Polar Pioneer, meet the Space Needle.
Polar Pioneer, meet the Space Needle. Alex Garland

Within 15 minutes of an Arctic drilling rig pulling into Seattle's port, Bill Bryant declared his run for governor.

It was weird timing; the rig partly had Bryant to thank for ending up in this particular destination. Bryant, the most adamantly pro-Shell elected official on the port commission, had spent months shrugging off criticism of the commission's decision to bring the rig to Seattle with little public input. Opposition to the rig, he had said repeatedly, would be symbolic. And he would not let symbolism—symbolism!—get in the way of good, family-wage jobs.

This kind of logic has worked for centuries. It goes something like this: The indifferent and relentless pursuit of profit is a public good. It is good because it gives us jobs. Politicians serve the public good by serving the interests of profit.

The narrative spun from Bryant's mouth would still be a powerful one if it didn't have an even more powerful counterpoint. Climate change directly challenges the idea that pursuing profit—wherever it may be found—is necessarily a public good. Pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is throwing the earth's self-regulating systems into flux. And in the process, we're creating a dramatic new system that will favor some—like Shell and its ability to drill in the warming Arctic—and risk crushing many more under the burden of floods, droughts, food shortages, and mass displacement.

The science published earlier this year was clear: Burning any Arctic oil and gas effectively means ignoring a two-degree warming safety limit to prevent this kind of "dangerous" climate change.

Protesters lift a banner at the 500-yard safety zone limit.
Protesters lift a banner at the 500-yard safety zone limit. SB

That, along with concerns about the destruction of the Arctic and other natural resources, was why roughly 40 people on last-minute notice rushed to West Seattle on a sunny Thursday afternoon to greet one of Shell's Arctic drilling rigs as it entered the Port of Seattle. Some hopped into single and double kayaks; members of the still-federally-unrecognized Duwamish tribe sang and paddled out the farthest in a long, formidable canoe. Protesters carried signs that read "sHellNo.org" and a banner with the profile of Chief Seattle (the city's namesake, and Duwamish, for that matter), while others chanted, shook their paddles, and drifted right up to the 500-yard safety zone marked by US Coast Guard boats.

At one point, everyone gripped each other's vessels to create a single raft floating on the cold water, a line of dozens of eyes squinting at the enormous yellow rig.

"This is like a machine of death and destruction, and a symbol of everything that we need to change," Carlo Voli, a 350 Seattle organizer who helped bring the kayakers out on the water, later said. "It represents most of the problems that we have nowadays, whether it's climate change and ecosystem destruction, pollution of waters and lands, destruction of cultures."

A TV crew interviewed protesters from a yacht. Greenpeace zipped photographers around in military-style inflatable boats. When kayakers paddled back to shore, more reinforcements paddled back out. The Rachel Maddow Show spoke to Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien outside the taco-slash-burger joint next door; a reporter from the Seattle Times tweeted a picture of a man smiling in support of the jobs the rig would deliver.

This assignment aint so bad, right fellas?
This assignment ain't so bad, right fellas? SB

Some of the attention, it would appear, is having an effect on political leadership. The Polar Pioneer now sits in scenic Elliott Bay, in apparent violation of the city's interpretation of Terminal 5's land use permit. It's unclear how that interpretation will be enforced. Still, kayaktivists will come out in even greater numbers on Saturday, they say. On Monday, protesters have even promised "mass direct action" to shut down Shell.

Will they actually shut down Shell? Probably not. But it's a lot harder to dismiss people's concerns as symbolic when they put their bodies out on the water, too.