For over 100 environmental student leaders within the Brown community, the long weekend was a break from classes — but not from advocating their cause. Living up to their activist image, Brown students traveled to the nation’s capital Sunday to march alongside an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 other protestors in opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
From the Washington Monument to the White House and back, protesters urged President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and to move forward with other environmental initiatives. The protest — organized by The Sierra Club and 350.org —involved 168 organizations and was the largest climate march in United States history, according to The Sierra Club website.
Laying the groundwork
Bill McKibben, a founder of 350.org, suggested that Brown students participate in the rally when he visited campus in November to speak about divestment from fossil fuel companies. The Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition organized the transportation and participation of Brown students in the protest.
RISCC “thought it was important to organize as many Brown students as possible to go to the protest,” wrote Mara Freilich ’15, former RISCC representative to emPower, in an email to The Herald. She wrote that she believes “it is the responsibility of citizens to actively participate in the political process.”
RISCC is a member of emPower, “Brown’s umbrella environmental organization” that promotes green initiatives, according to the group’s website. The off-campus trip provided an opportunity to unite, engage and inspire students from a broad range of environmental campaigns on campus, Freilich wrote.
Though the march promoted a wide variety of environmental reforms, it was mostly targeted toward Obama, who will approve or reject the Keystone XL pipeline in the coming months, said Alison Kirsch ’15, a member of EcoReps, another subgroup of emPower.
Approving the Keystone XL pipeline “would be one of (the) worst decisions” for Obama’s environmental agenda, wrote Jenny Li ’14, emPower’s executive director, in an email to The Herald.
“In every single aspect, it doesn’t make sense,” Kirsch said of the pipeline, adding that “we cannot afford to be tapping into (the Alberta Tar Sands)” given the “dirtiness of the fuel it would allow us to use.”
“‘Energy independence’ that still depends on fossil fuels is no independence at all,” Li wrote. “We are fed lies that this pipeline will bring jobs and energy independence,” but “we need green jobs, not temporary jobs that will contribute to the further destruction of our environment,” she wrote.
Freilich wrote that “stopping the Keystone XL pipeline is a decisive step toward preventing fossil fuel ‘lock-in,’” a scenario that occurs when CO2 levels in the atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million, according to the International Energy Agency.
Kirsch said the prospect of irreversible climate change is “frightening.”
Li echoed the sentiment, writing that “we will have failed ourselves” by neglecting to address climate change.
Hope for the future
“Obama’s recent rhetoric was encouraging to the protesters,” said Charlotte Biren ’16, a member of EcoReps, referring to the president’s inaugural speech and State of the Union address.
Kirsch also said Obama “seems open to ideas” regarding environmental reform.
“We need to stop building fossil-fuel infrastructure and transition to building renewable energy infrastructure during Obama’s second term,” Freilich wrote.
The number of people that attended the rally “really exceeded expectations,” Kirsch said.
Biren said the sheer number of protesters “couldn’t be ignored.” Before people marched from the Washington Monument to the White House, a rally featured a diverse group of speakers — including Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said EcoReps member David Chodakewitz ’15.
“There have been much bigger protests in D.C. before,” but the march was “a good spark to get the ball rolling,” said Chodakewitz. Given that the event was the largest climate march in America’s history, Kirsch said news coverage will help amplify the protest’s influence.
Rallying for a common cause
“I was amazed by the energy and diversity of the crowd,” wrote Klara Zimmerman ’15, emPower’s communications director, in an email to The Herald. Citing the unity and energy among Brown students, she wrote that “it was a whole different experience to stand with 50,000 people, all fighting for the same cause.”
“We definitely made our voices heard,” Zimmerman wrote.
The protest “was probably one of the coolest things I’ve experienced,” Kirsch said.
Though there is “no way of quantifying the impact” of the protest, the trip to the nation’s capital was “definitely worth the time and travel expenses,” Li wrote.
The protest will remain “a powerful memory no matter what happens,” Biren said.