With great fervor, I, together with millions of hopeful Americans, went to the polls in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama. In the months leading up to the presidential election he had galvanized incredible support for his candidacy, capitalizing on America’s deep desire to see change in Washington. I especially remember how I hung upon every word of Obama’s presidential acceptance speech, a late-night address before thousands in Chicago and millions who watched on TV across the world.
As an environmentalist, I was particularly inspired by President-elect Obama’s courageous declaration that under his administration “the rise of the oceans [would] begin to slow and our planet [would] begin to heal.” He was, of course, referring to his plan to confront the issues surrounding global warming. Finally, I thought, an American president who will take seriously the daunting challenges that climate change poses.
Three years into his administration, however, we’ve seen little progress on the president’s promise to help the planet heal. In fact, some of President Obama’s environmental policies have reeked of the retrograde political posturing he campaigned against.
For instance, during President Obama’s three years in office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal organization charged with regulating clean water and air standards, as well as monitoring endangered species in the United States, has seen drastic cuts to its budget. Obama’s administration has also failed to implement significant carbon dioxide reduction standards, settling instead for limited initiatives on clean energy. Obama even rescinded his promise to reinstall solar panels on the White House.
Needless to say, eco-minded citizens such as myself have become more than irritated as the promising environmental prospects of Obama’s current term have gone unfulfilled or forgotten.
Yet perhaps it is fortuitous that the question of the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will come across President Obama’s desk in the next few weeks. This pipeline, which will make possible the transportation of thick, dirty and corrosive tar from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Texas, has been called the most important environmental concern of our time. Indeed, NASA climatologist James Hansen says that if all the oil underneath Alberta’s boreal forest is mined and sent 1,700 miles south to Texas for American consumption it is essentially “game over” for our efforts to stem global warming.
It’s hard to believe that the choice to permit the construction of a pipeline such as this one would really be President Obama’s to make. Yet because the Keystone XL requires a license from the State Department to be built, that’s just the case. The tar sands pipeline, which the environmental activist and scholar Bill McKibben has called “a seventeen-hundred-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet,” lives and dies with the stroke of Obama’s pen.
I believe President Obama can use this opportunity to set his environmental policy straight, to fulfill his campaign promises, to right the planetary ship. That’s why on Aug. 20 I voted for him again.
Together with 65 others, I took part in the first day of two weeks of planned nonviolent civil disobedience at the White House against the Keystone XL pipeline. These demonstrations, the largest of their kind in the history of the environmental movement, are not in protest of President Obama and his environmental policies, but rather to get his attention, showing him that he still has support to make the decisions that are best for our planet’s future.
Whereas we voted for the president on a ballot back in 2008, during these past two weeks over 700 people of all ages from across the country have sat-in in front of the White House, effectively voting for Obama again with our bodies. Our hope is that doing so will help to move the body politic.
It’s in the same spirit that so invigorated America in 2008 that we continue to vote for President Obama, in this case ultimately being sent to jail as a result of our efforts to encourage him to live up to his promises. I may have sat down in front of the White House, but I expect the president to stand up in the coming weeks for our planet’s future by saying “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Russ Powell is a third-year student at the Divinity School.