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Earlier this week, the Sierra Club announced that it is lifting its long-standing institutional prohibition on civil disobedience so that it can protest the development of the tar sands. The club’s board of directors approved the change, which executive director Michael Brune made public on Tuesday. While staff and board members have previously participated in acts of civil disobedience in a personal capacity, this is the first time that the organization will take part.
The group has been mum on exactly what sort of civil disobedience it is planning. It is cosponsoring an anti-Keystone XL rally on the National Mall on February 17 with 350.org and the Hip-Hop Caucus, but says that the civil disobedience will be a separate event.
I caught up with Brune on Thursday to talk about what this means for the 120-year-old environmental organization.
Mother Jones: So is this only allowing civil disobedience related to the tar sands, or does it open it up the possibility to use it for other issues as well?
Michael Brune: Right now the board has authorized us to do this singular action on tar sands and climate. It will have a broad frame of wanting the president to be as muscular in his approach to fighting climate change as he can, with a particular focus on the tar sands pipeline.
MJ: What was it about this issue in particular that forced the change?
MB: Look at what’s happened in just the last year. Record-breaking wildfires, unusual heat waves in Chicago last February, a full degree warmer in the lower 48 than we’ve ever seen, droughts, Hurricane Sandy, the derecho, bizarre storms happening all across the country. It’s clear that our climate is already destabilizing, and it’s also clear that there’s a lot that the president can do to solve the problem. So we need to provide as much urgency and focus to ensure that the president’s commitment is an enduring one and that his ambition meets the scale of the challenge.
MJ: Has the Club ever officially done civil disobedience?
MB: The Club has never officially done civil disobedience in our 120-year-history. There was a standing rule, an explicit prohibition on civil disobedience that the board has lifted. I don’t know exactly when it was put in place, but it’s been in place for decades. When it’s used rarely, in extraordinary conditions, American history shows that it has done a great deal in helping to address injustices. We think that given the time we’re in right now, with the threats we face from climate change, and the opportunities we face from a clean energy transition, that we need the strongest possible leadership from the president. And civil disobedience can help to provide that.