Protesters Prepare To Greet Obama On The Day Of His Big Climate Change Speech

The president tries to make good on his climate change promises in a big speech Tuesday. The Keystone XL pipeline is not expected to be mentioned and protesters aren’t giving him a pass. But at the same time, they’re happy their time has come.

Richard Clement / Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will not escape Keystone XL protesters Tuesday even as he unveils a raft of climate change proposals designed to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions.

The scene outside Obama’s big climate speech at Georgetown University that the White House has been advertising since Saturday will be a perfect microcosm of the environmental movement’s feelings about Obama: grateful but wanting more.

Climate change advocacy group 350.org, which has been a part of some of the more strident protests over Keystone that have included arrests and other cvil disobedience, will dial it back a bit Tuesday in an action outside Obama’s speech and actually show the White House some love.

“We plan to have about 100 youth activists there outside the speech,” Daniel Kessler, an organizer for 350, told BuzzFeed. “More to congratulate the president on doing what’s right, but reminding him there’s still work to do.”

Other groups that have been part of the protest movement pressuring Obama on Keystone for years don’t have anything planned for the day of Obama’s speech other than praise for the president, a sign that they don’t want to rock the boat on what’s likely to be one of the best day they’ll have in the president’s second term.

Keystone-focused activists won’t be satisfied Tuesday: Obama’s not expected to mention the pipeline in his speech at all. The Keystone project is still under review at the State Department, and White House officials have repeatedly said Obama won’t make a call on whether or not to let the pipeline be built until the State Department is finished with it. When exactly that will be remains unclear.

Many of the same environmentalists who are wary of what Obama will do on Keystone — and who vow to fight him with civil disobedience if he rebukes them — will be watching Tuesday’s speech with great excitement. Obama is expected to roll out plans to use his executive power to reduce carbon emissions and increase the production of alternative fuels, furthering the goals he set out in his inauguration address.

Obama has to rely on executive action to take on climate because Congress has proven skittish when it comes to the environment. Red-state Democrats haven’t shown much interest in significant climate change legislation, and most Republicans still reject the findings of the vast majority of scientists that human-caused climate change exists. Climate activists are happy to see the president acknowledging the facts of life and moving ahead on climate change on his own. They admit they probably can’t get sweeping climate change legislation out of Washington anytime soon.

“The fossil fuel industry, who has fought for decades to deny the science of climate change and undermine every policy wherever they can, still has control. Now they have control of Congress,” Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, said. “That’s what’s ruining this moment. If not for that, this president would be doing more.”

While stopping Keystone remains a unifying goal for climate groups, they don’t like that Keystone has become the central focus of climate change coverage. Climate activists say Obama’s speech is a very big moment.

“Here’s the distinction that’s really important: Keystone is about stopping the increase of our emissions. Which we need to do, there’s no doubt,” said Navin Nayak, a vice president at the League of Conservation voters. “The stuff that I think you’re going to hear the president talking about [Tuesday] is all about proactively actually starting to reduce our emissions and make the shift to clean energy. And so they’re just two sides of the exact same coin.”

“I don’t think you can reject Keystone and do nothing else and say you’re a great leader on climate because you haven’t reduced emissions,” he added.

Some even say that Obama’s speech is happening at all is a sign they’re winning the Keystone fight. Opponents of the pipeline say it could damage the environment it’s built through but, more than that, they say building it will make it easier for more carbon to get into the atmosphere in the form of burning fossil fuels. Obama’s expected focus on carbon Tuesday gives them hope he’s seeing things their way on Keystone.

“I haven’t heard anyone saying it’s a victory,” said Bill McKibben, an activist and co-founder of 350. “But I do think it would be extremely odd if he took two steps forward here, and then two steps straight back in a couple of months.”

Keystone protesters aren’t stopping their plans to keep opponents of the pipeline a thorn in Obama’s side through the summer however. CREDO, the activist group with a list of more than 50,000 who promise to be arrested if Keystone is approved, plans to keep its planned protest calendar through the summer. Other groups do, too.

“There is no reading the tea leaves in trying to link this speech with a decision on Keystone XL and lighting the fuse on that carbon bomb. We know there are immensely powerful and wealthy forces arguing for its approval, and we believe the president when he says he has not made up his mind,” CREDO’s political director Becky Bond said. “It is our task to help him make up his mind to follow the facts and the science and not the lobbyists and the money, and nothing in this speech changes any of that.”

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