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Thousands of climate change activists rally in Washington, D.C.

In what’s being called the “largest climate rally in U.S. history,” close to 40,000 people converged in Washington, D.C. on February 17 to focus world attention on global warming and climate change. About 160 environmental groups–including major players in eco-advocacy, Sierra Club, 350, and Greenpeace–sponsored the “Forward on Climate” Rally. One hundred and fifty buses from 30 different states brought thousands to D.C. to brave blustery and cold conditions in an effort to deliver a message to the White House: action on climate change is urgent.

“It is an issue that faces all of us,” said actor and environmentalist Rosario Dawson. “We need to put a face on [global warming]. It’s important to have people gathered.”

Thousands of demonstrators marched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House chanting, “Barack Obama, yes you can, stop this dirty pipeline plan.” They hoped to hold him to his rhetoric from the State of the Union address delivered only the week before: “For the sake of our children and for our future, we must do more to combat climate change.” The president however was not at home. He snubbed climate ralliers by hitting the golf course in Florida with leading oil men–at a golf and yachting club owned by one of them.

From a stage at the Washington Monument, environmental leaders and activists spoke out on the dangers posed by fossil fuel projects such as the Keystone XL Pipeline, Canadian Alberta Tar Sands, Arctic drilling, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)–projects likely to cause increased carbon dioxide greenhouse gas emissions. The global warming that results from them could have cataclysmic consequences, they believe.

Bill McKibben, founder of 350, pointed out the responsibility of this generation to those following: “The job that we have been entrusted with is the most important one that any human has ever been entrusted with,” he said to enthusiastic cheering. “It is our job to make sure the planet does not catastrophically overheat.” His book The End Of Nature attributes dramatic changes in climate to a ten percent increase of carbon dioxide.

“We can’t reconcile a sincere commitment to fight climate change and expand development of the tar sands at the same time,” said Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club.

The tar sands of Canada and the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would deliver the oil harvested from them, were central issues emphasized by the Forward on Climate Rally organizers, hoping to influence President Obama in his decision in whether to approve or reject further construction. Regardless of the company he was keeping that day in Florida, speakers avoided criticism in favor of statements indicating their trust that Obama would “do the right thing.”

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, on the other hand, was more pessimistic. She’s certain that Obama will allow Keystone XL to go forward. “It’s writing on the wall,” she said. “It’s part of his all-of-the-above strategy.”

Keystone XL and the ConocoPhillips pipelines would also infringe on indigenous lands. Casey Camp of the Ponca Nation of Oklahoma said, “I believe prophecy told us a time back that this time would come where Red Nations People would rise up and teach the rest of the world how to live in harmony one more time… We work with all Red Nations people from the Northern portion of the Arctic Circle down to the tip of South America. We’re all connected, and we’re all together on these issues.”

Richard Whitman of the Seminole-Muskogee Nation in Oklahoma displayed his Nation’s flag as he explained how last week his people opposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. “We chained ourselves to the equipment,” he said matter-of-factly. He expressed solidarity with the Idle No More movement in their efforts to stop exploitation of Red Nations land.

Once the State Department completes its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement in March, President Obama will have authority to greenlight TransCanada’s permit or stop the pipeline–for now.

Activists like Dawson are determined to persevere regardless of the president’s actions. “Even if this pipeline goes through and we continue fracking,” she said, “we have to keep pushing. This is our future and our present at stake.”

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