Climate Change Metaphors:  
Pipe dream: “Why lunch counters? Getting served coffee won’t end racism!”

Tar Sands Coalition shot past their goal of 500,000 messages to Congress in 7 hours.

Pundits who grouse that blocking the pipeline won’t curb emissions may know something about oil, but they know nothing about social change.

Republicans in Congress are trying to resurrect the tar sands pipeline  that President Obama nixed after the House forced an early decision.    Most of them question the reality of man-made climate change altogether.

But off Capitol Hill, some analysts who accept climate science still say, “This is the wrong issue, it’s just a distraction.   Stopping this pipeline won’t do anything to solve global warming.”   (see Andy Revkin, and the Washington Post)

In the immediate sense, they are right.    Canada may find alternative routes, and even keeping the tar sands in the ground won’t, by itself, halt earth’s warming.  But this argument misses the point.     All history-changing movements start with something small, then build.

David Roberts at said it best, several weeks ago, noting that saying that blocking the pipeline won’t stop warming is like saying. . .

“Why lunch counters?    Getting served coffee in a Woolworths  won’t stop racism!”

“Why does it matter which bus seat Rosa Parks sits in?   That won’t end segregation!”

To which one might add,

“Dumping all that good tea in the Bay!    That won’t win independence from the British!”

Or even,

Why bother even starting that marathon?   That first step won’t bring you anywhere near the finish line.”

Half a century ago, Saul Alinsky — the community organizing guru that many Tea Party leaders cite — figured out that to motivate people and build a movement, you have to start small, focusing on something concrete, personal and winnable.     Demonstrate your ability to win, then move on.    That’s why last fall’s pipeline successful protests,  especially in Nebraska and Washington DC, mattered.

Of course, even this small victory may prove ephemeral.   The tar sands drillers,  awash in money, won’t give up easily and Congress is famously buyable.

But not always.     The only thing that scares Congress more than big money are huge numbers of voters.      Just ask the entertainment industry, in the wake of their SOPA/PIPA smackdown.

So the real questions are not whether an initial small victory matters, but these:    Can the Tar Sands coalition consolidate their victory and beat back efforts to revive Keystone?    Can big numbers of people really defeat big money?    If so, can the momentum be applied to bigger issues?    Stay tuned.

Update, 4 pm, 2-14:      McKibben:    “the electronic tiger was roaring!”     The count has topped 700,000 signatures, all being delivered (by wheelbarrow?) to Sen. Reid right now.   For the final update count, see

Ever wonder what 600,000 781,000 802,180 printed email messages look like?     Wonder no more.

Update, 2-16: has a useful discussion “Climate analysts are from Mars, climate activists are from Venus, but the both live on Earth.”



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