Want to be an environmentalist? Shout at the presidential limousine. Or, just care

“Save the water, save the soil! We don’t need your dirty oil!”

“When I say climate, you say justice!” “Climate!” “Justice!”

Yes, I am an environmentalist.

As I return home from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education Conference in Pittsburgh, I realize how much pride I have in being one. We environmentalists encompass every value system, personality type and walk of life, but we can come together in an instant because of our unyielding love of the only planet, the only home we have.

When I went to Pittsburgh on Sunday, I didn’t imagine I would end up helping organize an impromptu demonstration on Tuesday morning against an oil pipeline during President Barack Obama’s unexpected visit to promote his jobs plan. I planned on writing about what sustainability looks like on other university campuses, but I was called to do something much more urgent.

On Sunday, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben gave the opening keynote. He founded 350.org, a grassroots movement that links the entire world under the cause of reducing our carbon dioxide levels to 350 parts per million (ppm). The number accepted by climate scientists as the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 ppm, if we do not want to change the climate to the point of irreversible disastrous consequences. Currently, the atmosphere holds over 390 ppm CO2.

McKibben showed us photograph after photograph of ordinary citizens of the Earth, uniting through the simple number — 350. These are people who have been affected by droughts, intense storms, dirty coal plants, oil spills, and sometimes they were affected by only the thought of their children growing up in a different, harsher world. To them, “350” means hope, but “350” also means fear.

McKibben then introduced us to the next Saudi Arabia of oil, sitting just north of us across the Canadian border — Keystone XL. This concentrated carbon rests undisturbed in tar sands. If we wanted to use all of it for energy, we could — but it would take our concentration to 550 ppm, the equivalent of a “climate bomb”.

President Obama is the only person who can stop Keystone XL. Because the project crosses the U.S.-Canada border, the President has to sign a permit to start building. He doesn’t have to go through Congress. He can stop this with a simple denial. Instead, he is pushing off his decision to the end of the year.

We are taking action to tell the President that we are paying attention, and that we care. Despite the lack of viable choices on the other side of the aisle, we are not entitled to turn out the vote in the way we did in 2008. In a matter of two days, students from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education combined forces to organize a demonstration as President Obama’s motorcade passed to the building in which he was speaking. When Tuesday came, we marched down to the barricaded street, chanting and holding our signs. When President Obama’s limo finally passed, we had 50 demonstrators yelling with one voice: “STOP THE PIPELINE? YES WE CAN!”

The President waved at our group as he passed. Though this moment of interaction may seem insignificant, after his speech in Pittsburgh, he flew to Florida, where demonstrators followed our suit. He had previously made a speech in Cincinnati, and was met with the same message: Where is our 2008 Obama? The one who said it is time to “end the tyranny of big oil?”

Believe it or not, you don’t have to shout “NO OIL SANDS!” at President Obama’s presidential limousine to be an environmentalist. You don’t have to go to a sustainability conference to be an environmentalist. You don’t even have to say that you are an environmentalist to be an environmentalist.

You just have to care.

_Emily Cross, junior in LAS and editor-in-chief of the Green Observer Magazine_