After 121 years of lobbying, letter-writing campaigns and law-abiding protests, the Sierra Club is retooling itself for the flash-mob age — and showing an increasingly aggressive edge.
That edge was on display last week, when the Sierra Club’s two top leaders and 46 other climate activists zip-tied themselves to the White House gates to protest the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. The organization called it the first time it had suspended its decades-long policy against club-sanctioned civil disobedience.
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( PHOTOS: The Keystone XL protests)
That protest followed a trend in which the 1.4 million-member organization has toughened its rhetoric against fossil fuels, pursued a campaign to phase out coal and willingly brought on a public relations headache by outing its hidden financial ties to the natural gas industry.
Sierra Club leaders and supporters say they’re not undergoing a radical makeover — and they stressed that the invitation-only White House arrests Feb. 13 were a “one-time” dalliance with civil disobedience.
But they also acknowledged increasing frustration with Washington’s paralysis in the face of what they call a global climate emergency. And some say new tactics are required in an era when mass protests can be organized via Twitter.
( Also on POLITICO: TransCanada ownplays Keysteon XL protests)
“Civil disobedience is the response of ordinary people to extraordinary injustices,” the group said in a statement before the protest, casting the climate debate as akin to previous struggles over “slavery, child labor, suffrage, segregation and inequality for gays and immigrant workers.”
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and the other protesters wrote that they were also inspired by massive anti-Keystone sit-ins at the White House in late 2011, organized by the upstart climate group 350.org, that led to more than 1,200 people being hauled to jail.
The Sierra Club partnered with 350.org this month, both for the White House fence protest and a subsequent anti-Keystone rally on the National Mall that drew at least 35,000 people — what organizers billed as the largest climate demonstration in U.S. history.
Some Sierra activists say the group’s more in-your-face style is less a departure from the club’s roots than a sign of how times have changed.
“It’s a function of things changing outside the club than inside,” said Jack Darin, head of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “What’s changed is not Sierra’s willingness to speak our mind. It really is a deepening frustration with the inaction from Washington and the big energy companies to make any large-scale progress to address the climate crisis.”
It also reflects the stamp of Brune, who joined Sierra Club President Allison Chin, environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., actress Daryl Hannah and civil rights leader Julian Bond in subjecting themselves to arrest at the White House.
Brune came to the Sierra Club in 2010 after seven years as executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, a group whose activists have rappelled down office buildings and trespassed at corporate headquarters to get the attention of businesses like paper manufacturers, coal mining companies and banks. Brune, a former Greenpeace organizer, has gone to jail before.
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Sierra Club goes bolder
By TALIA BUFORD
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
For the first time in its 120-year history, the Sierra Club has said it will officially participate in civil disobedience to protest tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline. The environmental group's leaders say they plan to risk arrest or even provoke arrest next month at an unspecified protest here in Washington. The Sierra Club's executive director Michael Brune joins me to talk about that decision and more. Michael Brune, welcome to the program.
MICHAEL BRUNE: Hi, Melissa. Thanks for having me on.
BLOCK: And I know you have said that you won't reveal specifics about the protest, but you have said it will be in advance of the very large Keystone protest planned for over President's Day weekend. Is this a message that you are directing directly at President Obama?
BRUNE: It is. You know, I was at the inauguration and was very inspired by the president's speech where he outlined the threats that we face from a destabilizing climate, but also the benefits that come from a clean energy transition. And so we want the president's ambition to match the scale of this challenge. And the civil disobedience that we'll be doing in February is designed to both support and challenge the president to do all that he can to meet this moment.
BLOCK: But why do you think that civil disobedience would make a difference in his mind in a way that lobbying, political pressure, all sorts of outside pressures wouldn't?
BRUNE: It's a fair question, you know, but civil disobedience is part of a great American tradition. It's helped to bring our country out of its darkest hours. And so we believe that civil disobedience will help us to create really a breakthrough political environment where we're able to achieve solutions to climate change that have eluded policy makers over the last several years.
BLOCK: And if it's so important, if you think it can be so vital in changing people's minds, why just a one-time protest, which is what the Sierra Club has authorized here?
BRUNE: Well, you start with a single action, really. You know, what we're facing right now is the tar sands pipeline, which is the dirtiest fuel source on the planet. The pipeline itself would carry about a million barrels of highly carbon-intensive oil down into the U.S., most likely to be exported. There's simply no way for us to cut our greenhouse gas emissions and simultaneously expand development of this carbon-intensive fuel source.
BLOCK: It sounds, from what you just told me, that your main problem isn't necessarily with the pipeline itself. In other words, the transport. It's really the extraction of the tar sands oil from Canada in the first place.
BRUNE: Sure. We have to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as we can in order to stabilize our climate. We should not be developing these extreme sources of energy. And the tar sands is probably the most potent example of a kind of development of fossil fuels that, as a society, we need to turn away from.
BLOCK: How much of a setback is it for you and the Sierra Club that the governor of Nebraska has now said he's satisfied the pipeline can be built and operated safely and that the new route avoids the most ecologically sensitive areas in that state?
BRUNE: Well, what can I say? We were surprised by the governor's statement, because he was opposed to the pipeline before now being in favor of it, particularly since the facts of the pipeline hasn't really changed. But the fundamental concern that we have about this pipeline is that it should not be built.
BLOCK: Well, the Obama administration has already approved the southern portion of this pipeline, right, from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast. Realistically, do you think that the pipeline can be turned around when a good portion of it is already under way?
BRUNE: We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think we had a realistic chance at victory. And I'll tell you there's two reasons why we think we have a good shot. First, the president made a very firm and clear commitment to making fighting climate change a top priority of his administration. You really can't reconcile a firm commitment to taking climate change by the horns and then simultaneously build a pipeline that would take a million barrels of oil into the U.S. for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
The second reason is the southern portion of this pipeline has a lot of resistance from local communities and it will only go to Oklahoma. This is not yet built to take oil from the tar sands. This is - at a minimum, it will alleviate a glut that we're finding in the middle part of the country. So there's a lot of reason for optimism and there's a lot of work to be done to make sure that the president has full support of the public to reject this pipeline altogether.
BLOCK: Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. He joined me from San Francisco. Michael, thanks very much.
BRUNE: Thank you, Melissa.
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