3, 200 and 419. These numbers help explain this moment in the worsening climate crisis. “419” is the latest atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in parts per million, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA (pronounced “Noah,” just like the Old Testament character who predicted a climate catastrophe and was ignored until it was too late). That’s 50% over pre-industrial levels, and the highest concentration in over four million years. By comparison, the climate action organization 350.org is named after the scientific consensus that atmospheric CO2 concentrations should not exceed 350 ppm if the planet is to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe.
The number “3” refers to Enbridge Line 3, a pipeline currently under construction, designed to carry almost one million barrels of tar sands oil daily from Canada into the U.S. Line 3’s intended route passes under indigenous lands in Northern Minnesota, crossing scores of rivers and streams, wetlands, and through wild rice beds. And 200 is the approximate number of water protectors arrested on June 7th, during the largest act of nonviolent civil disobedience against Line 3 construction to date. An indigenous women-led mobilization is now underway, reminiscent of the mass movement that opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline on unceded Lakota territory in 2016.
“It’s a brand-new corridor through our prime territory of wild rice, our clam beds, our fish, all of our territory,” Winona LaDuke, the renowned Anishinaabe activist and a leader in the fight against the pipeline, said on the Democracy Now! news hour. “We’ve stood and tried every process to stop this. Along with all of these other women water protectors and our tribes, we’ve spent seven years in the regulatory process…Now we’ve come to go stand, and thousands of people have come to join us.”
The protests included a march of over 1,500 people to occupy the spot where Line 3 would cross the Mississippi River, very close to the famous river’s headwaters. Downriver, 500 more water protectors marched on the pipeline’s Twin Inlets pumping station. There, 24 activists locked themselves to heavy machinery, and another 24 locked themselves to a large motor boat on a trailer, blocking vehicle access to the site. As the hours passed, police, reportedly from 31 different jurisdictions, escalated tactics, eventually deploying an “LRAD” Long-Range Acoustical Device in an attempt to disrupt the civil disobedience. A federal Customs and Border Patrol helicopter buzzed the protesters, kicking up sand and rocks amidst the lockdown.
“What you’ve got is a political, human rights and environmental crisis,” Winona LaDuke continued. “We have petitioned every federal agency, and so far we have had no response. It just seems that Joe Biden wants to see if a bunch of Indian people and older women are going to get hurt up in northern Minnesota, before it’s an important-enough issue for him to look at.”
President Biden has the authority to block the Line 3 pipeline, so, in addition to occupying its construction path, water protectors are organizing a mass campaign to pressure the Biden administration.
Grassroots organizing works, as was demonstrated by the declaration Wednesday by TC Energy, formerly TransCanada, that it is formally abandoning its planned Keystone XL pipeline. Rescinding the permit for Keystone XL was one of Biden’s first acts as president.
Enbridge seems to understand the power of mass movements. In a line from its 2020 annual report, the company admitted, “increased environmental activism against pipeline construction and operation could potentially result in work delays, reduced demand for our products and services, increased legislation or denial or delay of permits and rights-of-way.”
While water protectors continue to arrive at the Mississippi’s headwaters, Biden is off to Europe on his first trip abroad as president. Among his stops is the meeting of the G7 group of wealthy, industrialized nations that includes the U.S. as well as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. These countries currently account for over a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, but, according to climate activists, are collectively shirking their climate finance commitments to fund global efforts to respond to the pollution they have caused.
Meanwhile, a virtual summit is underway to plan for November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which was cancelled last year due to the pandemic. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she’ll boycott the meeting if wealthy nations don’t take swift action to deliver vaccine equity to poorer nations, and many other international organizations are considering joining her.
How many water protectors have to be arrested before world leaders, President Biden paramount among them, seriously commit to a rapid, just transition off of our addiction to fossil fuels? How dangerously high must the concentration of carbon dioxide rise in our shared atmosphere? The numbers don’t lie, and the clock is ticking.