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Bring Your Obama Buttons: Momentum Builds for White House Tar Sands Action

Happily, President Obama can stop the pipeline, and even in a dysfunctional D.C. no one can stop him. Before the so-called Keystone XL pipeline can be built, he has to issue a certificate saying it is "in the national interest."
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I know that there been some bitterness in the blogosphere in recent weeks between those who are mad at President Obama, and those who are mad at those who are mad at President Obama.

I want to tell you about an upcoming action -- it looks set to turn into the biggest civil disobedience protest in the history of the North American climate movement. It will take place at the White House from August 20-Sept. 3, and we need your help spreading the word. But I want to explain the reasoning behind it in some detail, because for me it helps illustrate how some of the debate about Obama is unproductive.

First, the issue: the Canadians are proposing to build a huge new pipeline from their tar sands in Alberta down to the Gulf of Mexico. It's disastrous for native lands in the far north (check out this video from the wonderful Cree activist Melina Laboucan) and it will doubtless cause horrible spills much like last week's disaster on the Yellowstone River.

But there's a bigger problem here too. Those Alberta tar sands are the biggest carbon bomb on the continent -- indeed, on the whole planet, only Saudi Arabia's oil deposits are bigger. Some of you have followed the work fo, and know that above 350 parts per million co2 in the atmosphere you can't have, in the words of NASA climatologist James Hansen, "a planet similar to the one on which civilization evolved and to which life on earth is adapted." We're already at 390 ppm, which is why last year, according to Weather Underground's Jeff Masters, we had the most extreme weather the planet has seen at least since the great volcanic eruption of 1816. But the tar sands of Alberta will make it impossibly worse: if you could burn all that oil at once, you'd add 200 parts per million co2 to the atmosphere, and send the planet's temperature skyrocketing upwards. Any serious exploitation of the tar sands, says Hansen, means it's "essentially game over" for the climate. So, high stakes. And don't think that the Canadians will automatically find some other route to send their oil out to, say, China. Native tribes are doing a great job of blocking a proposed pipe to the Pacific; Alberta's energy minister said recently that he stays up nights worrying that without Keystone his province will be 'landlocked in bitumen.' Without the pipeline, said the business pages of Canada's biggest paper, Alberta oil faces a 'choke point.'

Happily, President Obama can stop the pipeline, and even in a dysfunctional D.C. no one can stop him. Before the so-called Keystone XL pipeline can be built, he has to issue a certificate saying it is "in the national interest." The House can't make him do anything, nor the Senate. For once, it's entirely up to the president. That's why we're headed to the White House for two weeks towards the end of August, and why we'll be (a la the fight against Don't Ask Don't Tell) trespassing along the outside of the executive mansion. It will be extremely civil civil disobedience -- we're asking everyone to be 'businesslike in dress and demeanor,' in an effort to show who the radicals in this fight are. (Hint -- they're the people vying to fundamentally alter the composition of the atmosphere).

I suppose you could argue that this is anti-Obama, since it shows we don't 100 percent trust him to do the right thing. And I suppose we don't -- earlier this year, for instance, he opened an enormous swath of federal land in Wyoming to coal-mining. It was the equivalent of turning on 300 new coal-fired power plants.

On the other hand, none of the people who issued the call are anti-Obama ideologues. It came from people like me (and I was an early member of Environmentalists for Obama), the great Kentucky farmer and essayist Wendell Berry, the agronomist Wes Jackson, the indigenous leader Tom Goldtooth, and north of the border people like Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, and Maude Barlow, leader of the Council of Canadians. We asked people who had Obama buttons in their closets to bring them and wear them -- many of us still remember the shivers that ran down our spines when he said, on the eve of his nomination, that with his election "the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet begin to heal."

In fact, instead of focusing constantly on Obama's flaws and virtues, I'm enough of a Methodist Sunday School teacher to want to focus on mine and ours. We haven't, perhaps, kept up the pressure we should have to see the change we need. I think that Lisa Jackson, the great administrator of the EPA, was on to something earlier this month when she told a Colorado newspaper that one reason Obama's environmental record was not what it might have been was because "they're not marching on Washington the way they did on Earth Day in the '70s." I think Dan Pfeiffer was on to something when he told Netroots Nation: "We WANT you to push us -- we absolutely do. The president is someone who comes from a tradition of grassroots organizing, community organizing. A lot of the pushing that you guys are doing on a national level, he did on a local level in Chicago, and he understands that."

So here's the good news. There are already hundreds and hundreds of people signed up to risk arrest over those two weeks. Hopefully it will resemble the remarkable protests Transafrica organized in the 1980s outside the South African embassy. Hopefully we will give the president plenty of support for the idea that climate change is not in the national interest and that the Keystone pipeline is unthinkable.

If you want to sign up to be part of it, here's the place to go. We shouldn't just leave this to the college kids -- it's also the job for those of us who have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere for years. And we shouldn't, I think, get so caught up in electioneering 15 months before an election that we forget our duties to other kinds of political work. We need to keep that carbon in the ground and out of the atmosphere. I hope I'll get to see you in D.C. in August.

This piece originally appeared on DailyKos.

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