If the Bath's Overheated, You Turn the Cold Spigot Up and the Hot Spigot OFF.

Big Indigenous-Led Protests in DC Focus on the Other Half of the Climate Equation


Ron Turney, of the White Earth Nation, a photographer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, holds a picture he took earlier this autumn where Line 3 crosses the headwaters of the Mississippi—it’s pretty easy to see the environmental damage in this marsh, which hasn’t been enough to convince the Biden administration to review its permit.

Midday yesterday saw scores of religious leaders arrested in front of the White House, demanding executive action to stop massive new fossil fuel projects. The best current example is the Line 3 tarsands pipeline across northern Minnesota, and so at the same moment, a mile away in front of the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters, Indigenous leaders handed over a million petitions demanding that the Biden administration shut down the new pipeline pending a serious environmental review.  

The action was all part of the weeklong People Vs. Fossil Fuels protests. I’m joining others to sit in outside the White House gates tomorrow morning for Day 3 of the civil disobedience, both because the Native American leaders who have called the protest deserve all our support—and because it’s the best way to remind our leaders that climate solutions come in two flavors: demand side and supply side.

The Build Back Better bill currently awaiting the blessing of Senators Sinema and Manchin is the epitome of the former: its provisions would dramatically increase the provision of renewable energy, through a plan to pay utilities to up their percentages of clean energy and through massive tax credits for wind and sun, and through big support for electric vehicles and retrofitting buildings. If it goes through, the demand for clean energy should shoot up, and that’s an important way to cut carbon emissions.

But it’s only half the battle: you also need to shut down the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, which is currently trying to lock in its business model for decades to come. If it’s too hot in your bedroom you open the window, but you also turn down the thermostat. A new report issued yesterday last afternoon by Oil Change International provided (very) hard numbers about 24 big projects currently under construction or on the boards, including Line 3. Bottom line:

they would release combined annual
greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to
approximately 20% of 2019 U.S. emissions.
This total is equal to the average annual
emissions from 404 U.S. coal-fired power
plants, larger than all 294 coal plants
operating in the continental United States.
The vast majority of these potential
emissions — equivalent to 17% of 2019 U.S.
emissions, or 316 coal power plants — are
associated with projects that have not
received full federal approval, not started
construction, or not finished construction.

Some of these emissions would happen in the U.S.; others—say, from the export of liquefied natural gas through huge new terminals—would take place overseas. Needless to say, the atmosphere doesn’t care: co2 and methane are what scientists call well-mixed gases in the atmosphere. Furthermore, the report found that there’s nothing inevitable about any of this damage:

The Biden Administration, through its
various agencies — including the Army
Corps of Engineers, Department of
Commerce, Department of Energy,
Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and White
House Office of Climate Policy — will make
decisions on these and additional projects
in the next three years.

Nobody underestimates the political effort it will take to beat these projects—the environmental movement has won some of these fights (Keystone XL, West Coast coal ports, and so on) and each of those victories required huge commitment. Line 3’s backers have so far benefited from the pandemic, which made it hard to nationalize protest, and from the fecklessness of Minnesota’s Democratic governor. (Advice to Gov. Walz’s social media team: perhaps stop boasting about your commitment to indigenous rights and climate protection, because it’s not going well). And they’ve benefited from an activist and media focus on the Build Back Better plan—which makes sense, because it’s a big deal. But not the only deal.


Politicians are always going to favor working on the demand side: spending money to build new stuff comes with none of the risks that accompany stopping bad stuff. You’re not costing anyone a job when you build a new solar panel—you’re creating new ones.

On the other hand, the endless spills, the endless fires, the endless floods are beginning to add up. At the moment its Indigenous Americans, who often live closer to the land, who are leading the charge. But the numbers lining up behind them will continue to grow. Because we’re not actually helpless frogs in a heating pot: all of us intuitively understand what to do when the bath gets too hot.

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