09/06/2011 11:01 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2011

From the Tar Sands Comes a Real Climate Movement

When does a cause become a movement? When does it graduate from political advocacy into a true socio-political phenomenon? The answer: when it evolves from a mere idea in people's minds or an impulse in their guts into a part of who they are; when it's not just protests and lobby days anymore but people putting their bodies at the mercy of the machine to stop injustice; when it takes the form of 1,252 everyday activists getting arrested to stop a president from detonating one of the world's most destructive carbon bombs -- the Alberta tar sands.

The climate cause has had its moments before. But with those 1,252 tar-sands arrests outside the White House, it has finally graduated. It's a true movement now. Now it's real, now it's raw, now it's in your face. For those of us who were part of that graduating class, and handed our diplomas by the U.S. Park Police, it's now deep in our DNA.

Even on a strategic political level, the tar-sands sit-in has to be seen as a game changer. Whether it moves the president to veto the pipeline or not, the effort to stop the Keystone XL pipeline was an historic win for the more hard-hitting, grassroots wing of the climate movement. If we maintain its momentum, the movement that has emerged from this sit in could be to Mainstream Green what the Tea Party was to the Republicans -- a force of political reinvigoration and effectively harnessed popular frustration. Through the sit-in we've seen the power and momentum we can achieve when we decide to push our activism in a direction that more accurately reflects with the urgency of the crisis.

That much is clear from the many nuggets of conventional wisdom the sit-in has turned upside down: the idea that Mainstream Green (i.e. the inside the beltway, establishment, environmental groups) would never get behind a civil disobedience action, that civil disobedience actions wouldn't appeal to the average activist, that there's no money for organizing civil disobedience. In pulling together the sit-in, the tar-sands organizers made a bet that such cynicism was wrong and that activists and organizations would actually rise to the occasion when offered an opportunity to do something that really mattered and required a certain level of sacrifice and inconvenience.

That this gamble paid off should serve as a teachable moment to climate organizers and green groups everywhere. You can't have a movement without inspiration, and you won't get inspiration without taking a risk. Movement building is the art of risk taking, the art of daring. It means standing up against the odds to tackle injustice. Just consider the enormous risks taken on by the civil rights activists: the dogs, the fire hoses, the beatings, burnings and lynchings. Standing up for civil rights meant risking your life. The least we can risk for climate justice is a few days in police custody and pissing off a few donors.

But even doing that takes guts. That's why this is the first time climate advocacy has seen this kind of action on such a large-scale. Organizing the tar-sands action was a gutsy move. Things could have gone majorly wrong: people might not have signed up for arrest, the press might have ignored us, and the whole thing could have fizzled into a feeble joke and a further discouragement to advocates.

The risks were big. But the risks of betting the outcome of the tar sands fight on the effectiveness of traditional tactics like phone-calls and emails were even bigger. We don't know whether it will move the president, but we took a leap for the cause and won ourselves a real movement.