Between 35,000 and 50,000 protestors crowded onto the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, Feb. 17, in what has been heralded as the largest climate change demonstration in U.S. history.

A contingent of about 50 Smith students, faculty and others in the college community stood among them.

With between 35,000 and 50,000 protestors crowded on the National Mall, the February 17 rally was the largest climate change demonstration in U.S. history.vv

With between 35,000 and 50,000 protestors crowded on the National Mall, the February 17 rally was the largest climate change demonstration in U.S. history.

Organized by climate activist groups such as 350.org and Sierra Club, the rally was meant to hold President Obama to his promise of taking action on climate policy. According to Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, the rally was specifically timed “to give [President Obama] the support he needs to block Keystone Pipeline XL,” a controversial proposal to build an oil pipeline to transport synthetic crude oil from Alberta, Canada to U.S. destinations.

The pipeline project would have “devastating environmental consequences if built,” avers L. David Smith, professor of biological sciences, who teaches marine biology and courses in environmental science and policy, and who attended the rally.

“President Obama has a moral obligation to use an executive order to oppose Keystone XL,” says Monique Gagne ’13, a member of Smith’s Green Team, who caught a ride to the capital on one of five buses from Western Mass. “It would be almost suicidal to continue to burn the dirtiest fuel out there when there are cleaner alternatives.”

“I have faith in President Obama,” says Alicia Johnson-Kurts ’16, also a Green Team member, “but he needs to step up and more actively look for renewable sources because oil is a thing of the past. This is a global issue. If we continue to degrade the environment there will be nowhere to go.”

Johnson-Kurts, who is from Vermont, was inspired by the huge number of youth at the rally, she said, and by the fact that people from all over the country showed up. Her mother has long been involved in social justice activism, and climate justice has always been “in my mentality,” she says.

If approved, the Keystone XL Pipeline would likely travel through parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

If approved, the Keystone XL Pipeline would likely travel through parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

Gagne, an engineering student who also grew up in an environmentally conscientious household, thinks about sustainable design and making ethical choices, while acknowledging the challenges of responsibility.

“Sometimes it is easier to make money being less ethical,” she admits. “One of the reasons I decided to go to the rally is that I believed in the value of the numbers—that if enough people were in attendance, how could we be ignored?”

Gagne also attended the Washington rally because she has family members in Canada who she feels are being given misleading information about the pipeline’s ability to create lasting jobs.

“When I first heard about the pipeline I thought it was a good idea,” she explains, “because getting oil from Canada sounds better than getting it from the Middle East, right? But it’s important to educate people about the truth.”

Gagne joined the Green Team this year. “I think it’s important for students to critically engage each other about issues like climate change,” she says, “for us to take advantage of this amazing community we have while we can. Being knowledgeable about environmental issues isn’t just for Green Team members: the Investment Club, and all economics and geology majors need to be a part of these conversations. That’s essential.”

After what they witnessed in Washington, D.C., on February 17, Gagne, Johnson-Kurts and Smith are cautiously hopeful about the future of climate change.

Above all, they see no other option but to keep fighting.