The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Keystone Again

The Keystone XL Pipeline is back in the news.

For months, President Obama has been holding off making a decision about the pipeline, pending the results of a court case in Nebraska. A week and a half ago, that case was thrown out of court, ending one chapter of the story and beginning the next.

The case involved a state law that approved the pipeline route through the state and gave TransCanada the power of eminent domain. According to that law, if the pipeline corridor crosses your land in Nebraska, you can’t do anything about it. Three landowners fought back with a lawsuit claiming that such decisions should not be made by the legislature and governor but by the Public Service Commission. While a county court agreed with them, the state Supreme Court threw the case out because, somewhat bizarrely, the landowners don’t have standing to sue in this matter.

The new Republican-dominated Congress has meanwhile made it their first priority to pass a Federal law requiring approval of the pipeline at the Federal level. The House of Representatives has passed such a measure at least three times already, but it has always been defeated in the Senate. This time, with the same party in charge of both houses, the bill is likely to pass the Senate as well–not that it matters. To pass a bill requiring a President to do something he does not want to do is a bit silly, considering that the President has veto power.

The Senate is currently in the early stages of what will likely be a long, drawn out debate on the issue, with various individuals tacking various largely symbolic amendments on to the bill. Democrats have added an amendment that would acknowledge that climate change is real, a neat trick. Republicans have countered with an amendment that would prevent the EPA from considering climate in environmental impact assessments. If the Senate passes a bill that includes both these clauses, what kind of message will that send?

For so much time and effort to go into a bill that does not have the votes to override Mr. Obama’s promised veto is bizarre. It isn’t, after all, as though Congress doesn’t have anything else to do. For Republicans, Keystone seems to have gained nearly the same symbolic weight as the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Why?

The Republican version of the Keystone story is that the pipeline will lower American energy prices and provide a large number of much-needed jobs if only Mr. Obama will get out of the way.  The Party has a long history of public concern over the unemployment rate. But estimating the number of jobs a pipeline will create is notoriously difficult–even the number of short-term construction jobs could end up being much lower than proponents claim. The State Department estimates that only 35 permanent jobs will be created. It is even possible that the pipeline could ultimately increase regional unemployment, if large numbers of people move into the area to take temporary construction jobs and are then laid off.

As to energy prices, pipelines in general don’t stabilize prices, and Canadian oil flowing through pipes to Texas for export does not directly effect American energy availability anyway.

If global warming and the likelihood of oil spills were not factors, the Keystone XL pipeline might well be at least marginally good for the American economy, but not to the extent that would justify the priority Republicans have placed on it. And that other major Republican bastion, defense against government “meddling,” should be totally at odds with the prospect of eminent domain–the Governor of Nebraska has given a foreign-owned company permission to take people’s land, essentially for its own benefit. Why isn’t the radical right up in arms about this?

The cynical might guess that, once again the Republican Party is kowtowing to Big Business–that concern over jobs, energy, and regulatory relief are all thinly veiled code words for a basic corporate friendliness. The cynical may have a point. And yet, in this case the most obvious beneficiaries of building the pipeline would be the Canadian oil industry. Is this a case of Big Business transcending boarders?

It may be, but my guess is that this is about narrative.

The Republican Party is trying to control the narrative, trying to be the one whose framing of events the public accepts. From that perspective, it is irrelevant whether Keystone XL helps the American economy and it is nearly irrelevant whether the pipeline even gets built. Votes in the House that go no place still count as strikes in the larger cultural war.

Why Keystone? Because liberals care about it.

Critics sometimes point out that for all the furor around the Keystone XL, other pipelines are being built across the country with little or no fuss. As a line in the sand, this one looks arbitrary to some. In point of fact, some of the other pipeline projects do receive a share of controversy, most people just never hear about it. Moreover, there is indeed a reason to focus on Keystone; out of all the pipeline projects, it is the one that President Obama has the power to say no to, because it crosses an international border. Mr. Obama constituency is the entire country and he is just one person. A national movement can speak to him in a way it couldn’t if final decisive power lay in the hands of dozens of state and local officials. And the President does actually pay attention to environmental issues. In order words, this one is winnable in a way that the fights over other pipelines may not be.

But all that being said, if KXL is defeated, a very large and multifaceted minority will celebrate a huge symbolic victory.

It seems likely that the Republican Party, which is very corporate-friendly, is trying to prevent that victory. They are also gunning for a national debate in which the economy represents the highest imaginable good, clean water and clean air are not considered relevant or important, and the homes, livelihoods, and families of farmers, ranchers, and indigenous peoples do not have meaningful standing.

If they achieve such a limitation of parameters, there are fights more important than one 36-inch pipeline that they can and will win.

It is true that much of the discussion around Keystone has been tangential to climate change, the main point of this blog. But within this one story are all the major sub-themes that govern what is going on in the atmosphere:

  • Who benefits from environmentally risky or destructive practices?
  • Who makes decisions about the use of land and other resources?
  • Who pays for environmental accidents when (not if) they occur?
  • What is the responsibility of those who use petroleum products, thereby creating demand?

And, perhaps most importantly,

  • Of all the things the United States has traditionally called its own, which are we willing to give up and why?
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Retrospective

Retrospectives are popular this time of year, for obvious reasons. It’s good to take some time every year to look both back and forward, to step out of the day-to-day for a moment and look at the larger context. What have we done? What have we experienced? Are we really on the trajectory we want, or do we need to change our ways? The transition from one year to the next is as good a time to do this work as any other.

Countdowns irritate me (“The Top 10 ‘Top 10’ Lists of 2014!”) so I’m not going to write one, but I do want to take a look back at this year that was through the lens of climate-related issues.

I make no claim that this is an exhaustive list of important climate stories; I have not combed through the world’s newsfeeds and performed scientific analyses upon the results to determine by some objective criterion which stories deserve more attention. This is simply my look back over the stories that have reached my ears through 2014. I’ve included updates, where I can find them. Some are good news, some are not, but few have been in the news as much as they should have been.

California Drought

The first and the last climate story of 2014 might well be the California drought, which has lasted for several years and is still ongoing, recent flooding not withstanding. December’s unusually intense rains have indeed eased conditions dramatically and California is again turning green. If the rains keep up, the drought could indeed end. However, the region’s water deficit was so deep that a third of the state is still in the most severe drought category the US Drought Monitor has.

Essentially, this has been two droughts, back to back–one caused by cool ocean temperatures and a second, more severe drought caused by warm ocean temperatures. California has a strongly seasonal precipitation pattern and receives almost all of its water in the winter; last winter, a weirdly persistent blocking high diverted that moisture north instead. The result was the region’s worst drought on record, causing serious economic hardship, water shortages, and intense fires. The blocking high is gone, now, but it could come back.

A Federal study has, somewhat bizarrely, announced that climate change didn’t cause this drought–bizarre because climate doesn’t cause weather any more than a rising tide causes ocean waves. But when a wave drenches your beach chair, the fact that the tide is coming in is not exactly irrelevant. In fact, persistent highs like the one that caused the second portion of the ’11-’14 drought are more likely with global warming and could be linked to both warming ocean temperatures in the Pacific and larger ice-free areas in the arctic.

The El Nino that Wasn’t

Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that an El Niño, possibly a very serious one, was about to begin. El Niño is the name of one pole of a multi-year cycle of ocean current and wind pattern changes in the Pacific. The other pole is called La Niña. This cycle, called El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) influences weather patterns worldwide. Climate change does not cause the ENSO, but no one knows how to two patterns might interact.

The El Niño hasn’t happened yet, though NOAA says it is still possible a weak one might develop this winter. The issue is that although the Pacific has been unusually warm, it has not stayed warm enough or long enough to meet the definition of an El Niño event.

And yet, 2014 has been like an El Niño in many ways.

El Niños usually decrease Atlantic hurricane activity while increasing activity in the Pacific storm basins and indeed the Atlantic had only eight named storms (though several were unusually powerful), while the various storm basins of the Pacific were either normal or unusually active. The Eastern Pacific produced 20 named storms, plus two more in the Central Pacific–not record-breaking, but close. The Western Pacific has produced 22 named storms (not counting Genevieve, which moved west from a different basin), which is actually on the quiet side for that region, though again several storms were unusually intense.

And a massive coral bleaching event is underway across much of the world, such as is typical for the most severe El Niños. Corals turn white or “bleach” in hot water when they eject the microscopic algae that give them their color and their food. A bleached coral isn’t dead and can re-acquire algae, but if the animal stays bleached too long or too often it will die. A quarter of marine life depends on coral.

All of this suggests that maybe whatever causes El Niños are such isn’t happening this year–maybe instead we’re just looking at a new, hotter normal?

A Hot Year

2014 was the hottest year on record. The Eastern half of the United States was cold last winter, and again briefly this fall, but remember those cold snaps were balanced by unseasonable warmth elsewhere. It was also the 38th consecutive year that contained a global heat record of some type (such as the hottest May). Because the oceans were also hotter than they’ve ever been before, sea level was also higher than it has ever been before–water expands when it’s hot. If you did not personally experience unusual heat, then you are lucky. Other people in other places did–and some died from it.

Holes in Siberia

In July, three holes were found in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia–(“found” in the sense of “identified by science; local people watched one of them form on September 27, 2013. Accounts differ, but involve some kind of explosion). The scientists who have examined the holes confirm that these weren’t meteor impacts or weapons testing, but there is still no firm consensus on how they formed (the various articles purporting to solve the mystery disagree with each other).

These things look sinister–rather like giant bullet holes a hundred feet across. The human intuition can be fooled, of course, but bizarreness is often an indication that something might be seriously wrong. For example, in medicine, strange symptoms (e.g., unexplained tingling or weakness that spreads, or facial paralysis) are usually a bad sign. Explanations vary; melted-out cavities caused sinkholes; collapsed ice-hills, called pingos; or methane ejections caused by either high pressure or a reaction involving water, gas, and salt. That last seems most plausible and also the most frightening, since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, suggesting a destructive feedback loop.

Regardless of specifics, Siberia is warmer now than it has been for 120,000 years and the leading explanations all involve melting permafrost, suggesting that these holes are what they look like–evidence that what we knew as normal has ruptured.

IPCC Reports

The International Panel on Climate Change released its 5th Assessment Report this year in several installments. The report didn’t actually say anything new (the IPCC compiles scientific results to make its reports rather than conducting new research) but none of what it said was comforting. Climate deniers widely spoke out against the report, and early version accidentally added fuel to the “climate pause” ridiculousness, and the mainstream media barely acknowledged that the report existed. Nevertheless, for those who care to read it, the report offers further acknowledgement that s*** just got real.

A Series of Climate Actions

Meanwhile, we the people responded to climate-related issues in a massive way. In early March, coordinated protests across the United States saw almost 400 people arrested for handcuffing themselves to the White House fence and nine more arrested at a sit-in at the State Department offices in San Francisco, all to protest the Keystone XL pipeline. The same weekend, the Great March for Climate set out from Los Angeles towards Washington DC by foot on a more generalized mission for climate sanity. The mainstream media ignored all of this.

In April, a multicultural group from the Great Plains calling itself the Cowboy Indian Alliance (CIA) brought their horses, tipis, and an ornately carved covered wagon to the National Mall to hold a week of events and a rally in protest of the pipeline. Supported by a modest crowd of more local protesters (including me and my husband), the cowboys and Indians, dressed in feathers or carrying flags showing each ranch’s brand and praying in several different languages and accents, rode horses through the DC streets to present Present Obama with a hand-painted tipi and nobody in the mainstream media noticed.

In September, close to 400,000 people (including me and my mother) converged on New York City for The People’s Climate March, demanding climate action. Similar events all over the world were timed for the same day, the weekend world leaders converged in New York to discuss the climate. The following day, a peaceful civil disobedience action briefly shut down traffic on Wall Street. This time the media noticed and began reporting on the issue, but a month later NPR–which is supposedly liberal–disbanded its environment and reporting team, leaving only a single part-time reporter on the beat.

In November, the Great March for Climate arrived in Washington DC and then held a week of events protesting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for failing to provide true oversight of the natural gas industry. Some of the leaders of this project immediately reoriented and joined the We Are Seneca Lake campaign, protesting a planned natural gas storage facility. Dozens of people associated with that campaign have been arrested and the only reason I know anything about it is that I happen to be Facebook friends with one of them.

December also saw a second People’s Climate March, this one in Lima, Peru, timed to coincide with the Climate Conference there.

We’re developing some momentum, definitely. Renewable energy capacity is increasing dramatically as are jobs in “green technology.” Prices for renewable energy keep falling. A growing number of companies and organizations, including the Rockefeller family, are divesting themselves from the fossil fuel industry. The world is on track to finally create a global plan to reduce greenhouse  gas emissions next year and some countries, including the United States and China, already have emissions reductions plans in place.

The Climate of 2014

Is our situation rosy? Frankly, no. But is it hopeless? No, certainly not. If we keep the pressure up going forward and if we vote in climate-sane candidates at the next opportunity (in two years, in the United States), we’ve got a chance to make a real difference.


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Cowboys and Indians, Part 3

This is the final post in a three-part series on the Reject and Protect protest again the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in April. The first post described what it was like to be at one of the events of the protest, the second post explained who had staged the protest and why, and this one addresses the media response to this and other Keystone protests.

Part of the reason to stage a protest is always to get media attention for the cause. Rightly or wrongly, perceived public opinion has a big influence on how most of us see the world, and we infer public option largely through the public media. If a tree falls in the forest and doesn’t make the evening news, does anyone care? Maybe not. With that in mind, I was interested to see whether and how the news media covered the Reject and Protest pipeline protest a few weeks ago.

The short answer? Not badly, considering the event was relatively small (perhaps a thousand or so people on Saturday, the day I was there).

The main television news shows did not cover the event, at least not in my neck of the woods, nor did our local newspapers carry the story. It did not make the national headlines. Nevertheless, some impressive organizations, from Fox News to the Huffington Post and Al Jazeera, have at least mentioned the protest. News blogs associated with ABC and NBC covered the story briefly but fairly, and the event also received coverage through various activist sites and more openly editorial TV shows.

Notably missing in all of this is the PBS Newshour, which has not covered any of the Keystone protests this year, and there have been some major ones. Given their reputation for liberal sympathies (which may or may not be deserved),this is surprising. Could there be something unethical going on? It’s an important question to ask, but in this case the answer seems to be no.

PBS has indeed been accused of climate-denial sympathies in the past, typically for giving equal time to climate change deniers when they cover climate issues. Part of the problem is that David Koch has served on the boards of two member stations and is a major donor. These stations have given the appearance of pulling or altering programs in deference to the Kock brothers’ interests. The Kochs have made much of their fortune from the oil industry and are major funders of the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial organization. Michael Getler, the PBS Ombudsmen, has responded to these allegations at length, and says that there is no evidence that David Koch was involved in any of the relevant editorial decisions.

More importantly, Mr. Getler points out that PBS is a program distribution body only and makes no editorial decisions at all. Member stations are responsible for producing and acquiring programming. That means that while it is possible for a member station to succumb to a conflict of interest (though obviously they shouldn’t), PBS as a whole simply does not have the authority. That means that if the entity that actually produces the Newshour has no conflict of interest then a possible ethical problem exists elsewhere in the system is irrelevant.

As it turns out, PBS Newshour is not produced by any PBS member station, but rather by McNeal/Lehrer Productions, an entity that is in turn largely (but not wholly) owned by Liberty Media Corporation, which is a communications investment company, not an oil company. Could a conflict exist anyway? Yes, of course. Following money around is notoriously difficult and I have not dug very deeply. But lots of things are possible, that doesn’t mean there is any good reason to assert that they are. Let’s not get overly cynical at the expense of anyone’s good name.

In any case, the Newshour does, in fact, cover some climate-related stories very well and has discussed the Keystone pipeline several times over the years. They just haven’t been covering the protests. They cannot cover all possible issues, because of space limitations. The different between them and the commercial news agencies may simply be that the Newshour covers its stories at much more depth and therefor does not have the time to do as many of them. PBS does not necessarily place a lower priority on the protests than its competitors do.

It is possible that mainstream journalists are honestly confused about how to handle climate-related issues. Their training as journalists may predispose them to respect anyone who asserts an opinion on anything. They might not be prepared to identify the difference between the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Heartland Institute.

So, obviously, we need to do more outreach in order to teach journalists and other public figures that climate change is of critical importance. And, in the meantime, the protests may simply have to engage in more spectacle in order to get attention. Like, for example, they could try having cowboys and Indians in feather headdresses set up tipis on the National Mall and ride horses through Washington DC.

Oh, wait; they just did that.

 


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Cowboys and Indians, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on the recent Keystone Pipeline protest in Washington DC.
So, who were the people we joined in DC last week, to march once again against Keystone?

Individually, the people I referred to in my last post are as follows:

  • The two MCs were Dallas Goldtooth, of the Lower Sioux, and Jane Kleeb, of Bold Nebraska.
  • The water ceremony was lead by Casey Camp, of the Ponka Nation. I did not see the ceremony itself, but she did speak to the crowd as well. She was a slim, middle-aged woman of great dignity.
  • Greg Grey Cloud, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, lead the 4 Directions song, which was actually the 6 directions song.
  • John Ellwood, of Bold Nebraska and Pray No XL, was the Protestant preacher.
  • Wizipan Little Elk, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Meghan Hammond and Diana Steskal, of Bold Nebraska, and Eriel Deranger, of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, all spoke.
  • Steve Tamayo, of the Sicangu Lakota described the art on the tipi (I’ll explain that shortly)
  • Chief Reuben George, of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation offered a final prayer
  • Gitz Crazyboy, of the Dene and Blackfoot Nations, offered a closing prayer and next steps
  • The final performer, whom I did not stay to see, was Frank Waln, of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

The march as a whole was just part of a larger event called Reject and Protect. The leaders of the project call themselves the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and describe themselves as “a group of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities from along the Keystone XL pipeline route.” That means not only people whose properties are crossed by the route but also, in some cases, people who are downstream of the proposed route or who depend on the aquifer underneath the route. The proposed path for the pipeline has changed over the years; some CIA members initially got involved to protest the pipeline being near them only to have the route moved onto their property as a result of other people’s concerns.

Bold Nebraska,  loosely speaking, the cowboys of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, is an organization of ranchers and farmers concerned with making the political process more diverse and participatory, but Reject and Protect is a major part of theirs. It was not clear to me whether the various Indians of the Alliance were there representing their communities–that is, has the Ponka Nation taken a position against the pipeline in the same way that Bold Nebraska has? The question may or may not even be culturally relevant.

Reject and Protect itself actually lasted from April 22 to April 27. The march was just one activity of this larger encampment of tipis on the National Mall. Other activities included multiple prayer services and ceremonies, presentations of documentaries, meetings with various officials, other demonstrations (there was one at Senator John Kerry’s home on the 25th), songs and stories, and the decoration of a tipi for President Obama.

This last was no snarky protest but a genuine and generous gift. The canvas tipi cover served as a backdrop for the talks and performances on Saturday, galloping with horses and the hand prints of many people, among other symbols. It is a true work of art, designed by Steve Tamayo and carried out by him and by many other people. He explained some of its symbolism, but he never explained exactly why giving this gift is supposed to sway Obama’s mind. Perhaps the idea is simply to say “we are here, we are people, and you cannot ignore us.”

The march I participated in was the delivery of the tipi cover to the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, which had agreed to accept on behalf of Barack Obama.

As I said last week, climate change per se was hardly mentioned by any of the organization leaders, though many of the marchers carried signs and shouted slogans that referred to climate, and of course an oil pipeline has everything to do with climate change. One way to look at this intersection of climate and other issues is the way I chose last week; by supporting these people in their fight for clean water,we can also fight for the climate as a whole. But there is another way to see exactly that same connection.

The climate issues that affect all of us means threatened drinking water to some. Polar bears make fine and accurate poster-children for the dangers of climate change, but they are a little remote for most of us to really make a priority of. Athabaskan children watching their parents die of bile duct cancer, which is super-rare except among people who live near tar sands extraction–that brings it home a bit more. And, unlike polar bears, the cowboys and Indians are perfectly capable of calling B.S. on feel-good green-washing that does not actually solve their problem.

One of the chants the organizers brought to the march was a simple call and response; they shouted “climate!” we shouted “justice!”

As long as fossil fuel remains the dominant energy source of the globe, somebody is going to be in the way of extraction, transport, and processing: Appalachian communities devastated by mountain-top removal mining; people able to light their tap water on fire because of fracking; killer smogs caused by coal smoke; or land and water poisoned by oil spills from trains, pipelines, tanker ships, or well-heads. If the stuff does not travel by pipeline through Nebraska, it will travel by rail-car across the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

Unless it does not travel at all.

My favorite of all the signs I spotted on the march was a simple red octagon on a stick reading “STOP the GLOP.” Because that’s really what this comes down to. Every kilowatt hour generated by fossil fuel, every gallon of gas, every piece of plastic, means GLOP in somebody’s life. Climate change itself–extreme weather, sea level rise, acidifying oceans–is also a form of glopping up lives, generally the lives of the poor and disenfranchised. The fossil fuel industry and the various government bodies involved in regulating that industry may be sincere in their willingness to minimize the damage, to route pipelines and other oil infrastructures through the least vulnerable places available, the fewest people’s lives possible, but those few people who are directly affected have a right to object to being treated as collateral damage.

Of course, rare to vanishing is the choice that does not make somebody’s lives harder. Shutting down the fossil fuel industry, for example, would destroy a lot of livelihoods, leave unemployed a lot of people who cannot afford it. Part of the job of government is to make decisions about who gets the short end of the stick because, in almost all cases, somebody has to for the greater good.

The question is, is perpetuating the fossil fuel industry really for the greater good?

Is fossil fuel and all it has wrought really worth continuing to glop up somebody’s life? If not, then rather than trying to reroute the pipeline or try to get the cowboys and Indians to simmer down, or arguing that transporting oil by train is worse (which may be true but is beside the point), perhaps our energy is better spent in stopping the glop and figuring out something better to do instead?


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Cowboys and Indians, Part 1

This is the first of a three-part series on the most recent Keystone pipeline protest in Washington DC. While this article focuses on the experience of being at the march, future articles will focus on the organization that lead the march, the Cowboy Indian Alliance, and on the media reaction to the Keystone issue.

Spotting two bald eagles while on the way to a protest in Washington DC has to be a good sign.

We, my husband and I, knew that various tribal groups were staging a protest against the planned Keystone XL pipeline. Its route crossed their lands, making the probability of eventual oil leaks a direct existential threat to them. We didn’t know who, really, had organized the protest, what the specifics of their concerns were, or what their other plans were. But we agreed with them that oil pipelines are bad and Native sovereignty is good, so we were happy to show up.

We drove as far as the first subway stop but used public transportation from there. It seemed the right thing to do, considering, although work being done on the track meant we had to go part of the way by bus. Once on the Mall, we had a little trouble finding the actual protest. Some tipis were evident–an unusual sight, and clearly related somehow, but we couldn’t see any crowd. What sounded like the notes of “Amazing Grace” floated up and out of the little group of peaked tents, played on what sounded like a musical saw. Nearby, a small group labored around a square event tent and a small stage, but nowhere were there any crowds. Nothing happening. So we walked on, towards the Washington Monument. The day was warm and sunny, the sky nearly cloudless, and tourists walked here and there just as though nothing special were going on. Had we gotten the day wrong?

No.

The little encampment of tipis and the stage and the event tent and the few people around them were it. We returned there and joined the small, gathering crowd and wandered around for a while between the musicians on the stage (no musical saws among them) and a press conference conducted in front of one of the tipis and entirely hidden by a small, tight crowd. Most of the tipis were plain, or nearly so, though one was brightly painted. One had no covering at all, just a cone of bare poles. In among the tipis was a small wooden wagon with hoops of wood arching over its rectangular back. A covered wagon? Except it had no cover. It was elaborately carved but empty. There were no people available to explain these obviously meaningful objects, no sign whether any of these tipis were simply props or actually inhabited–were people camping on the national lawn? –or what the symbols on the tipi coverings or the wooden wagon were. Red-vested volunteers moved here and there and a modest crowd swelled slowly. Some of the people wore buttons bearing the letters CIA, referring, as we learned, to the Cowboy Indian Alliance. Others carried long bamboo poles hung with red flags printed with odd, angular symbols that turned out to be the brands of ranches along the proposed pipeline route. A man wearing a tuxedo and a pig mask carried a globe and a sign reading “Oil Pig.” We drifted towards the stage.

The speeches began around eleven, before we all stepped out on a short march to the Museum of the American Indian and back. The day finished back at the tipi encampment with more music and dancing.

It was curious, moving through an event created largely by Indians. The entire rally was subtly but definitely based on different cultural assumptions than I am used to. I felt somewhat out of place, not an intruder but a guest. That seemed about right.  Most of the people who spoke began and ended with a few phrases in languages other than English, and no one bothered to explain what they said or why because they were speaking largely to people who already knew. Curiously, a lot of people spoke with the same soft accent, whether they were Lakota, Dakota, Ponka, or Dineh-Athabaskans down from Canada where the tar sands are. Sage smoke drifted across the crowd.

I thought of asking questions, though I know some Native American cultures frown on questions. My husband thought I should ask, because anyone at such an event should be prepared to explain themselves, but I did not ask because I thought perhaps these people wanted to assert their right not to explain, to be the majority for once. One of the emcees politely asked anyone in the crowd wearing face paint to please wash it off. He said those designs are culturally specific; he said those designs are war paint and this was a peaceful gathering; he said you have to earn the right to wear those designs and not just anybody could do it.

The rally began with a prayer, as many events do. A man sang to the six directions (the extra two are up and down) while an older woman used a jar of water from the Oglalla Aquifer and a bucket of soil from the proposed pipeline in some small ceremony. The crowd turned to each direction as the singer addressed it and the song washed over and through us. The elm trees had just released their small seeds and the ground was busy with them. DC’s famous cherries were just leafing out, their flowers spent. I kept thinking I almost understood the words of the prayer-song, almost had it already memorized, since I heard it echo syllable by syllable in my mind. But of course I had no idea.

But the Cowboy Indian Alliance is not just Indians and the next man to offer an opening prayer was a Protestant Christian preacher, a white man and a farmer. He is part of a group called Pray No KXL and has committed to pray every day for God to direct the United States Government to do the right thing. He prayed in English, using the same kind of phrasing, the same rhythm, that my brother-in-law (also a preacher) uses to say table Grace, but this man’s version of Christianity seemed inclusive and almost animist. He assumed everyone prayed to the same God in their own ways and he spoke of God as the breath present in all our lungs, as the power that receives animals and plants when they die and creates them again. He spoke of repentance and thanksgiving and asking God to guide President Obama and Secretary Kerry.

Most of the farmers and ranchers who spoke were women; their men, as they explained, were back at home working, since it is branding season in Nebraska. As the “cowboys” of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, these women represented a culture far more alien to my experience than were the Native prayers. Farming is in my family, but not cattle. I’ve never been to the Great Plains, and I certainly haven’t studied their culture in school. These smiling, passionate women were a revelation. They spoke of living on the land for six generations now, of recognizing specific creeks as the source of their livelihood because that’s where the cattle drank, of building a barn inside the pipeline (could I possibly have heard that right?) to keep the oil from flowing. They spoke of trespassing surveyors, oil company representatives who lied, and a governor who threatened to call out the National Guard when the ranchers refused to let the pipeline cross their land.

In almost none of this did anyone mention climate change. Those few who did were not Indians and did not seem to be ranchers.

Climate change is inherent to the KXL pipeline debate, of course. The tar sands crude it is supposed to carry has a huge carbon footprint and there is enough of it that tar sands oil could keep the price of petroleum too low for renewables to be able to compete.  The pipeline is only one of the many routes that fossil fuel can travel from ground to sky and it isn’t even the only pipeline–other pipelines are already in operation carrying the same crude oil. But KXL has become something of a line in the sand for the anti-climate change movement, a rallying point for the nearly forty percent of the American population who passionately object to its construction. As a rallying point it is somewhat arbitrary, but then lines in the sand usually are. It’s just important to draw the line somewhere at last.

But for these cowboys and Indians, opposing Keystone is not arbitrary. It is not about climate change per se. For them, the issue is water.

The issue is that the pipeline route crosses rivers and streams that water their crops and their game and themselves. The pipeline crosses the Oglala Aquifer, the vast underground resource that feeds much of American agriculture. Pipelines leak; the pipelines that already exist are already leaking, some causing dramatic environmental disasters. Sooner or later, the Keyston XL pipeline, if built, will leak also, and if that happens it will destroy these peoples’ livelihoods, their health, and the health of the land that they love.

Climate change, of course, will be no picnic for the cowboys and Indians either. The central part of the United States is likely to become more prone to drought and that could hurt agricultural production there, especially since the current use of the Oglala Aquifer is already unsustainable. But for them, water pollution from crude oil is clearly the more immediate danger.

Maybe this is why only about a thousand people showed up, in contrast to the tens of thousands we joined over a year ago–that protest had a clear focus on climate change and the support of big-name climate activists, like Bill McKibbon. I have not yet looked into the question formally, but my husband and I follow a lot of large environmental groups online and we don’t remember seeing anything about this week’s protest from most of them. Maybe they didn’t see this as their issue so they didn’t bother to get involved and get the word out?

If true, their reticence is a strategic mistake.

The atmosphere and its steadily rising carbon dioxide concentration is a problem for all of us; the climate warms for the just and the unjust alike. But by the same token, climate change is a bit abstract. It is hard to get angry about a problem that develops gradually, hard to organize a battle against a billion tiny tailpipes leaking poison all at once, especially when we also have rent to pay and kids to feed and other, more concrete, demands on our attention. The ubiquity of the problem saps our commitment and confuses our stratagems. Yet there are fulcrum points, places and people and events that hurry fossil fuel into the sky. The pipeline route is one of those critical places. And these people whose drinking water is threatened are the ones who will put themselves in front of the pipeline to stop it, even if all else fails.

If the rest of us show up when these people need it, they’ll be able to stop the pipeline for us. And maybe then the next group of people who find their homes and lives threatened will be willing to stand up and fight back, too, knowing that thirty thousand people will show up in DC to support them. And the next, and the next.

And we could win this.