Sierra Club director Michael Brune was arrested for protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension. Credit: www.sierraclub.org

In 2004, Carl Pope, then-director of the Sierra Club, tangled publicly with Capt. Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Pope was steering the club toward cooperative solutions to environmental problems, collaborating with large corporations instead of fighting them.

Watson, an advocate of direct action whose group blocked environmental despoilers with living bodies or ships, wasn’t having it.

“I want the Sierra Club to … fight for what is left,” wrote Watson in an open letter to Pope. “We need to get in the face of the destroyers … to force people to sit up and take notice that … our political, economic and cultural systems are laying waste to the entire planet.

“As things get worse,” he concluded, “my approach will become more appealing.”

When Pope stepped down in 2010, his legacy included an advertising campaign with Clorox and $25 million in donations from natural-gas companies. Watson is in exile at sea—both Costa Rica and Japan want him arrested for allegedly ramming and vandalizing whaling and shark-finning ships. Many in the environmental movement believe his extremism has not been helpful to the cause.

But his prediction has come true; conditions on the planet are measurably worse. The Mauna Loa Observatory recently logged an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 394 parts per million, well above the safe upper limit, 350 ppm. Drought, wildfire and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy have made the consequences for the climate plain.

Yet even under a president who pledged his candidacy would mark the moment “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” the United States is no nearer to solving the climate problem than in 1989, when a House energy bill to address the greenhouse effect was laughed out of committee.

Now, the U.S. State Department might allow completion of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport a particularly dirty form of oil south from Alberta’s tar-sands. Current Sierra Club director Michael Brune calls the project “a climate disaster.”

And Watson’s approach—or at least a nondestructive version of it—has indeed become more appealing to some: The Sierra Club and climate activist groups 350.org and the Hip Hop Caucus planned the first act of civil disobedience the Sierra Club’s board of directors has sanctioned in the group’s 120-year history. On Feb. 13, Brune was arrested along with other activists after chaining himself to a White House fence. 

“A team of select leaders and prominent Sierra Club supporters face arrest to elevate discussion about a critical issue,” Sierra Club board president Allison Chin elaborated in a video message. “The future of the planet demands no less.”

Civil disobedience comes in many forms. One involves physically standing in the path of destruction—between the whale and a harpoon, for instance—”the classic Greenpeace action,” says Celia Alario, a communications consultant specializing in grassroots groups that employ such tactics. Another is personal, like Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes that would fund a war he opposed.

The participants in the Washington, D.C., protests intervened at the “point of decision,” Alario explains, deliberately trespassing and saying, “‘I will break this law, because a greater law is being broken.’”

Brune is deeply familiar with such methods. While he was executive director—or “chief troublemaker,” as he called himself—at the Rainforest Action Network during the George W. Bush administration, his organization used pranks that skimmed the law to pressure Home Depot and Citigroup to give up forest-destroying practices; in one, RAN activists commandeered Home Depot loudspeakers to satirically promote old-growth wood for sale in the store. Brune also fought his way through clouds of tear gas during the 1999 demonstrations outside the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, an event that sparked a movement against global economic injustice.

Those protests stopped cold after Sept. 11, says John Sellers, who, along with Brune, was among the key players. The former director of a nonprofit activist-training group called the Ruckus Society, Sellers finds the resurgence of nonviolent direct action encouraging, and points to Wisconsin union supporters, Occupy Wall Street and the “DREAMers”—children of undocumented immigrants who’ve spent most or all of their lives in the U.S.—as groups that have used such methods to change the national conversation.

Pipeline opponents have long been after a similar shift in the debate. In August 2011, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and 70 others spent three nights in jail for trespassing on the White House steps; several agitators in Texas and Oklahoma have tried to block the construction of Keystone XL’s southern leg with their bodies.

So far none of those actions have sufficiently dominated the news cycle. The Sierra Club’s imprimatur could change that. Alario remembers the days when she lobbied California lawmakers on behalf of Humboldt County’s ancient redwoods back in the 1990s. “They’d always ask, ‘Where is the Sierra Club on this?’” … The Club “has the reputation of being the clear, reasonable voice that elected leaders turn to when issues get complicated. And now (the board members) have leveraged that reputational capital to say, ‘We’re willing to hold the line on this with our bodies.’”

Alario suspects Obama might actually be grateful for that. Two years ago, at a meeting with the Energy Action Coalition, Obama told the young activists, “You have to push me,” Alario says. There’s a way of seeing the Sierra Club’s protest much like Brune has pitched it: Not as a protest against the administration so much as a boost to its expressed ideals.

Sellers isn’t convinced Obama is listening, but he does believe the time has come to march in the streets. “Direct action gets people to realize they have power,” he says. “The same kind of power that broke the back of Jim Crow in the Deep South. And there’s been a long enough arc in the Obama presidency (for environmental groups) to say, ‘I want action.’”

This article originally appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).