By Zack Colman - 02/16/13 09:00 PM EST
More than 20,000 protestors from around 160 organizations will swarm the National Mall Sunday in hopes of intensifying the pressure on President Obama over climate policy.
The president has not yet detailed the specifics of how he will address the issue, aside from a pledge made in the State of the Union address to take executive action on climate if Congress fails to make progress.
Demonstrators are likely to offer plenty of loud suggestions in what green groups are branding the largest ever United States climate rally.
“We’re really past the point of playing games with any of this stuff,” climate activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben said in a Friday press call. “There’s no time for half measures.”
Participants will meet at noon near the Washington Monument, where speakers such as McKibben, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and others will address the crowd before marching on the White House.
The rally will put Obama in the crosshairs on climate change.
The rally will devote plenty of attention to what could be one of the president’s first second-term actions on climate — a decision on the fate of the the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline.
Obama has the final say on the plan, which would bring the dense fossil fuel from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.
“There is only one person who is going to be held ultimately accountable by history for whether or not the United States participates in unleashing this much carbon — and that is President Barack Obama,” Van Jones, a former Obama adviser, told reporters Friday.
The project has been a magnet for protests for some time, with 48 activists — including actress Daryl Hannah, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and civil rights leader and former politician Julian Bond — getting arrested Wednesday at the White House.
Prior to that, green groups organized two Washington rallies in 2011 that likely factored into Obama’s decision to punt a ruling on Keystone until after the election.
Many unions want the pipeline to go forward because it could offer work for their unemployed members.
But in 2011, entering a tough reelection fight with a teetering economy in tow, the president postponed the pipeline verdict to keep his labor and environmental base intact.
The AFL-CIO building and construction trades division wants to get Keystone built, Sean McGarvey, who heads that department, said. He said he expects the whole federation —which is led by Richard Trumka, who stumped for Obama in coal-heavy swing states during the 2012 race — will also lend its support.
McGarvey announced last week that the building and construction department would amplify its messaging and grassroots efforts to jolt the president into green-lighting the project.
But, in a move that underscores the tension in Obama’s base regarding the pipeline, McGarvey said he expected 250,000 protestors to flood the National Mall for Sunday's gathering.
While that figure is likely an overstatement, green groups have seen their issues move up the agenda — both in terms of the general public and on Capitol Hill — since Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast.
Environmentalists snagged a few victories through the Environmental Protection Agency during Obama’s first term. The president ushered in more stringent fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and proposed the first-ever emissions standards for new power plants.
He also used a significant portion of the 2009 federal stimulus to jumpstart clean-energy technology.
But green groups want Obama to go further.
They have acknowledged the prospects of passing climate legislation are grim. The GOP-controlled House is highly resistant to measures such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.
Noting that, the environmental community has increasingly tried to push Obama to make good on recent verbal commitments.
Their goal is to shove the president into using administrative authority. Possible options include issuing emissions regulations, bolstering energy efficiency, investing in renewable energy and upgrading coastal infrastructure to become more storm-resistant.
“These are ambitious steps, but they’re realistic,” Sarah Hodgdon, national program director with Sierra Club, said during the Friday media call.
And until Sandy ravaged the Northeast, environmentalists struggled to get any mention of climate change out of Obama or White House challenger Mitt Romney. With wildfires streaking across the West this past summer, record high temperatures and a yearlong drought that decimated Midwest crops, green groups were visibly frustrated that climate change received almost no airtime.
Then Sandy hit on the eve of the election — and Obama began talking about climate.
In his first post-election press conference, Obama said he would tackle the climate in his second term — again offering no specifics. In later interviews, he put climate change among his top three second-term priorities.
And in his January inaugural address, environmentalists were delighted when Obama carved out considerable time for climate.
The environmental community has kept up the pressure since that speech, aiming to pin Obama to those comments to move him “beyond words and to deeds,” Daniel Kessler, a spokesman with 350.org, recently told The Hill.
Green groups hope Sunday’s rally will amplify their voices further— and that their wishes will begin to be translated into reality with a rejection of the Keystone pipeline.
“Were the president to deny this pipeline, I think it would represent the first that a world leader had canceled a major project because it would do damage to the climate. That would be a legacy. That would be a powerful legacy, and it would be a powerful marker to lay down for the rest of the world,” McKibben said.
— This story was updated at 7:17 p.m.