conjectured.
Could it be because fossil fuel front groups are selling pro-fossil fuel propaganda to a credulous media? The Columbia Journalism Review reported on a study that shows “the press routinely quote think tanks that bash clean energy policies and technologies without mentioning that the groups receive significant funding from fossil fuel interests.”
Will He Or Won’t He?
But perhaps they are also taking a cue from the mixed messages coming from the President. Just a few weeks after declaring in his inaugural address, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama seemed to deliberately snub the very people who have his back, should he take real action on the climate.
He wasn’t listening when we massed in front of the White House gates. He couldn’t – he was in Florida playing golf with key players in the oil, gas and pipeline industries. As reported in The Huffington Post:
…on his first “guys weekend" away since he was reelected, the president chose to spend his free time with Jim Crane and Milton Carroll, leading figures in the Texas oil and gas industry, along with other men who run companies that deal in the same kinds of carbon-based services that Keystone would enlarge. They hit the links at the Floridian Yacht and Golf Club, which is owned by Crane and located on the Treasure Coast in Palm City, Fla.
Whether he meant it as a snub or not, Obama telegraphed some disturbing optics with that Florida junket. (Ironically, in a few decades, the Floridian Yacht and Golf Club will likely be no more, buried under rising seas.)
And his decision on the pipeline may well define his legacy for generations.
I won’t go into all the reasons why Obama should not allow the Keystone XL pipeline to go through – you can read five of them here. In the Guardian, engineer John Abraham writes:
…do the tar sands really matter that much? The answer is clearly yes. Alberta has 1.8tn barrels of oil contained within the tar sands. Extracting and burning all of that tar will cause a global temperature increase of about 0.4oC (0.7oF). That is about half of the warming that humans have already caused…But wait, it gets worse. One of the byproducts of tar-sand extraction is a substance that is like coal ... only dirtier. That byproduct, petroleum coke…emits more carbon dioxide than even coal.
The Opportunity Cost Of KXL
And there’s something else the supporters of the pipeline never get around to mentioning: the opportunity cost.
We simply can’t afford to continue sinking capital into a dying (and ecocidal) industry, thereby diverting resources from the clean energy economy that could ensure our very survival. The more capital put into huge fossil fuel projects, the less political and economic willingness to abandon them – as abandon them we must. And the less resources to scale up the clean energy industry in time to avert – or mitigate -- catastrophic climate change.
Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy completely misses this point. Many think he will go ahead and permit the Keystone XL pipeline (myself among them – but if I’m wrong, I’ll be overjoyed.)
But doing so will send exactly the wrong message.
To make an analogy to his gun control campaign, it would be as if the President would, post-Sandy Hook, mandate that all public school employees should carry loaded assault rifles at work. The NRA would sit back and say, “that’s the way to make sure children are safe,” just as the proponents of the pipeline tout it as part of energy security. He would be signaling that he is willing to betray future generations while pretending to protect them.
The thousands massed in front of his residence were sending Obama a historic message: that the people will hold his feet to the fire. They will not be placated by pretty speeches, while the President tries to play both sides of the climate game.
He’s either on the side of the people or on the side of the polluters: there is no middle ground anymore. Carbon fuels must be left underground. The world must leap forward on the climate.