Story and photos by Thomas K. Pendergast
JUSTIN HERMAN PLAZA — Thousands of people gathered on the waterfront Sunday afternoon demanding the Obama administration take immediate action to confront climate change, starting with abandoning a controversial pipeline that would pump crude oil from Canada down to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
Sponsored by numerous environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and a relatively new organization, 350.org, the Forward on Climate rally was only one of more than a dozen held across the country under the same banner.
The largest was held in Washington D.C., which attracted a crowd of more than 40,000 people according to the environmentalists.
Jessica Dervin-Ackerman of the Sierra Club explained the number behind the name 350.org:
“350.org is a global grassroots movement, a non-profit organization which is focused around the idea that we need to get to about 350 parts (of carbon) per million (in the atmosphere). That’s a safe amount of carbon in the atmosphere in order for humans to continue to live on the planet as we have. … We’re at 392 right now, so we’re higher than that but we need to get back down to 350.”
The goal of 350.org is to mobilize people globally to pressure the government and leadership to take significant action on climate change soon, Dervin-Ackerman added:
“350.org and the Sierra Club work together in that we agree that we need to take bold action on climate change now.”
A major focus of the protesters was the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would move oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, down to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
A prominent scientist opposed to the project, James Hansen, recently wrote in the New York Times that the full exploitation of oil in these tar sands would result in:
“… game over for the climate. … If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities.”
Aside from that, says Dervin-Ackerman, the Sierra Club is also pushing for “community choice” energy programs, which allow local municipalities and counties the option of providing alternatives to traditional power companies like Pacific Gas & Electric:
“The only choice we as consumers have really is PG&E, we can’t choose anything else and they just get their energy from where they want and we can’t really affect them. So community choice energy is a way for a city, groups of cities or counties or municipal utility districts to create their own energy service provider or their own energy utility, basically.”
Jeff Whittington, 57, of San Francisco, represents the Citizen Climate Lobby. He says that group is pushing for a carbon tax “at the point of extraction,” to make fossil fuels more expensive, but then that money should be given to consumers so they can afford alternative energy sources:
“We need a carbon tax but we need to make it so that it doesn’t hit people in the pocketbook, so that we don’t collapse the economy … We want to give 100 percent back to the consumer and that will keep the economy humming. It’ll keep everybody happy because they’ll be able to choose what energy model they want.”
He says that “green energy” will get cheaper as time goes along, while fossil fuels will get more expensive:
“As long as you keep demand stimulated then we can do this thing. If you make energy more expensive and you don’t keep the demand up you’re asking for trouble, in my opinion. … Because we’re giving the money back to the consumers they can still afford to use their carbon-based products. It’s just that the non-carbon-based products are going to look better and better over time.”
Also at the climate rally was San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos, who said:
“We need a global movement and a national movement to protect our environment. I believe we’re at the tipping point of planet crisis and calamity. … Only a real grass-roots movement is going to make the politicians and policy-makers pay attention and actually enact climate-protection legislation. … I’m a politician myself so I have a leadership role to play.
I’ve introduced a resolution to the Board of Supervisors that the city retirement board divest from fossil fuel companies and that’ll be coming to the board on March 20th our Budget & Finance Committee on March 20th and so there’ll be a first vote at that time. … I want people to be aware of that and we have to apply pressure even on our local politicians to make sure that we pass this resolution and send a message to our retirement board that this is something that’s really important.”