McKibben: What Comes Next for Tar Sands Action

by Bill McKibben for

Dear friends—

Here’s the battle plan we promised—a few hours late, because it’s been a big job wrapping up phase one of this campaign.

By now you know what you accomplished: 1,253 arrests, according to some journalists the biggest civil disobedience action since 1977, and the most sustained since the epic campaigns of the civil rights movement. That was enough to take a regional issue and make it a national and even global one (many thanks to our friends, who picketed American and Canadian embassies on every continent).

Together you managed to make this central environmental test for the administration, and to inform everyone who’s paying attention that Barack Obama will get to make the call by himself, without Congress in the way. In other words, you’ve laid the groundwork for a mighty victory—now we have to make it pay off.

Here’s the plan:

Our main efforts will be to keep the focus on the White House, even as we engage the State Department review process and other technical aspects of the debate. We don’t want the President to be able to hide from the decisions he’s making.

And we’re not going to do him the favor of attacking him. Instead, we’re going to pay him the dangerous compliment of taking his words from 2008 seriously. Just to remind you, here are two of the many pledges he made while he was inspiring so many of us to knock on doors and send in donations in 2008:

“Let’s be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil”

“Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children … this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

We’re still planning something big for October 7th or 8th – the 7th is the date of the last State Department hearing in Washington, DC – but first we need to go back into our communities to keep building this movement. The White House is going to be watching to see if our sit-in was an isolated incident or whether there really is a movement of people across this country rising up to stop the pipeline.

First, we need to tell the story of what just happened in Washington by meeting with folks in our communities to talk about our experiences. This could be as simple as a small gathering in your home, or as elaborate as you’d like. Your story is the most powerful tool you have to keep building this movement. A few of our organizers got together to make a PowerPoint slideshow that you can use in a meetup, and if you’d like to host an event in your community to spread the word, sign up here:

Second, all around the country, people will be going to Obama campaign offices in polite but firm fashion to remind him that we took him seriously—that he shouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it.  Watch this video that just arrived from Seattle to get a sense of what we have in mind.  We’ll be trying to coordinate this work from city to city—if you’re willing to help in your town, and are certain you can deliver a calm, stern message, sign up here:

That’s our plan for now. I want to make sure that we use this opportunity to strengthen our connections with each other, and make this a true movement. This is your opportunity to start taking a leadership role in this campaign.

We’ll be giving you updates on plans for the 7th of course, and letting you know what’s up. We have no guarantee we’ll succeed, but thanks to you this fight is very much on!

Bill McKibben for

PS – We’re very aware that the federal government has scheduled the hearing on the 7th for Yom Kippur. With whatever action we take, we will make sure our Jewish brothers and sisters will be able to join us.

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20 Responses to McKibben: What Comes Next for Tar Sands Action

  1. Joe–many thanks for posting this

    I’m up in the Northwest Territories of Canada right now, meeting with our First Nations allies, who are deadly serious about this fight. We’ll have lots more plans coming at folks in the next few weeks; off to San Francisco right now for more planning.
    We’ve got an outside chance here, folks. Anything you can do would be great

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    Bill McKibben wrote: “We don’t want the President to be able to hide from the decisions he’s making.”

    How sad that Obama’s presidency has come to that. But it has.

  3. Lollipop says:

    Thank you and the rest of the team. I was one of the arrestees and I’m working on organizing local events. I don’t see anywhere that I can go to get poster graphics, stickers, etc. I know it’s a bit prosaic, but a website where I could order them or download graphics would be very helpful. You’ve had some great design work done and I’d love to use it for my local Tar Sands event.

  4. wrb says:


    Attacking the Democratic president who packed his Stimulus proposal with unprecedented green initiatives instead of attacking Republicans is so productive.

  5. Joe Romm says:

    Yeah, he was great in 2009. If only that guy were President now….

  6. wrb, i think you may not be reading too carefully today. i clearly said we weren’t going to do him the favor of attacking him, instead were going to try and remind people exactly why he was so inspiring to us in the past and could be again

  7. wrb says:

    He is.

    But the House, the Senate and the public have changed.

  8. Ken says:

    Do not lose hope. McKibben also said “…we’re going to pay him the dangerous compliment of taking his words from 2008 seriously.” And we should. Obama has tried to meet almost every campaign promise he made in 2008 – he failed at some, true, but he tried and delivered a lot.
    I urge Obama supporters to not give up on Obama. Has the right wing Tea Party in its irrational pursuit of destroying Obama’s presidency at any cost to America made it seem alright for his supporters to give up on him too? This is a common tactic of bullies to humiliate their victims in the eyes of others; do not join with them even if for different more rational reasons. And for all our sakes, do not give up on Obama’s vision of bringing together the warring parties either.

  9. wrb says:

    Personally, I don’t think that can work. Instead it creates focus on something at which he’s bound to disappoint those focused on climate change.

    I truly don’t think the Koch Brothers could have set a better trap.

    If he turns down the pipeline the attack ads write themselves: “He sacrificed both jobs and energy independence for an empty gesture that even supporters admit won’t stop the extraction”

    One can just the visualize the faces filled with rage and grief of those who are unemployed, have seen their savings and security evaporate, or are otherwise frightened, as they watch the ads: “I can’t believe we put an elitist in the White House cares so little for our suffering.”

    The political contest is too close, he has to approve it, imo. Or in two years we likely get a super-duper pipeline built with no constraints or oversight and the axing of every other green program.

    Clearly you see things differently.

    I’ve valued your books btw. I believe I got The End of Nature so early my copy is a first edition.

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    I agree completely with Bill McKibben and with commenter wrb.

    How do you like that?

    I am perfectly serious. While Bill McKibben is explicit: “i clearly said we weren’t going to do him [Obama] the favor of attacking him,”

    it does attack Obama in a sense. Does it strengthen the oil companies and their allies with their huge PR juggernaut?

    I don’t know. They have much more access to America’s brains than we do.

  11. BBHY says:

    Is there a climate super-PAC? If not, why not? Should I just go ahead and start one? Isn’t that the way politics works now?

  12. Ron Parry says:

    The recent Obama decision on the ozone standard is an ominous sign. That was a purely political decision that ignored the science involved. I believe Obama will cave on the XL unless a huge amount of pressure can be effectively applied to his administration.

  13. Wes Rolley says:

    I have frequently mentioned my Green Party connections here. Now, I ask you all to read the Press Release from the Green Party US here:

    WASHINGTON, DC — Green Party leaders strongly criticized President Obama’s recent decisions on the controversial tar sands pipeline and EPA smog regulations, calling his support for the Keystone XL Pipeline and withdrawal of smog standards reckless and dangerous to public health and the environment.

  14. Will G. says:

    Obama deserves to be (politically) attacked. He (1) raised the white flag on a climate bill and retreated when phrases like cap and trade became politically difficult, (2) has overseen record oil drilling, (3) just opened up 7,000 acres of Wyoming land for coal exploration, (4) gave in to polluters on EPA ozone regs, (5) seems to be leaning in favor of KXL. The list keeps on growing. I support my hero Bill McKibben’s strategy of reminding Obama why we all once supported him, but I strongly disagree with wrb that Obama deserves any respect or any support from us anymore.

  15. catman306 says:

    I wish you would. And find a strong 3rd party candidate who is Progressive, keeps his word, and understands climate change and carbon, while you’re at it.
    I’m going to need an excuse to vote in the next presidential election.

  16. Jeff Huggins says:

    San Francisco, Bill, Bike Day, and the President

    Bill … here’s three dates. (You’re aware of at least two of them.):

    Saturday September 10 — you’ll be speaking in Walnut Creek. I’m hoping to be there to hear you and say hi.

    Saturday September 24 — the big day, Moving Planet.

    Sunday September 25 — President Obama is scheduled to be in the Bay Area, probably for a fund raiser, according to a recent article about his schedule.

    Given that Obama will be in the Bay Area on the 25th, the day after Moving Planet, that would be a great day, if you ask me, to actually have a large demonstration, to show continuity with your actions in DC and to get lots of Bay Area people involved.

    The timing is perfect. The Bay Area is a great place where people should get active and activated — and I’d imagine that there are lots of folks here who didn’t make it to the White House action but wish they could have. I’m one of them.

    Also, as you know, a large number of environmental organizations are headquartered here, have key offices here, or are otherwise very active here.

    I like the ideas and actions you’re planning that you mentioned in the post above: the neighborhood outreaches, the visits to Obama 2012 and Democrat campaign offices, and etc. But in addition to those, I think another BIG civil (or NVCD) action, here when Obama visits, would be a good idea, if it could be pulled off.

    Any thoughts?

    In any case, I’ll hope to see you in Walnut Creek on Saturday.

    Be Well,


  17. Z S says:

    Just want to say that I was among the 250+ arrested on September 3rd, and Bill’s leadership has just been outstanding. I especially applaud this movement’s emphasis on civil disobedience.

    I think that environmentalists need to embrace the idea that climate change is an ethical issue and make nonviolent civil disobedience the centerpiece of the movement rather than an auxiliary component. Environmental degradation is the classic example (literally economics 101) of a market externality – the price of the products we buy doesn’t take into account the environmental costs, which are borne by others. And those that have historically contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions – the least developed countries – are also those that will suffer disproportionately from climate change and are the least capable of adapting to it. Those facts constitute a grave injustice. Civil disobedience is a powerful way to persuade leaders who would otherwise ignore the issue by appealing to perhaps the only emotion that can rival their desire to acquire and maintain power – shame. Petitions and emails and phone calls to representatives and clicking the Like button on Facebook are all important ways to express opinions in a democracy, but I think civil disobedience gets closer to FDR’s (apocryphal?) statement to reformers to “make me do it”. The penalties for those arrested in the Tar Sands action may pale in comparison to those suffered historically in prior movements, but we’re still attracting significant coverage from the media, and I think it pushes the movement in the right direction. It’s the largest ever act of civil disobedience in the climate movement, and it’s long overdue.

    Given the lack of substantive action on climate change a national level during my relatively brief lifetime, I tend to be a bit cynical. But standing tall with Bill and others gives me the hope and the energy to keep fighting.
    I encourage everyone reading this who sympathizes to participate in the next phase of Tar Sands action (, and if you can’t participate directly, consider donating to help those who do (

  18. R Shamel says:

    Word here is that a strong third party candidate may emerge in Massachusetts.

  19. R Shamel says:

    Kudos to Bill and the others who led this action. I was the last of 111 concerned citizens removed from the central part of the White House sidewalk on August 31st.

    Our focus should continue to be on Obama, and I have signed up to both share the DC experience with others, and to visit the Obama campaign headquarters in Boston. Our message to Obama: “We worked hard to help get you elected in 2008, based on your promise to deal with global warming. “We are not at all happy with your performance!”

    Beyond that, I believe it’s time we add a new tool to the climate activists’ tool bag–a subject that I’m hoping will be covered in an upcoming Climate Progress guest post, as suggested by Joe when he and I met at the Tar Sands action in Washington last week.

    Warm regards,