It is perhaps fitting that Bill McKibben was among the first people arrested protesting climate change. After all, he had written The End of Nature, the first widely read book on the subject in 1989. At the time, though, he naively thought, as he often puts it now, that people would “read my book, then change.” But after 10 years of complete governmental inaction, McKibben was ready to try a different tack. And so, on April 21, 2000—a day before Earth Day—he joined a small group of campaign-finance activists in the Capitol Rotunda, where they were arrested with a banner that read, “Stop campaign contributions from global warmers.”
“That didn't accomplish much,” he said, thinking back on it now. “It was maybe premature.”
McKibben should know. He has spent the better part of the next decade building a climate movement that in February showed up 50,000 strong on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Days earlier he had been arrested again, his third and most recent such offense—but this time he was joined by representatives of the nation's largest environmental groups. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of the Natural Resources Defense Council was there, as were the heads of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. But of particular significance was the presence of Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune—who broke with the organization's 120-year ban on civil disobedience by cuffing himself to the White House gate.
The occasion was not to stop something as extensive as campaign contributions but rather a single pipeline—the Keystone XL—which, if granted a special presidential permit, would carry dirty oil from Canada's tar sands region in Northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast. McKibben and a few organizers, who now work for his climate group 350.org, had made this pipeline a national issue in August 2011 when they held two weeks of sit-ins in front of the White House. This protest, which led to 1,253 arrests, was the largest organized act of civil disobedience in the United States in decades. [Full disclosure: I was one of those arrested.]
Still, many consider the construction of the Keystone pipeline inevitable—after all, even 54 percent of Democrats support it. It's for this reason that critics such as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera have called the protests “boneheaded.” They believe environmental action could be better spent on some other goal, like perhaps encouraging people to reduce their carbon footprint.
But these critics are missing something vital about the anti-Keystone movement: It was never about just a pipeline. McKibben and a handful of others had another, less talked about goal—to remake the environmental movement into something far more active, creative, and formidable for years to come. The gap that once existed between mainstream environmental groups and grass-roots activists has now largely dissolved, resulting in widespread action that has not been seen in the United States for decades—perhaps even since the first Earth Day in April 1970.
On that day, mainstream environmental groups with roots going back to the conservation movement of the early 20th century united with grass-roots activists for a day of teach-ins, influenced by the burgeoning student anti-war movement. Amid the thousands of demonstrations that took place across the nation, there was at least one major act of civil disobedience, in which 15 people were arrested for holding a mock funeral inside Boston’s Logan Airport. Interestingly enough, it was a sort of proto-climate protest against a supersonic plane and its accompanying release of water vapor—a major greenhouse gas.
After that Earth Day, however, the two strands of environmentalism largely went their separate ways, with mainstream groups preferring a more professional approach that took them to courtrooms, shareholder meetings, and the halls of Congress rather than street demonstrations. And for a time, that approach succeeded wildly, earning some of the most important and long-standing environmental gains in this country's history. But according to a 2012 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, such efforts have yielded no "significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s." For perhaps no issue is that fact more clear than with climate change.
“We knew enough way back then to act,” says James Gustave Speth, who has advised two presidents on the environment and co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1970. “When I was chair of President Carter's Council on Environmental Policy, we issued several reports calling for climate action. So much for my effectiveness.”
Speth has since turned to activism and was among the first people arrested during the two weeks of sit-ins outside the White House.