Woman with megaphone.Let’s get down to business and stop the Keystone XL pipeline. This open letter is signed by Maude Barlow, Wendell Berry, Tom Goldtooth, Danny Glover, James Hansen, Wes Jackson, Naomi Klein, George Poitras, David Suzuki, and Gus Speth.

Dear friends,

Here’s the short version:

We want you to consider doing something hard — coming to Washington in the hottest and stickiest weeks of the summer and engaging in civil disobedience that will likely get you arrested.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

And here’s the full version:

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

As you know, the planet is steadily warming: 2010 was the warmest year on record, and we’ve seen the resulting chaos in almost every corner of the Earth. And as you also know, our democracy is increasingly controlled by special interests interested only in short-term profit.

These two trends collide this summer in Washington, where the State Department and the White House have to decide whether to grant a certificate of “national interest” to some of the biggest fossil-fuel players on Earth. These corporations want to build the so-called Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries.

To call this project a horror is serious understatement. The tar sands have wrecked huge parts of Alberta. They’ve disrupted ways of life for indigenous people, leading First Nations communities in Canada to demand that the destruction cease; tribes along the proposed pipeline route in the U.S. are worried too. The pipeline would cross crucial areas like the Ogallala Aquifer where a spill would be disastrous. And though the pipeline companies insist they are using “state of the art” technologies that should leak only once every seven years, the precursor pipeline and its pumping stations have leaked a dozen times in the past year. These local impacts alone would be cause enough to block such a plan.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But the Keystone Pipeline would also be a 1,500-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place to which we are all indigenous.

How much carbon lies in the recoverable tar sands of Alberta? A recent calculation from some of our foremost scientists put it at the equivalent of about 200 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Even with the new pipeline, they won’t be able to burn that much overnight — but each development like this makes it easier to get more oil out. As the climatologist James Hansen (one of the signatories to this letter) explained, if we have any chance of getting back to a stable climate, “unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, must be left in the ground.” In other words, he said, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over.”

The Keystone pipeline is an essential part of the game, and the fossil-fuel forces are adamant that it must go through. “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” Ralph Glass, vice president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary, told the Toronto Globe and Mail recently.

Given all that, you might think there’s no way the Obama administration would ever permit this pipeline. But in the last few months, the president has signed pieces of paper opening much of Alaska to oil drilling and permitting coal-mining on federal land in Wyoming that will produce as much CO2 as 300 power plants operating at full bore. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she’s “inclined” to recommend the pipeline go forward.

Partly this is because of the political commotion over high gas prices, even though more tar-sands oil would do nothing to change that picture. But it’s also because of intense pressure from industry. TransCanada PipeLines, the company behind Keystone, has hired as its chief lobbyist for the project a man named Paul Elliott, who served as deputy national director of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a bigger funder of political campaigns than the RNC and DNC combined — has demanded that the administration “move quickly to approve the Keystone XL pipeline” — not surprising coming from the same group that told the U.S. EPA that humans can adapt their physiology to cope in a climate-changed world. The Koch brothers, needless to say, are also backing the plan, and may reap huge profits from it.

So we’re pretty sure that unless we apply serious pressure, the Keystone Pipeline will get its permit from Washington.  

A wonderful coalition of environmental groups and concerned citizens has built a strong campaign across the continent to fight the pipeline — from Nebraska farmers to Cree and Dene indigenous leaders, they’ve spoken out strongly against the destruction of their land. We need to join them, and say that even if our own homes won’t be crossed by this pipeline, our joint home — the Earth — will be wrecked by the carbon that pours down it.

And we need to say something else, too: It’s time to stop letting corporate power make the most important decisions affecting our planet. We don’t have the money to compete with those corporations, but we do have our bodies, and beginning on Aug. 15, many of us will use them.

This won’t be a one-shot day of action. We plan for it to continue for three weeks, up to Labor Day, Sept. 5, the date by which the administration will either grant or deny the permit for the pipeline. Each day, we will march on the White House, risking arrest with our trespass. We will do it in dignified fashion, demonstrating that in this case we are the conservatives, and our foes — those who would change the composition of the atmosphere — are the dangerous radicals. Come dressed as if for a business meeting — this is, in fact, serious business. And another sartorial tip: If you wore an Obama button during the 2008 campaign, why not wear it again? We very much still want to believe in the promise of that young senator who told us that his election would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” We don’t understand what combination of bureaucratic obstinacy and insider dealing has derailed those efforts, but we remember his request that his supporters continue on after the election to pressure the government for change. We’ll do what we can.

And one more thing: We don’t want college-age kids to be the only cannon fodder in this fight. They’ve led the way so far on climate change — 10,000 came to D.C. for the Powershift gathering earlier this spring. They’ve marched this month in West Virginia to protest mountaintop removal. Tim DeChristopher faces sentencing this summer in Utah for his creative protest. Now it’s time for people who’ve spent their lives pouring carbon into the atmosphere (and whose careers won’t be as damaged by an arrest record) to step up too. Most of us signing this letter are veterans of this work, and we think it’s past time for elders to behave like elders. (But one thing we don’t want is a smashup: If you can’t control your passions, this action is not for you.)

Not all of us will actually be able to get arrested — half the signatories to this letter live in Canada, and we might well find our entry into the U.S. barred. But we will be making plans for sympathy demonstrations outside U.S. consulates in Canada, and Canadian consulates in the U.S. The decision-makers need to know they’re being watched.

Winning this battle won’t save the climate. But losing it will mean that the chances of runaway climate change go way up, that we’ll endure an endless future of the floods and droughts we’ve seen this year. And we’re fighting for the political future too, for the premise that we should make decisions based on science and reason, not political connection.


If you think you might want to be a part of this action, we need you to sign up here. As plans solidify in the next few weeks, we’ll be in touch with you to arrange nonviolence training; our colleagues at a variety of environmental and democracy campaigns will be coordinating the actual arrangements.

We know we’re asking a lot. You should think long and hard on it, and pray if you’re the praying type. But to us, it’s as much privilege as burden to get to join this fight in the most serious possible way. We hope you’ll join us, and we’re very grateful that you’re willing even to consider it.


Maude Barlow
Wendell Berry
Tom Goldtooth
Danny Glover
James Hansen
Wes Jackson
Naomi Klein
Bill McKibben
George Poitras
David Suzuki
Gus Speth

P.S. — Please pass this letter on to anyone you think might be interested!