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In San Francisco, Thousands Rally to Urge Action on Climate Change

Simultaneous actions across the US on Feb 17 called on President Obama to Reject Keystone XL

Hoisting signs that read “Climate Justice” and “Their Keystone; the Earth’s Gravestone,” thousands of people rallied in Downtown San Francisco on Sunday to urge President Obama to take action on climate change and reject construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

SF rally Photos by Daniel AdelThe Forward on Climate rally in San Francisco drew about 5,000 people.

Called “Forward On Climate,” the demonstration was held simultaneously in other cities across the United States, including Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles. The main event in Washington, D.C., drew tens of thousands of supporters in what was billed as the largest climate rally in US history.

The San Francisco rally, hosted by, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club, the San Francisco rally too, was among the largest of its kind in the city. Over 70 different organizations worked together to support the action. About 5,000 people gathered in the city to condemn the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would run nearly 2,000 miles to connect Canada's tar sands to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Because it would cross an international border, the pipeline proposal required President Obama’s approval.

The crowd was amazingly diverse. Among them were the Raging Grannies, a group of older women activists dressed in clothes that mocked stereotypes of older women. They sang songs in protest of Keystone XL and fracking for natural gas. There were also young children rallying behind banners addressing the looming threat of climate change in their lifetimes. Along with established activists, two students from the region’s high schools spoke near the end of the rally.

At the start of the rally, people marched around One Market Plaza. The block houses the local office of the US State Department, which is responsible for permitting infrastructure projects like the pipeline that cross a border. A large puppet in front the Southern Pacific Building read: "People power can stop climate chaos. No Tar Sands Keystone XL pipeline."

The second half of the rally was led by organizers from Idle No More, a grassroots movement for Indigenous rights and respect for treaties in Canada that has spread into the US. Opposition to the XL pipeline has served as a unifying ideal. The Idle No More movement is also fighting environmental degradation, and economic and social inequality.

The crowd gathered in Justin Herman Plaza across from the Ferry Building as members of the local Indigenous community led participants in a large round dance and offered a prayer. At least ten hand drummers sang a round dance song. Pennie Opal Plant, Owner of Gathering Tribes, expressed San Francisco’s solidarity with the main rally. “Up to 40,000 of our relatives were in Washington DC today,” she said. Plant spoke out passionately against the XL pipeline, addressing the importance of future focus. Quoting Indigenous author and activist Debra White Plume, she said:

"Our commitment to Mother Earth and Sacred Water goes beyond the timeline of elected politicians' terms of office, it goes beyond corporate annual profit margin. Our commitment to preserving Mother Earth and Sacred Water goes beyond our own lifespan, it goes beyond the coming seven generations. Our commitment is complete and based on love for Mother Earth and the sacred gift of life and water, inside this great love, there can be no compromise to stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and to shutting down tar sands oil mine."

Calling fossil fuels a “dead end street,” Plant pushed for a move to renewable energy alternatives while there was still time to halt environmental catastrophe. “… If Obama agrees to this pipeline, I expect to see all of you in the frontline blockading that pipeline, because I will be there!” she said to the crowd. “We are ALL Idle No More! Idle No More!”

The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is part of the dirtiest energy project on the planet. Most of this oil would be refined in poor Black and Latino neighborhoods in south Texas, making their air quality even than now. Then most of  the refined oil would be exported.

Andrés Soto, an organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, a California-based environmental justice organization, drew parallels between this and the problems already present in the Bay Area community. Toxic explosions are, he stated, the “most visible evidence of the everyday pollution emitted onto the Richmond community and its neighbors by the largest volume greenhouse gas emitter in California — the Chevron Richmond Refinery.” (Richmond is a city across the bay from San Francisco.) Suto spoke of the Chervon’s 107 year presence in his hometown of predominately low-income minorities, and addressed Communities for a Better Environment’s stance in limiting the sulfur content and crude oil refineries produce, as well as that construction of new or rebuilt refineries must result in net emissions reduction. “This means no Tar Sands crude! Do you hear us, Mr. President!?”

Plant and Soto were followed by other inspiring speakers.

SF rally Photos by Daniel AdelThe crowd, that included young and old alike, was amazingly diverse.

“A lot of people say that kids don’t care about climate change. It’s not true. I am17. I care, and I’m not the only one,” said Shadi Barhoumi, a senior student at San Mateo High. He spoke of his experiences as the school’s Green Commissioner: “I saw kids from every grade, from every race, creed, and culture. We came together. We wanted to be a part of this action team and urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Olivia Robinson, a sophomore student who is with Berkeley High’s Green Academy, echoed Barhoumi’s sentiment that the environmental movement is diverse one. She underlined its strength as a movement that is non-violent in nature. “This is a movement has that taken decades to get recognized, but I promise you it will not take decades to happen. This is a revolution, a green revolution, one without bloodshed. That is something to get behind.”

John Avalos, who represents San Francisco's District 11 on the Board of Supervisors, also addressed the large crowd.:

“When I was in elementary school in the early 1970s, the modern environmental movement was just beginning…. I remember not debating, but discussing in my classroom about fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas effect, and global warming. That was back in 1979.” Noting that the annual profits for the fossil fuel industry totaled to $134,000 billion, Avalos remarked that 30 years of action against climate change and debating whether global warming is real “underscores the stranglehold” fossil fuel companies have had on policymakers and policymaking.

“There is an alternative,” he said and contrasted the status quo dominated by unaccountable private corporations with a “democracy” premised on “sustainable communities” – where basic amenities such as with affordable housing, universal health care, and high quality education would addressed as the social justice component of sustainability and guaranteed for everyone. “In San Francisco, we know we cannot wait for the federal government. We are taking action into our own hands.” As chair of the Local Agency Formation Commission, Avalos said he is helping implement the CleanPowerSF program that will allow San Franciscans to purchase 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of this year. He has also introduced a resolution urging the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest 1 billion dollars from fossil fuel companies. This resolution will go before the full board by March 26, 2013.

Becky Bond, the Political Director of CREDO Mobile Action, was the last speaker. Arrested a year and a half ago in front of the White House for protesting an earlier proposal for XL pipeline, she underscored the success of social movements. “This is a decision that’s up to President Obama, and President Obama alone. … He delayed the pipeline because of you, because you were out there.” Bond also remarked that Obama is pursuing an “all of the above” energy policy: “It includes Keystone XL… and it’s up to us to make sure the President never signs the presidential permit for the pipeline.” Bond congratulated the movement’s success, but stated that “what's happened so far has been trivial so far.” She stressed the importance of civil disobedience tactics, saying that “thousands of us are going to have to get arrested. That’s what it’s going to take.”

As the crowd began to disperse, the Journal met up with Tom Kahan, founder of the website Time To Get Smarter. “The best way to eliminate pollution is to make eliminating it more profitable,” he said. For Kahan, stopping Keystone XL would only be step one. Two would be stopping all forms of dirty energy. Kahan is calling for the establishment of a nationally broadcast “Green Pearl Harbor” symposium on global pollution, warming and the need to reinvent our economy as green and sustainable as soon as possible. Through this World War II-like mobilization, he argues, we can finally make taxing pollution “a market incentive” and make way for a world that is both socially just and environmentally sustainable. Under this system, clean energy sources like solar and wind would increasingly under price and replace dirty energy. Organic food will underprice and replace chemical-laden, factory farm food and cleaner and safer goods and services of all kinds will begin to under price and replace their dirty and dangerous counterparts.

February 17 will go down in history as the day thousands of Americans came together to participate in the Forward On Climate rallies across the nation. As Bill McKibben said in the aftermath of DC rally, “... the real highlight was you.

Daniel Adel, Contributor, Earth Island JournalDaniel Adel photo
Daniel Adel, a former Earth Island Journal intern, is studying Environmental Studies, with concentration in Environmental Sustainability and Social Justice, at San Francisco State University.

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Mr. Adel: Please keep up the good work. This article is excellent.

By Jeanne Brooks on Tue, February 19, 2013 at 5:00 pm

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