And he wasn't the only former bureaucrat turned activist. NASA scientist James Hansen, who was the first to testify before Congress about the urgency of climate change in 1989, was also among those arrested at the White House, both in August 2011 and last February. In fact, his description of what would happen if Canada's vast tar sands oil reserves were further developed—in short, “game over for the climate”—served as inspiration for the White House sit-ins. Recently, he has decided to step down from his post as the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and pursue activism full-time.
“Our scientists sounded an early warning, and explained it to the world,” McKibben said. “They were ignored because of the power of the fossil fuel industry. So, we've had to add moral suasion to reason.”
That, of course, wouldn't have amounted to much more than his first attempt at civil disobedience in the Capitol Rotunda, had he not set about building a broad base of supporters over the last five years with 350.org. Known for its massive days of global action, the group drew people in with its creative approach to activism—from staging gigantic aerial art pieces that could be seen from space to holding work parties, where actual climate solutions such as solar panels and community gardens were implemented on the local level.
The real push toward civil disobedience, however, came from a University of Utah student named Tim DeChristopher, who disrupted a federal oil and gas auction in December 2008 by posing as a bidder. It wasn't his plan. He actually didn't have one. All he knew was that the protest outside the auction was going nowhere. So he walked in, thinking maybe he'd make a speech. But auctioneers handed him a paddle instead, which he used to buy 22,500 acres—worth nearly $1.8 million—before federal agents caught on to the ruse. DeChristopher quickly became a cult icon for a growing climate movement, particularly as his unrepentant nature forced a criminal case that landed him in jail for two years. Coincidentally, his first full day out of custody will be this Earth Day.
“Tim did something that really resonated with a lot of the general public, where they felt emboldened with power, and started to reassess their own capacity for what they can do to make this world a better place,” said Matt Leonard, the principle organizer of the White House sit-ins. “We've definitely seen a ton of stories from people who were inspired by Tim and said that was the tipping point for them.”
Knowing, however, that most people were not prepared to risk receiving long jail sentences, McKibben and his team of young organizers crafted an action that was both simple and symbolic. They decided on holding sit-ins because, as Leonard explained, “It's a tactic that resonates with people’s historical understanding of civil disobedience—for instance the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement.” Also, it is something that anyone can do and the point, after all, was to turn passive allies into active members of a movement.
Tar Sands Action, as the campaign was known, positioned itself as a bridge between the grass roots and the mainstream. In effect, it was radicalizing the latter by using a very basic and low-risk tactic of the former. At the same time, it was making use of the mainstream groups' strengths, such as generating publicity, writing reports, and coordinating legal action. Getting these groups to work together on the same project was a big accomplishment not only because some of them work in different areas but also because, as Leonard explained, “there's actually some real political disagreements.”
Yet, as much as this newfound cooperation was the result of the organizers playing the middleman, it was also a direct result of what organizer Linda Capato called “the history of the last couple years in the environmental movement.” With nothing happening on the political front, everyone working on the climate issue realized that, as Capato explained, “We need to start showing up in mass numbers. The reason the president is able to ignore the environmental movement is because he doesn’t think the environment is an important issue to Americans.”
Tar Sands Action challenged that perception by creating the largest civil disobedience action in decades, followed several months later in November 2011 by 12,000 people encircling the White House.The president's reluctance to make a final determination reflects this newfound environmental activism. But what may end up being more important, in terms of the bigger fight to stop climate change—is what comes next.
“We sort of opened up this realm of possibilities,” said Rae Breaux, another Tar Sands Action organizer. “In terms of organizing civil disobedience campaigns, it’s a thing that people consider an option now.”