Environmental Leaders Engage in Civil Disobedience at White House

Determined to push President Obama to translate his inspiring rhetoric on climate change into bold policy actions, dozens of environmental leaders and their allies are right now risking arrest in front of the White House.

Today’s carefully choreographed civil disobedience demonstration closely resembles the August 2011 wave of White House protests during which more than 1,200 people were arrested as they called on Obama to deny the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Participants, most dressed in business attire, are sitting down on Pennsylvania Avenue and waiting until police come and arrest them. The demonstrators are calling on the president to use his executive powers to reduce the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions.

This includes rejecting once and for all the Keystone XL permit, putting in place stricter emissions rules on existing power plants, blocking proposed US coal and natural gas exports, and increasing energy efficiency standards for buildings and appliances, among other steps the president could take without Congressional approval.

Many of the environmental leaders risking arrest are familiar faces from the earlier Keystone XL civil disobedience actions: writer and activist Bill McKibben, NASA climatologist James Hansen, Greenpeace head Phil Radford, Erich Pica from Friends of the Earth, CREDO CEO Michael Kieschnick, and actress Darryl Hannah, along with Nebraska ranchers upset at the prospect of the pipeline crossing the sensitive Ogallala Aquifer.

A few new characters stand out. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, is on the front line of the Pennsylvania Avenue protest, marking the first time in the organization’s 120-year-history that its top officer has engaged in civil disobedience and signaling that the country’s biggest green group is preparing to escalate its push for climate action. Brune is joined by Allison Chin, the chair of the Sierra Club’s board of directors.

“The president elevated climate change to be in the top few items, the top few priorities in his second term agenda, and yet at the same time there is an enormous amount of executive authority that is not being utilizied,” Brune told me in an interview two weeks ago, after he had announced his intention to engage in civil disobedience. “Our purpose is to challenge the president to make sure that his appetite for tough climate action equals the ecological need, what’s actually needed to solve this problem.”

Brune said the protest today is occurring in the spirit of “fierce friendship.”

Also risking arrest today is Julian Bond, the former chair of the NAACP and the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The veteran civil rights leader’s involvement in today’s protest is evidence of the new efforts green groups are making to forge common cause with people-of-color organizations and demonstrate that global climate change will affect everyone. Late last year the NAACP released a report, “Coal Blooded,” showing how coal fired power plants impact communities of color.

In a joint opinion essay published Tuesday in the DC newspaper The Hill, Bond and Brune wrote:

“Both of our organizations recognize that environmental pollution and recklessness causes enormous suffering in communities of color, where people still face a hugely disproportionate share of the burden. …. To stand before one's fellow citizens and declare, "I am willing to go to jail to stop this wrong," remains the most powerful expression of free speech we have. The environmental crisis we face today demands nothing less.”

Today’s protest in front of the White House is the kick-off to a busy week designed to show the political support that exists for addressing climate change. On Thursday, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, will introduce climate and energy legislation that lays out a blueprint for sharply reducing US greenhouse gas emissions. On Sunday, some 20,000 people are expected to converge on the National Mall for a “Forward on Climate” rally to demand immediate action on climate change. Organizers say the rally will be the largest climate change demonstration in the United States to date. Solidarity demonstrations are being organized in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver.

In his State of the Union speech last night, President Obama again pledged to act to address the climate change threat. He said: “If Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

With today’s arrests at the White House, environmental leaders are showing that they plan to do whatever they can to hold the president to his word.