President Barack Obama’s energy policy is an “all of the above plan”, and given the right audience he has been more than willing to brag about all the fossil fuel development his administration has fostered. This is the president that triumphantly declared to applause lines in Cushing Oklahoma in 2012 that, “under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years.” Therefore his flirtation with approval of the calamitous XL Keystone pipeline should come as no surprise. The XL Dissent student rally and civil disobedience actions are necessary to push Obama in the right direction–against approval. It is also a welcome, bold step forward for youth climate change activism. It is the young whose lives and loved ones will be most affected by climate change and it is why I am trekking across the nation this weekend to demonstrate and engage in disobedience. Previous anti-pipeline protests seemed to have had a definite influence on the administration’s approach to approval and perhaps civil disobedience from the young, as symbols of the future, will convince the administration to finally abandon this dangerous project.
However, we must acknowledge the sheer magnitude of the problems posed by climate change. There will be no simple technocratic solution that will solve the climate change crisis. This will require no less than a reimagining of the post-Industrial Revolution world, and potentially, revolution of some kind. This is not some radical conjecture, but an acknowledgement that post-Industrial Revolution politics and economics have so developed to be, to say the least, ill equipped to deal with our relation to the environment. The environment is tucked away in economics as an “externality”, meaning we don’t really worry about it. Nature will not forgive our oversight and will be indifferent to the difficulties we humans will have in mitigating climate change. So the magnitude of difficulty involved in working out emissions reductions that cross borders or that also address poverty will have no bearing on the speed of climate change’s onset. We will either find solutions or suffer the consequences. There is no choice.
So let us bear no delusions. Climate change will require a movement like there has never been and we are woefully powerless at the moment. As young people we must realize that there will likely be no deux ex machina. As crazy as it might seem, it is quite possible that the current world political and economic elites will forfeit human civilization in the name of profit and self-interest. In fact, that seems to be the current operative response to climate change. Scientists tell us that as a global society we are moving with frightening speed towards levels of atmospheric green house gases that in the future will cause severe damage to human civilization. The ten warmest years have occurred during the last sixteen years. In response there has been political paralysis and outright hostility to change from very powerful sectors. Future humans will look back with shocked incredulity at the millions spent to misinform the public on climate change issues. But this is also why XL Dissent is so exciting. It represents a very significant recognition by the young that we can and must shape our own future. It will demonstrate to the world and to ourselves the power of our voices, our actions, our organization, and our mission.
However, as much of a victory stopping the Keystone XL pipeline would be, it is only valuable insofar as it builds a movement to address climate change more broadly. Stopping the pipeline will neither guarantee that tar sands go unexcavated nor significantly mitigate climate change. But in building a movement we must pick our battles strategically and this pipeline, in its very tangibility is something we can build around. If built it would represent a continued, serious commitment to very destructive fossil fuel extraction by the most powerful and richest nation in the world, and therefore an insult to all of humanity. The XL Dissent action will represent our commitment as young people to physically oppose the pipeline, and climate change inaction. And if Barack Obama is so careless to disregard us and approves the Keystone XL, then we must commit ourselves to organizing further and physically block the pipeline from being built through peaceful, civil disobedience.
Stopping the XL Keystone pipeline has the potential to turn the direction of climate change activism. Instead of merely opposing insane new fossil fuel development, we can begin to spearhead projects that will lead society towards a zero emission world. Instead of standing in the shadow of the immensely powerful fossil fuel industry and a corrupt, broken government under its sway, we can begin to claim the real power necessary to mitigate climate change. Obama may believe he is something of a realist or a pragmatist in his advocacy of an “all of the above” energy policy. We must inform him that the time has come where, as a society, we must choose between humanity and fossil fuel. “All of the above” is not an option. The battle to adequately address climate change will be long and hard, but XL Dissent and stopping the Keystone XL pipeline can be a beginning. In fact, if we care about our futures, it must be.
Nick Wozniak is a senior at University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana majoring in History. His hometown is Frankfort, IL.