by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Simon Mayeski (left) and 350.org banner
Rev. Dr. Beth Johnson
Group shot from the rally
Line of march
The pipeline sign
“Keystone hates Bambi”
“Obama, take a stand”
Lone counter-protester who drove his truck around the block during the action
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that our failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
— President Barack Obama
Those words were featured prominently at a demonstration against construction of the Keystone XL pipeline at the Federal Building in downtown San Diego September 21. They were carried on a sign held by one of the protesters as the nearly 250 people marched around the building, and they were quoted by Eve Simmons of the San Diego Energy and Climate Reality Project and San Diego’s branch of the anti-global warming group 350.org when she MC’d a rally that followed the march. The action was part of a nationwide campaign, including similar protests in almost 200 other cities demanding that the Obama administration “draw the line” and stop the Keystone XL pipeline as a sign that they’re serious about stopping human-caused climate change.
Five days earlier, on September 16, Simmons and fellow San Diego 350.org founder Simon Mayeski had spoken to Activist San Diego (ASD) at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Simmons’ talk there drew on some of the same materials as Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning movie, An Inconvenient Truth, updated to show how much more human-caused climate change has happened in the five years since the film and how the indicators of global warming, including melting icecaps and glaciers and ocean acidification, have got worse. Mayeski briefed the audience on how the anti-Keystone movement got started and what can be done to stop climate change in general and the pipeline in particular.
Both the ASD meeting and the downtown demonstration revealed a divide within the environmentalist movement that’s been apparent at least since the late 1970’s, when Amory Lovins published Soft Energy Paths, which argued that humans were facing an environmental catastrophe but it could be stopped without ending the capitalist economic system. Barry Commoner, a scientist who was active in both the environmental and socialist movements (and eventually ran as an alternative Presidential candidate in 1980), argued that the sweeping changes needed to achieve an environmentally stable and sustainable society couldn’t be achieved under capitalism. The divide was summed up by a man who stood in front of the September 21 march videotaping it, who said he was disappointed with the action’s focus on lobbying President Obama to kill the pipeline. “Obama can’t be trusted,” he said. “He isn’t going to do anything to stop it.”
What Is Keystone XL?
The Keystone XL pipeline is actually the middle leg in a series of three pipelines designed to carry oil produced from Canadian tar sands to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S. The first and third legs are already being built, but because the middle one crosses the U.S.-Canada border, the U.S. State Department has to certify the project before construction can begin. Earlier this year the State Department issued a report saying they didn’t think Keystone XL would have a measurable effect on the U.S. environment — but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued their own report, which said the pipeline should not be built.
Obama has delayed his decision whether to allow the pipeline to go forward several times, and environmentalist activists seized on the delays to mount a major push to get Obama to kill the project. More recently, the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives has threatened to allow the federal government to shut down and block renewal of the U.S.’s debt ceiling unless funding is stripped from Obama’s Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”) and Keystone XL is approved.
At the ASD meeting, Simmons explained the significance of Keystone XL both for its supporters and its opponents. “Peak oil is running out,” she said, “so we’re going after ‘tight oil.’” This means oil — and also natural gas — that is increasingly difficult to extract from the ground. One process for extracting “tight oil” is hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, which involves injecting water and toxic chemicals into the ground in order to break it up and get it to release oil or gas. Another is heating tar sands in order to release the so-called “dirty oil” within them — which, as a pair of pictures Simmons and Mayeski showed at their ASD appearance dramatically showed, turns pristine wilderness full of carbon dioxide-absorbing trees into mud flats full of toxic residues.
“Beneath the Canadian boreal forest — which provides twice as much oxygen (from plant photosynthesis) as all of Latin America — lies the dirtiest fuel in the world,” Simmons told ASD. “We’re turning the world’s biggest carbon sink into the world’s biggest carbon bomb.” At the rally, she was even more dire: “The Keystone XL pipeline would bring to market more than twice the amount of oil burned throughout human history.” Though Canadian companies can extract this oil even without the pipeline, Keystone opponents say that without the pipeline it would be prohibitively expensive for them to market it.
The case against Keystone can be summed up in four points: 1) The Canadian tar sands oil itself will add so much carbon dioxide to the earth’s atmosphere that global warming will become irreversible. As pioneering climate-change researcher Dr. James Hansen has said, building Keystone would be “game over for the climate.” 2) The process of extracting it is itself energy-intensive as well as highly polluting. 3) The pipeline runs alongside or under major U.S. aquifers and therefore directly threatens the drinking water needed by millions of people. 4) It’s an elaborate multi-million dollar economic commitment to continued reliance on fossil fuels at a time when we need to be moving away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.
Part of the program at the September 21 rally was an invitation for people to write on signs and express their own reasons for opposing the pipeline. Concerns ranged from the future effects of climate change on human survival — one woman simply put on her sign that she was against Keystone because “I love humanity!” — to the Native American sacred sites that would be destroyed by the pipeline’s construction. “I just turned 10 and I may not be able to vote or drive,” said a young girl identified only as Siena, “but I’ve been an environmental activist since I was five.” She pleaded with Obama to live up to his words about our responsibility to protect the environment for future generations, and kill the pipeline so she and her fellow 10-year-olds can have an environmentally sane and sustainable future.
Embracing Civil Disobedience
Former California Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, currently head of the San Diego branch of the Sierra Club, announced that the implications of building Keystone are so dire that the Sierra Club’s nationwide leadership agreed to support civil disobedience campaigns to stop it. “The Sierra Club never endorsed civil disobedience until Keystone,” she said. “Our national officers were arrested in front of the White House protesting Keystone. These volunteer opportunities never go away. We always have these battles to fight. This is the future: clean energy. Keep your voices loud and keep going.”
One way Saldaña said people could stay involved is by attending meetings of city councils, the County Board of Supervisors and the state legislature and speaking out on critical environmental and energy issues. “I know both sides,” she said — alluding to her long career as an activist, her six years in the Assembly and her return to activism after she was termed out of office. “I know how tough it is to stand before elected representatives and tell them what the people need done. But testifying in person and writing letters and postcards are among the tools you have.”
Matt Cappiello, a medical student at UCSD, recalled being arrested as part of the anti-Keystone demonstration in front of the White House two years ago to which Saldaña had referred. “Pretty much the entire economy is driven by fossil-fuel consumption,” he said. “We have multinational corporations who encourage us to use more fuels and who out-lobby us 150 to 1. There’s a knowledge gap between environmentalists and the ordinary American public that doesn’t know the dirty details of tar-sands extraction. In San Diego a lot of people are more concerned about going to the beach or clubbing. We need wake-up calls, and that’s why we need civil disobedience.”
Though Cappiello said the people organizing civil-disobedience campaigns against Keystone are doctors, teachers and other people with professional careers — not “your typical granola-crunching hippies” — he identified the anti-Keystone campaign with the Occupy movement. Cappiello said three factors had delayed Obama from approving Keystone: the anti-Keystone rally in Washington, D.C. (“the largest environmental demonstration in U.S. history,” he called it), Occupy and the need for Obama to galvanize his progressive base to get re-elected in 2012. He boasted that the pressure of their campaign opened the mainstream media to coverage on the negative impacts of Keystone and got 350.org founder Bill McKibben on national television.
But the most radical perspective at the September 21 rally came from a surprising source: Reverend Doctor Beth Johnson, pastor of the First Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship at Palomar in North County. “We are not alone in our commitment to the earth,” she said. “We will not let this outrageous pipeline proceed. The pipeline is a visible, outward sign of greed and ignorance of the inconvenient truth. Stopping the pipeline is a moral issue. We hold the President accountable. … We’re drawing the line at fear, ignorance, greed, coercion and the Keystone XL pipeline, the outward sign of a cancerous capitalist economy.”
Liberals vs. Radicals at ASD
Rev. Dr. Johnson would have felt right at home if she’d attended the Activist San Diego meeting on Keystone and climate change five nights earlier. The featured speakers, Eve Simmons and fellow San Diego 350.org founder Simon Mayeski, took what might be called a liberal approach to climate change. Simmons gave a rather apologetic defense of large-scale solar and wind projects which might have been less apologetic if she hadn’t noticed ASD board member Jorge Glackman’s comment in his introduction that such projects “are very wasteful ways to exploit climate change.” She also said “some” climate scientists endorse “small fourth-generation” nuclear reactors as a necessary part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Later she told this reporter that she’d been part of anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1970’s but avoided saying whether she now personally supports nukes.
Mayeski quarreled with Simmons’ apparent endorsement of nuclear power (though she had been careful to avoid saying whether she supported it herself). “We tried nuclear power, and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “It may have worked at the beginning, but as the climate has got worse, many places where the plants are have become more prone to accidents. It’s possible the flooding at Fukushima was caused at least in part by climate change. We need to stop nuclear power as soon as possible.”
In the parts of their talks that addressed what people could do, Simmons and Mayeski acknowledged the need for political activism but put more stress on individual solutions. Simmons pointed out that 40 percent of San Diego’s energy use is for transportation and another 40 percent for heating and lighting buildings. “The Empire State Building was just retrofitted, and its owner is saving $4.4 million per year,” she said. “The sun and wind have no borders. Every country has them. If you own your own home or business, or have some say in your HOA (homeowners’ association, the governing board for condo complexes), install rooftop solar panels, warm your home with sunlight, create new energy jobs, and if you own an electric car that’s your gas station,”
Simmons also advised her audience “never to buy a fossil-fuel car again. Go electric. They are getting cheaper and cheaper.” She also called on people to use more public transit and to divest themselves of their investments in energy companies and other enterprises that rely on fossil fuels. Another recommendation Simmons made was to buy fewer things made of plastic. “Peak oil” researcher Richard Ledford has pointed out that only 50 percent of the oil produced in the world is burned for energy; the other 50 percent is used to make plastic. As far as political activism goes, Simmons said people should “call your political representatives and demand an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. Demand a price on carbon emissions.”
Mayeski’s presentation took a similar tack, emphasizing personal responsibility and liberal political action. “Each of us has the ability to fight climate change by reducing our own carbon footprint,” he said. “We can ride a bus or trolley, ride a bicycle or walk. Conserving water is important because it takes a lot of energy to process and store water. We can work on increasing our home’s efficiency, including changing lightbulbs, using more efficient machinery or installing solar energy.” He also recommended that people become vegetarians — even though he admitted “I’m not there yet” — because it’s a lot more energy-efficient to consume protein and other nutrients directly from plants rather than having them processed through animals first.
His political strategy focused more on outreach to friends, neighbors, family members and co-workers than on directly confronting elected officials or pursuing civil disobedience. Mayeski promoted the “SIM center” downtown — a computer center with space for up to 20 people, and their laptops, at a time — where “we’ve had ‘climate chats’ that are a San Diego 350.org invention. … We do a lot of public outreach. This is a day in a long campaign.” Mayeski also showed slides of more traditional protests his group has been involved with, including one outside the San Diego Gas & Electric visitors’ center right after it opened, where they displayed a multi-segment sign painted to look like a pipeline. The same sign, with a slogan denouncing Keystone, was used in the September 21 demonstration.
When the ASD meeting was opened to questions and comments from the audience, it quickly became clear that many of the people attending were more radical than the speakers. The first question asked how you can combat climate change when manufacturers, especially in high-tech, pursue a policy of planned obsolescence so people have to keep buying new gadgets whose production produces carbon emissions and wastes scarce resources.
“There’s not enough time to talk about every issue,” Simmons conceded. “The U.S. produces 30 percent of the world’s waste. One thing we can do is a revenue-neutral carbon tax on the oil companies, as other countries have done. When a pack of cigarettes went up in price, a lot of people stopped smoking. If we can make it more logical and more profitable for people to make better choices, they will.”
ASD founder and acting executive director Martin Eder said he wanted to hear the speakers say more about the role of corporations in climate change. “You can’t stop climate change without system change,” he said. “The profit motive is the reason climate change and the destruction of ecosystems are happening. Unless we take a global look at social organization, corporations will sell us the very air we breathe and be happy with the situation.”
Jorge Glackman said that while the U.S. debates whether to use tax policy to address climate change, “the workers in developing countries are suffering. We have a class system in this country and we have to talk about the ways we relate to each other and to the earth.” Glackman particularly denounced the “REDD+” program — short for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” — as a “mechanism by which corporations buy carbon credits from developing countries. This is having a damaging effect on the indigenous people. Sometimes the ‘positive’ solutions have bad effects.” (For more information and a defense of REDD+, visit http://www.un-redd.org.)
Former San Diego City Councilmember Floyd Morrow summed up the concerns of many of the audience members when he called for the U.S. to establish a “declaration of interdependence” with the rest of the world. He also said we need to get rid of policies based on so-called “supply-side economics” and in particular the Laffer curve, which purported to show that government would get more revenue, not less, if it drastically cut taxes on the rich. “It’s important to protect our forests around the world, because we are interdependent,” Morrow said. “Each living thing must be respected. The oceans and the air are the most important things we have. It bothers me that there’s no overview of the human condition.”