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Climate Scientist Sees No Choice but to Risk Arrest at Keystone XL Protests

Jason Box, known for his study of glaciers, says oil sands mining is a moral issue that he feels compelled to address. The two-week sit-in begins Saturday

Aug 18, 2011

WASHINGTON—His climatology career at Ohio State University is advancing swimmingly. He's never had a brush with the law. And his wife is eight months pregnant with their first child.

So staying home for the next several weeks in Columbus, Ohio, rather than risking arrest in the nation's capital certainly seems the ideal choice for professor Jason Box.

But the 38-year-old has never reveled in the idea of an intellectual or physical comfort zone.

His natural inquisitiveness — plus a dose of idealism and commitment — is why Box is intent on participating in his first-ever act of civil disobedience. The cause? Trying to convince President Obama that approving the extension of a controversial oil sands pipeline — the proposed $7 billion, 1,702-mile Keystone XL — would be the equivalent of lighting a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.

It's not a single-handed effort on Box's part. But as of mid-week he's evidently the only climate scientist who has registered to join about 2,000 other like-minded thinkers to line the fences surrounding the White House — where peaceful arrests are not uncommon for protesters of all stripes.

They'll begin gathering Saturday and rotate through in waves of 75 to 100 daily through Sept. 3. Box is booked for a three-day stint at the tail end. 

"I couldn't maintain my self-respect if I didn't go," Box said Tuesday in a telephone interview about his decision to wade into the murky territory of activism where most scientists fear to tread. "This isn't about me, this is about the future. Just voting doesn't seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also, because this is a democracy after all, isn't it?"

Bill McKibben, the activist, author and Middlebury College professor who founded the advocacy organization 350.org is the instigator of the summer sit-in. Back in June, he collaborated with 10 Canadian and American climate-concerned luminaries — including author and farmer Wendell Berry and actor Danny Glover — to circulate a three-page plea for support.

Earlier this month, Box and 19 other prominent U.S. scientists fired off a letter to the White House urging Obama to reject Alberta-based TransCanada's plans to construct Keystone XL. Among the marquee authors are James Hansen of Columbia University's Earth Institute and Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

Although Hansen hasn't signed up for the event, he's expected to appear at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. late in August. He has been arrested several times in the past for protesting mountaintop removal mining. Mann, on the other hand, tends to shy away from protests. At the end of 2009, his research was targeted by global warming deniers in a bizarre and trying episode known as "Climategate." He was cleared of any wrongdoing.

"The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit," the scientists wrote to Obama. "When other huge oil fields or coal mines were opened in the past, we knew much less about the damage that the carbon they contained would do to the Earth’s climate system and to its oceans.

"Now that we do know, it's imperative that we move quickly to alternate forms of energy," they continued. "As scientists, speaking for ourselves and not for any of our institutions, we can say categorically that [the pipeline is] not only not in the national interest, it’s also not in the planet’s best interest."

The Science Is Complete

Until now, Box's career path has been that of the quintessential non-partisan scientist. A Colorado native who speaks in careful, measured sentences, he doesn't take his decision to travel to Washington, D.C., for his inaugural climate protest lightly. As part of his preparations he has sought advice from an Ohio State media expert, who had a wealth of insight on how scientists-cum-activists are potential lightning rods in the climate debate.

As a freshman at the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1990-91 Box was vacillating between geology and astronomy. But reading the first assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations convinced him to laser in on geography and climatology. That report documented the toll carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases were having on Earth.

As an undergraduate, he became one of the youngest protégés of Konrad Steffen, a world-renowned climate scientist performing cutting-edge research on the glaciers of Greenland. Twelve years and five academic degrees later — all earned in Boulder — Box headed to Ohio State. He's a tenured associate geography professor and research scientist at the university's Byrd Polar Research Center.

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