Tar Sands Action inspired by a UU's civil disobedience

Tar Sands Action inspired by a UU's civil disobedience

A proposed pipeline could be ‘game over’ for climate change, say environmentalists planning protests at White House.
Donald E. Skinner


In late August, Barbara Ford will cross the country from her home in Portland, Ore., with several other members of that city’s First Unitarian Church. They’re headed for Washington, D.C., to participate in a large public witness event calling attention to the threat of global climate change.

Religious activists and organizations are gathering August 29 outside the White House as part of a two-week protest called Tar Sands Action, which is aimed at pressuring President Obama to reject a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would carry oil extracted from clay and other materials in the tar sands region of Alberta. Environmental groups describe tar sands oil as one of the dirtiest fuels on earth, resulting in higher emissions during the refining process. Investing in tar sands oil will delay investment in clean and safe alternatives, environmentalists add.

Construction of the pipeline requires the signature of President Obama. The Tar Sands Action, which will extend from August 20 through September 3, is aimed at convincing him to not approve it.

“I’ve been feeling for the past five years that civil disobedience was going to be necessary in the climate movement,” said Ford, a former chair of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth, an independent organization that works closely with the Unitarian Universalist Association on environmental justice issues. “It seems clear we can’t count on our government to do the right thing without our influence. To me, we’re at a similar crossroads as the civil rights movement was in the 1960s. There is no choice but to step forth and work for justice. We all need to do something besides recycling. This is my opportunity.”

The Tar Sands Action is the latest in a series of public witness events that have grown, at least in part, out of the arrest and conviction of Unitarian Universalist Tim DeChristopher, a 29-year-old climate activist, for disrupting a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction in 2008 in Salt Lake City. Last month he was sentenced to two years in prison. DeChristopher’s actions have inspired UUs and many others across the country, and have caused them to take to the streets in pursuit of climate justice.

Five members of his congregation, First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, were arrested in Washington in April in a protest against energy policies as part of the Power Shift 2011 energy and climate conference. They went as part of a group DeChristopher formed, Peaceful Uprising. Other UUs took part in a march across West Virginia in June to raise awareness of mountaintop removal mining. They cited DeChristopher’s actions as a reason for their own. When DeChristopher was sentenced, 26 people were arrested outside the courthouse.

Tar Sands Action was organized by Peaceful Uprising. DeChristopher is in prison, but his impact is still being felt.

Jamie Henn of the environmental group 350.org, which was founded by author-activist Bill McKibben, said July 26 that 1,200 people have signed up to risk arrest at Tar Sands Action. Details of the civil disobedience are still being worked out and will be posted at the Tar Sands Action website. Information will also be available at the websites of 350.org and UU Ministry for Earth.

In a letter to the environmental community in late June, environmental activists including McKibben, farmer and writer Wendell Berry, and NASA climate scientist James Hansen wrote: “[W]e 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 quite possibly get you arrested."

Rowan Van Ness, environmental justice program associate with the UU Ministry for Earth, said she hoped that many congregations will choose to join the August action.

“Climate experts and leaders in this movement view the opening of the pipeline, if it happens, as a ‘game over’ for climate change,” Van Ness said. “The administration in Washington is currently poised to allow the pipeline to be built. The oil industry and supporters are putting enormous pressure on them. If the administration receives enough support from opponents, the pipeline may not happen.”

She added, “UUs have a strong history of prophetic witness and environmental justice, with decades of resolutions supporting clean air, clean water, and more recently climate change in particular. Tim DeChristopher has taken the implications of our fossil fuel economy very seriously, and it’s up to us to be the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Pamela Sparr is helping her congregation, All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., plan for the action. “This is truly a critical moment,” she said. “I believe it is particularly important for faith communities to be there because it’s a profound moral and ethical issue that crosses all political and class lines. If we don’t stand up for this why would we bother calling ourselves people of faith?”

Terry Wiggins, incoming chair of the environmental committee at the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, is also going to Washington. Wiggins, 60, said she will risk arrest, if necessary. She said she’s going in part because of her four granddaughters, and because of DeChristopher’s action. “I don’t think that stopping things like this should all be on the backs of younger people. It’s my turn to be among those who are standing up to do the right thing. Is it a little scary? Sure, but the world will be a lot scarier place if the pipeline is built.”

Related Stories

Related Resources

  • Tar Sands Action.A protest planned for Washington, D.C., August 20 to September 3. (tarsandsaction.org)
  • Peaceful Uprising.Organization founded by Tim DeChristopher and others dedicated to defending a livable future through nonviolent action. (peacefuluprising.org)
  • UU Ministry for Earth.UU organization focused on environmental justice. (uuministryforearth.org)
  • 350.org. Organization founded by environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben. (350.org)