The first time I ever threw my heart and soul into a political campaign, I was 13. Paul Tsongas was running for Congress in my suburban district, which had been held by Republicans since 1895. I spent months, every day after junior high, knocking on doors in Lowell, standing outside the Stop and Shop with buttons and bumper stickers, addressing envelopes by hand. And I exulted when he won — this deeply decent man.
Tsongas went on to a glorious career, of course, eventually winning the Senate seat that John Kerry took upon his retirement. I went in another direction, first as a writer and more recently as an activist helping organize global-scale grassroots advocacy about climate change.
At 350.org, the group I helped found, we’ve stayed away from involvement in elections. Until now.
The fight for Kerry’s seat, between Representatives Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch, has drawn in our Action Fund, the political arm of our operation.
And that’s because Stephen Lynch, on one of the great environmental issues of our time, the one that Time magazine called “the Selma and the Stonewall” of the environmental movement, voted twice build the Keystone Pipeline. When push came to shove on the toughest climate vote there’s yet been, he sided with big oil. And in so doing he made it clear that he’s not the kind of leader who will make the planet’s most pressing problem a priority. Sooner or later we actually have to confront climate change with the urgency it demands. This campaign is a rare chance for a referendum on whether that time is now.
That’s why the 350.org Action Fund will be campaigning actively on college campuses across Massachusetts, urging people to vote “NoKXL” on election day, April 30.
It is a reasonable question to ask: why should the overriding concern for a Democratic primary voter in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts be a pipeline halfway across the country? So let me back up a minute.
The Keystone Pipeline, if it’s built, connects to the vast tar sands of northern Alberta. If you’ve got Google Earth on your computer, you can go take a look: it’s that endless stretch of giant mines built over the last couple of decades in the heart of the boreal forest. The project is still young: they’ve extracted only 3 percent of the oil, but they’ve already moved more earth than it took to build the Suez Canal, the Great Wall of China, and the ten biggest dams on earth combined. The place is a carcinogenic, toxic, smoking horror—a technical name for it would be “Mordor.” The first people to try and slow it down were, actually, the continent’s first people: native opposition to the tar sands has been intense for years now.
But it was far away. And I never paid real attention until 2011, when NASA scientist James Hansen, our greatest climatologist, published a paper detailing just how much carbon was up there in those tar sands. A lot—enough so that if you burned it all tonight, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would rise from its current 395 parts per million to almost 540 parts per million. That sounds technical and difficult, so Hansen also phrased it another way: burn this stuff on top of everything else we’re burning and “it’s game over for the climate.” That was a few weeks before Lynch cast his first vote for the pipeline.