By Sarah Hodgdon, Sierra Club National Program Director
When President Obama announced at Georgetown University earlier this week that he would decide the fate of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline on the basis of its climate impact, it was a game-changer for the Sierra Club and the whole climate movement.
This isn't to say the Keystone battle is over -- it's not. But the president's willingness to use climate as a litmus test for Keystone XL was music to the ears of the tens of thousands of Sierra Club members and climate activists from coast to coast who converged on the national mall in Washington, D.C., on a frigid day in February for the Forward on Climate rally, and who have been bird-dogging the president and vice-president at every public event ever since.
Obama's Keystone comment wasn't in the pre-released text of the speech, nor was it expected. It appears that the president made a very personal decision to talk about it. This shows the power of raising our voices, and based on what the president said in announcing his Climate Action Plan at Georgetown on July 25, he's listening to us.
"Our founders believed that those of us in positions of power are elected not just to serve as custodians of the present, but as caretakers of the future," the president said. "And they charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of their own political careers. That's what the American people expect. That's what they deserve."
And the president is following through.
On coal, he pledged to do what the Sierra Club and the rest of the environmental community have been fighting for ever since he was elected: use his executive authority to hold polluters accountable. When the president announced that he will use the full authority of the Clean Air Act to curb air pollution from new and existing coal-fired power plants, he was responding to what the Sierra Club has been advocating for the last decade, and what the Club's Beyond Coal Campaign has been fighting for since its creation in 2010.
This is a moment to savor and appreciate the power that individuals can have if we work together to achieve a common goal. We've seen hundreds of communities where people have joined together, raised their voices, overcome enormous odds, and defeated coal plants that were polluting their air and giving asthma to their kids.
Places like Pilsen and Little Village in Chicago -- both predominantly communities of color -- where neighborhood activists like Rose Gomez and Goldman Prize winner Kim Wasserman went door-to-door for years to educate and organize local residents and eventually prevailed when Midwest Generation bowed to the pressure and announced it would retire the Fisk and Crawford plants, two of the oldest and dirtiest coal plant in the nation. And all along the way, Gomez and Wasserman worked hand-in-hand with Chicago Sierra Club leader Tony Fuller and Illinois Chapter leader Verena Owen.
Places like the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Nevada, where Moapa Paiute activists like Vickie Simmons and William Anderson worked with Sierra Club organizers Elspeth Cordoa and Lynn Goya to shut down the Reid Gardner coal plant, which was poisoning the Moapa Paiute community.
In Texas, Sierra Club activists and organizers like Eva Hernandez, Lydia Avila, Flavia de la Fuente, and Neil Carmen partnered with allies to block construction of the proposed Las Brisas and White Stallion coal plants. And across from the nation's capital in Alexandria, Virginia, local Sierra Club volunteers Anna Prados, Pat Soriano, and Ernie Lehman spent ten years working to secure an agreement with GenOn Energy to permanently retire the utility's polluting Potomac River Generating Station.
Now we see that those voices can carry beyond individual communities and reach the president in the White House, moving him to take action against the largest source of climate pollution there is. The safeguards President Obama announced have been more than a decade in the making, and are a huge milestone in the fight to curb carbon pollution. And they stand as proof positive that individuals can make a difference.
As the legendary United Farmworkers leader Cesar Chavez so simply and beautifully put it, when asked how he organized: "Well, first you talk to one person, then you talk to another person, then you talk to another person." It starts by knocking on that first door, making that first phone call, holding that first meeting, and eventually those neighbors and fellow citizens will form a movement.
That's what we've done with climate, starting at the local level, then at the state and chapter level, then at the national level. And the president is listening. And since Congress -- for the moment at least -- is gridlocked and seemingly unable to pass meaningful climate legislation, President Obama did what he had to do and moved forward without waiting for Congress to get its act together.
"I'm going to tell all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends," the president said in announcing his Climate Action Plan. "Tell them what's at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future. Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution.
"Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices," Obama continued, his voice rising as his address built to its closing crescendo. "Invest. Divest. Remind folks there's no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue."
Indeed we will, Mr. President. Indeed we will.