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Holding Obama’s Feet to the Climate-Change Fire

By Christopher Schuetze (New York Times) - February 18, 2013

At first glance, it was hard to tell whether they had come to bury Obama or to praise him.

Thousands of activists from hundreds of environmental, social justice and community groups marched on Washington yesterday in the biggest climate rally ever held in the U.S. capital. Activists both called on President Obama to make good on his climate change policy promises and protested the Keystone XL pipeline project.

“For 25 years our government has basically ignored the climate crisis: now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work,” Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, one of the environmental groups organizing the event, told the crowd.

The “Forward on Climate” rally comes less than a week after President Obama urged American leaders to “act before it is too late,” on climate change during his State of the Union address.

The demonstration’s timing — early in the administration’s second term — was important. While many say Mr. Obama achieved important green goals in his first term (Rendezvous wrote about tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars), critics say he did not achieve enough in the fight to address climate change. Many blame an uncooperative Congress and the always-looming re-election campaign. (The words “climate change” were not uttered during any of the three presidential debates between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney.

The secretaries of the interior and energy — portfolios where green leadership is seen as important — are being replaced. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, announced her resignation late last year.

Despite the President’s recent emphatic address to the nation, critics point out that his speech was short on details. And for many of the organizers of yesterday’s rally, the fact that the President did not mention the controversial Keystone XL pipeline — a pipeline that is to bring crude oil from Canada to Texas refineries — was a warning sign.

At the rally on the National Mall, activists from the ‘Backbone Campaign’ carried a 70-foot model of a spine, with an anti-Keystone XL pipeline message painted on the side, imploring the President to stand strong against the project.

As my colleagues John M. Broder, Clifford Krauss and Ian Austen reported, the Keystone XL pipeline issue is particularly thorny for Mr. Obama because the project is so detested by environmentalists, but supported by so many other players, including the government of Canada, one of the United States’ most important trading partners.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed an energy bill that would allow Congress, rather than the White House, to issue a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. The President had put plans for the pipeline on hold temporarily.

On the same day in the Senate, several senators co-sponsored legislation for a carbon tax program that would finance clean-energy projects, in a move largely seen as symbolic because of the legislation’s scant chance of passing either house of Congress.

Partially due to recent extreme weather events, the issue of climate change is once more at the forefront of American politics. A survey carried out by the League of Conservation voters found that 65 percent of American voters were in favor of “the President taking significant steps to address climate change now.”

“Twenty years from now on President’s Day, people will want to know what the President did in the face of rising sea levels, record droughts and furious storms brought on by climate disruption,” said Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization that helped organized Sunday’s rally.

A man dressed as the grim reaper held a sign that read: “the only steady job on a dying planet will be mine.”

While no official attendance numbers were recorded, participating organizations estimated that more than 35,000 people attended. On its Facebook page, 350.org claimed that 50,000 protesters took part in the event.