Sierra Club Turns To Civil Disobedience - Direct Action
Pressure on Washington on Climate Change
By Michael Brune
January 22, 2013
If you could do it nonstop, it would take you six days to
walk from Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond to President
Barack Obama's White House. For the Sierra Club, that
journey has taken much longer. For 120 years, we have
remained committed to using every "lawful means" to achieve
our objectives. Now, for the first time in our history, we
are prepared to go further.
Next month, the Sierra Club will officially participate in
an act of peaceful civil resistance. We'll be following in
the hallowed footsteps of Thoreau, who first articulated the
principles of civil disobedience 44 years before John Muir
founded the Sierra Club.
Some of you might wonder what took us so long. Others might
wonder whether John Muir is sitting up in his grave. In
fact, John Muir had both a deep appreciation for Thoreau and
a powerful sense of right and wrong. And it's the issue of
right versus wrong that has brought the Sierra Club to this
For civil disobedience to be justified, something must be so
wrong that it compels the strongest defensible protest. Such
a protest, if rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in
fact a profound act of patriotism. For Thoreau, the wrongs
were slavery and the invasion of Mexico. For Martin Luther
King, Jr., it was the brutal, institutionalized racism of
the Jim Crow South. For us, it is the possibility that the
United States might surrender any hope of stabilizing our
As President Obama eloquently said during his inaugural
address, "You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to
shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we
cast, but the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient
values and enduring ideas."
As citizens, for us to give up on stopping runaway global
temperatures would be all the more tragic if it happened at
the very moment when we are seeing both tremendous growth in
clean energy and firsthand evidence of what extreme weather
can do. Last year, record heat and drought across the nation
wiped out half of our corn crop and 60 percent of our
pasturelands. Wildfires in Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere
burned nearly nine million acres. And superstorm Sandy
brought devastation beyond anyone's imagining to the Eastern
We are watching a global crisis unfold before our eyes, and
to stand aside and let it happen -- even though we know how
to stop it -- would be unconscionable. As the president said
on Monday, "to do so would betray our children and future
generations." It couldn't be simpler: Either we leave at
least two-thirds of the known fossil fuel reserves in the
ground, or we destroy our planet as we know it. That's our
choice, if you can call it that.
The Sierra Club has refused to stand by. We've worked hard
and brought all of our traditional tactics of lobbying,
electoral work, litigation, grassroots organizing, and
public education to bear on this crisis. And we have had
great success -- stopping more than 170 coal plants from
being built, securing the retirement of another 129 existing
plants, and helping grow a clean energy economy. But time is
running out, and there is so much more to do. The stakes are
enormous. At this point, we can't afford to lose a single
major battle. That's why the Sierra Club's Board of
Directors has for the first time endorsed an act of peaceful
In doing so, we're issuing a challenge to President Obama,
who spoke stirringly in his inaugural address about how
America must lead the world on the transition to clean
energy. Welcome as those words were, we need the president
to match them with strong action and use the first 100 days
of his second term to begin building a bold and lasting
legacy of clean energy and climate stability.
That means rejecting the dangerous tar sands pipeline that
would transport some of the dirtiest oil on the planet, and
other reckless fossil fuel projects from Northwest coal
exports to Arctic drilling. It means following through on
his pledge to double down again on clean energy, and cut
carbon pollution from smokestacks across the country. And,
perhaps most of all, it means standing up to the fossil fuel
corporations that would drive us over the climate cliff
without so much as a backward glance.
One of my favorite quotes is from Martin Luther King, Jr.,
although it has its roots in the writings of Theodore Parker
(an acquaintance of Henry David Thoreau): "The arc of the
moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." I
believe that, given sufficient time, our government would
certainly follow the moral arc that leads to decisive action
on this crisis. We have a democracy, and the tide of public
opinion has shifted decisively. What's more, I doubt that
even the most ardent climate denier actually wants to
destroy our world.
We have a clear understanding of the crisis. We have
solutions. What we don't have is time. We cannot afford to
wait, and neither can President Obama.
[From Coming Clean - the blog of Sierra Club Executive
Director Michael Brune.]
= = =
A chat with the Sierra Club's Michael Brune about civil
By David Roberts
January 28, 2013
- A Beacon in the Smog
Civil Disobedience Needed Against Keystone XL pipeline
Earlier this month, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael
Brune announced that the Club would, for the first time in
its long and storied history, officially participate in an
act of civil disobedience - i.e., break the law. The target?
The Keystone XL pipeline. "For civil disobedience to be
justified, something must be so wrong that it compels the
strongest defensible protest," he wrote. "Such a protest, if
rendered thoughtfully and peacefully, is in fact a profound
I called Brune to get some insight on the Club's thinking
and its future plans.
Q. How was this decision made?
A. One of the strengths of the Club is that we are a
democratically driven organization. If you're a member and
you write a check for $30, you get to vote on who's on our
board, and the board sets policies. The board voted to
authorize the Sierra Club to engage in civil disobedience,
to pressure the president to use his full authority to
reject the Keystone pipeline. There will likely be a
conversation about the Club's position on civil disobedience
more broadly, but all that has happened so far is approval
to take this single action.
Q. Obviously nothing is stopping members of Sierra Club from
engaging in civil disobedience on their own. What is the
significance of this sort of authorization?
A. Sierra Club members and even board members have
participated as individuals. What is different now is, one,
that the club itself is endorsing this civil disobedience
and organizing to make it effective and strategic. And two,
we are putting it in the context of a larger plan to support
the president in realizing his vision and make sure his
ambition meets the scale of the challenge.
Q. What exactly is the action?
A. I can't tell you that. I'd love to give Grist the inside
scoop on it, but if I say, "Hello world, we're going to be
on the corner of 22nd and Z Ave." ... we probably won't be
able to pull it off.
Q. Do you worry that this will cost the Sierra Club access
to policymakers, or credibility inside the halls of power?
A. No. The Sierra Club has the most recognized brand in the
country on environmental issues; we've been around for 120
years; we have millions of members and active supporters who
are involved in every state, in every congressional
district, in every city, in just about every county in the
country. We have a strong track record of being very
determined, very relentless, but also strategic and
pragmatic in advocating for smarter environmental policies.
None of that changes simply because we are also employing
civil disobedience. Civil disobedience has a long and proud
tradition in our country.
Q. Why did this come up now? Who got it on the agenda?
A. It came from a couple of directions. The Sierra Club has
delegates from across the country who gather every year in
September. At one of their recent gatherings, they voted to
ask the board of directors to allow the club to engage in
civil disobedience. This had been done before - there had
been many attempts to have the board approve this and none
of them went forward. The board tabled for some time, to
consider it, and then I helped bring it to the board back in
December and a decision was made in January.
Q. What's changed? Is it the composition of the board of
directors, or is it circumstances?
A. It's all external, really. Look at the year we had - the
wildfires, the record drought, the derecho, Superstorm
Sandy, a full degree Fahrenheit warmer than we've ever seen
in the lower 48. That's an extraordinary year. We have a
president who gets the issue, cares about climate change and
its impacts on our country, and has elevated climate to the
short list of priorities in his second term. Yet the
president has considerable executive authority that isn't
being exercised. So what motivated the board is the fact
that we need to create political moments that break through
the lethargy and the paralysis that is gripping Washington
right now in order to help prompt more inspirational
Q. Why Keystone XL? Obama has EPA power plant regulations
coming up. He's leasing Powder River Basin coal for pennies
on the dollar. Those arguably involve more direct CO2
emissions. What it is about Keystone that prompted this?
A. Two reasons: One, by itself, Keystone is a climate
disaster. We simply can't transport 700,000-800,000 barrels
of oil [a day] from one of the dirtiest, most carbon-
intensive oil sources on the planet and say that we're
sincere in our commitment to fight climate change. You can't
cut carbon pollution and expand production of a carbon-
intensive fuel source.
The other reason is that we learned last year from [the
International Energy Agency] and Bill McKibben the "New
Math." We know that we have to keep at least two-thirds of
all coal, all oil, all gas reserves in the ground if we're
to have a shot at keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius -
which is, in itself, a reckless goal to embrace as a
society. If we're to have a shot at transforming how we look
at fossil fuel energy resources, and convincing
policymakers, we need symbols. We need to find high-profile,
extreme sources of energy and turn away from them, as a way
to begin and lead a transition away from dirty fuels.
So when you look at North America, those extreme energy
sources are the tar sands, first and foremost. But also
mountaintop-removal coal mining, drilling for oil in the
Arctic - sadly, there are plenty of targets to choose from.
We picked the tar sands because it's among the most high-
profile and highly destructive and it's going to be one of
first big decisions coming from the president in the first
half of the year.
Q. What is the role of civil disobedience today? How can it
make an impact?
A. Civil disobedience can highlight the urgency of a
particular injustice and can increase the profile of a
particular problem. It doesn't always work that way, but it
can. Look at the Dreamers if you want a good example of how
civil disobedience works. Or look at how gay rights
advocates have organized so effectively to bring at least
some equality to gay and lesbian Americans in the military
or states across the country.
So civil disobedience can be effective. But I would also
say: Rarely is it effective if we're not also employing
every other means of social change, whether it's creative
communications, engaging with artists and entertainers, or
classic organizing, phone banking, doing stuff online. If we
think the only thing missing is civil disobedience, then
we're probably kidding ourselves, because there's a lot of
straight-up hard work to be done to make sure that we're
Q. Is the Sierra Club going to help with legal defense if
there are arrests?
A. I don't want to get involved in the actual scenario, but
we'll do everything we can to make sure that it's a
peaceful, thoughtful, respectful, and effective
demonstration. We will provide the support necessary to pull
off the event, but the individuals taking part in it will
assume responsibility for their own actions. I will be
involved in this event and risking arrest as well.
Q. Has the Sierra Club done anything to coordinate with
other groups who are trying to organize similar actions?
A. That's an excellent question. I'll be happy to answer it
sometime later in February.