Bill McKibben: The Time Has Come


Let’s do this.

Beginning in mid-August, and stretching for two weeks into the Labor Day weekend, you’re invited to Washington D.C. to participate in sustained direct action against the expansion of the Canadian tarsands. Yes, it’s likely to be hot and humid. And yes, it’s possible that you’ll be arrested. But it’s also possible you’ll make a big difference.

Here’s the deal. A group of big oil companies has proposed one of the worst plans the continent has ever seen: a huge pipeline taking oil from the tarsands of Alberta all the way to Texas. Along the route there’s been powerful opposition from indigenous leaders, and from farmers and ranchers.

But this is a project with global impact. The tarsands of Canada are the second biggest pool of carbon on the planet, after Saudi Arabia’s oil wells. If you could burn all the oil in them, you’d increase the planet’s co2 concentration by 200 parts per million.  If we keep developing them, as the world’s leading climatologist James Hansen said recently, it’s “essentially game over” for the planet’s climate. Which is why a group of indigenous leaders, scientists, and environmentalist on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border this month asked citizens to come to Washington for what may turn into the biggest civil disobedience action in the history of the climate debate.

Day after day we’ll assemble outside the White House in peaceful ranks. We’ll be risking arrest by this action—our action will be modeled on anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s in Washington, which resulted in daily peaceful arrests.

Why the White House? Because this pipeline must be approved by the president, who has to issue a ‘certificate of national interest.’ Congress can’t interfere one way or another—a president who has been hamstrung by science-denying politicians will, for once, be able to make an important call on his own. We think he’ll do the right thing—the day he was nominated, after all, he said it marked ‘the moment when the rise of the oceans would begin to slow and the planet begin to heal.’

But never underestimate the pressure he’ll be under, for there are hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil in those tar sands. So we need to show our resolve. Just last week, Lisa Jackson, the director of the EPA, put it this way:  Obama is “doing what he can with the public will he’s been given… They’re not marching on Washington the way they did on Earth Day in the 70s.”  Earlier in the month, Dan Pfeiffer, the president’s communications director, put it like this: “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.”

They’re right. If we want the president to do the right thing, we have to push a little. Not in an angry way—many of us will be wearing the Obama buttons we sported during the last election. (If you wore a McCain button, dig that out too!) We’re asking people to be businesslike in dress and demeanor—if you can’t control your emotions, I’d respectfully ask you not to come. We want to show, once and for all, who the radicals are in this fight:  (hint–it’s deeply radical to alter the composition of the earth’s atmosphere.).

One more thing. College kids have borne much of this battle so far. We don’t want this action to be just youth. Those of us who have spent our lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere need to be involved too—and it will be a pleasure watching some Boomers recapture the spunk that marked their earlier years. I always remember the words of my old friend Doris Haddock (Granny D) who walked across the country to protest in action, and who helped organize the first global warming civil disobedience in Washington. When we were handcuffed together she looked up at me and said: “I’m 93. I’ve never been arrested before. I should have started long ago!”

There’s no group behind this—just a collection of folks who want to see change. If you want to be a part of that collection, go to and sign up.

Give us some sense of the days you’d be available in that late August-early September time frame. The plan is for people to arrive in DC, watch one day’s action, attend training in the evening, and then be on the front lines the next day. Since we don’t know exactly how the authorities will react to our peaceful witness we don’t know how long you’ll have to stay in DC afterwards, but the best guess is it won’t be long.

Thanks for thinking about this. It’s been a tough year—from the floods in Pakistan and the Mississippi basin to the scorching heat in Russia and Texas. It feels good to be able to do something that might matter.
See also Climate Change: Still Worse Than You Think