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
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 unprecedented decision.
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 planet's climate.
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 Seaboard.
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 civil disobedience.
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
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.