It is the middle February. Along the East Coast, it’s freezing outside, or at least it feels that way to us humans. But up in Greenland, the ice sheet is still melting, even though it’s the dead of winter. Down in D.C., President Obama just said that it’s imperative that Americans fight climate change but also that we keep drilling for climate change-fueling oil and gas.
Contradictions abound. Climate change and its politics seem to be full of them. Hotter summers, snowier winters. The corporate resistance to addressing this direst of problems is certainly founded on contradiction: But wasn’t it global cooling last time? But it’s cold right now, in the winter, so where’s your warming, hippies?
Here is something that cannot be contradicted. Last weekend, tens of thousands of people from across the country made their way to Washington D.C. to stand for hours in the cold to call for their government to act on the biggest, most complicated, most maddeningly invisible and exhaustively contradictory problem of our time.
Of course, climate change is not actually contradictory, it can just be difficult for the attention-strapped layperson to fully understand. Corporations that contribute to climate change know this, and exploit it. Which is not a dig at the attention-strapped layperson—there are enormously important issues out there that I do not fully understand, because as a citizen of the 21st century, I too am perennially attention-strapped.
But climate change is making the atmosphere warmer. And warmer air holds more moisture, which can lead to snowier storms, like it probably did with Nemo. That’s climate change. In more arid regions, scorching temps can suck the moisture away, worsening droughts, like they did in 60% of the nation last year. That’s climate change, too. So is the stronger winds of Hurricane Sandy, the higher sea levels. The same global phenomenon—mankind dumping a surfeit of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—apparently contradictory outcomes.
So how do you fight something like that? Something that can so easily be denigrated by dumb one-liners from Fox News pundits? Ridiculed by the anti-intellectual elite? Something that fossil fuel companies have spent billions of dollars trying to lobby, think tank, and PR campaign out of existence? Something that most politicians would rather not ever look in the eye? Something that’s so often manipulated because of its evident contradictions?
You do what 35,000 citizens did last weekend. You show up, you grab a sign, and you head for the White House. You get organized. You get the attention of the mainstream media. You shout loud, in unison.
And for perhaps the first time in the still-young climate movement, the numbers were undeniably there. Enough voices were shouting in unison that the media rushed to bring them a microphone.
Environmentalists have battled this obstacle for years, yet another contradiction: facing perhaps the biggest problem in human history, turnout to the protest movement was comparatively tiny. Students cared, bless them, but most Americans didn’t. The media didn’t. Too many confusing, contrasting storylines, maybe.
It was the Keystone XL that finally cut through the narrative contradictions.
The 2011 demonstrations against the initial approval of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline were impressively coordinated, drew national attention, and proved successful in temporarily halting the project’s construction. The pitch was simple: This thing will cause a shit-ton of climate change, so let’s stop it. The message caught on. Hundreds of people were peacefully arrested. Two years ago, the biggest event of the lot drew just over 10,000 people. Three times as many people showed up last Sunday.
"This movement's been building a long time,” key organizer and environmentalist icon Bill McKibben said at the protest. “One of the things that's built it is everybody's desire to give the president the support he needs to block this Keystone pipeline."
So that’s the goal, loosely. Fight climate change by fighting this, starting now. Kill the Keystone XL, the latest carbon tap the politico-industrial complex wants to turn on. Stop making everything worse, and then get on to making it better. Draw a line in the sand, through the fallacy that you can fight climate change while pursuing new fossil-fueled projects with reckless abandon.
Pave a path through the apparent contradictions to something with a clear moral arc: Climate change is ruining people’s lives, and it is very much worth taking to the streets to slow it down. Climate change is something that affects thousands and thousands of people, and so much so that they will drive from Wisconsin to try to help stop it. Those people have stories, and that’s why numbers are important.
And remember. This is February. It is still cold. It is still unpleasant outside. The administration won’t make their decision on Keystone until early spring. If the winter numbers are any sign, the climate protests will continue to grow between now and then. And if there’s one thing that even politicians don’t like to contradict, it’s the will of tens of thousands of peacefully screaming people gathered on their front lawn.