As environmentalists wait with bated breath for President Obama's decision whether to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, there's increasing debate over whether they picked the right strategy in focusing so much of their efforts on the pipeline.
Jonathan Chait, a progressive writer/pundit, penned a long essay in New York magazine Oct. 30 arguing that Keystone XL is the wrong choice. He says that rather than making Keystone XL their do-or-die last stand at the Alamo, environmentalists should focus their energies on pushing Obama to order tough emissions reductions at existing power plants. That's where the real emissions are, Chait says.
... the central environmental issue of Obama’s presidency is not Keystone at all but using the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate existing power plants. That’s a tool Obama has that can bring American greenhouse gas emissions in line with international standards, and thus open the door to lead an international climate treaty in 2015. The amount of carbon emissions at stake in the EPA fight dwarf the stakes of the Keystone decision.
Estimates differ as to how much approval of the Keystone pipeline would increase carbon emissions, but a survey of studies by the Congressional Research Service found that the pipeline would add the equivalent of anywhere between 0.06 percent to 0.3 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions per year. By contrast, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s proposal for EPA regulations would reduce U.S. emissions by 10 percent per year – 30 times the most pessimistic estimate of Keystone’s impact.
Joe Romm, who blogs at Climate Progress, responded a day later with a long take-down of Chait's argument. Romm's argument is a bit muddled, but it boils down to the point that Keystone XL is valuable for its dramatic symbolism and its public-relations potential for exciting the grass roots:
... “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory,” as Sun Tzu wrote in The Art Of War. Arguably the biggest critique of the environmental movement is that it stopped being a movement. If the only choice for people is to support a climate bill or screw in compact fluorescent light bulbs, then how precisely do you sustain a movement for the times when you need them?
We most certainly need a movement to avert catastrophic climate change. That’s why you must have fights for things at a level or scale below national legislation (or federal regulation). Certainly the civil rights movement understood that.
To quote the master strategist’s strategic masterpiece, “The Art of War,” again:
“Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.”
Well, if you keep your grassroots movement in nothing but salt water, it will die, too.
Although 30+ million Americans are alarmed about climate change and another 70+ million are concerned, there was until Keystone no grassroots climate movement to speak of. Is it possible we are going to avert catastrophic climate change without a climate movement, without their being a political cost for opposing climate action? It’s true that imposing such a political cost requires more than just an energized issue public, but it is hard to achieve that cost without one.
I would make the point more graphically than either Romm or Chait: Keystone XL is downright phallic. Like a giant penis, it would penetrate deep through the United States heartland and then would spew out its export product into the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. To demand that this penetrating member be cut off is to invoke one of the most age-old, powerful acts in human psychology. It's castrating the rapist -- or, more commonly, castrating one's male rival. Can't beat that for exciting the nether regions and ginning up a movement.
This is actually a deadly serious point, although it might be mistaken as mere snark. The subliminal Freudian aspect is undoubtedly real. It is one of the many reasons why a movement strategy that focuses on the Keystone XL is vastly more exciting and effective than the very boring, eat-your-spinach topic of power plant emissions. Could power plant activism mobilize hundreds of thousands of people like the Keystone XL has? Almost certainly not. Chait just doesn't seem to get that point.
As a caveat to all this back and forth, it's worth noting that the principal environmental groups championing the Keystone XL strategy are also advocating that Obama do the right thing on the power plants. So they are doing both. But their allocation of institutional resources has been vastly greater for the former than for the latter. It's a question of emphasis.
Still, while Chait's argument may not be made to order for lighting the spark under a movement, it has a coldly undeniable logic -- just like your mother when she told you to eat that spinach. Here's Chait again with his central point, which Romm doesn't even try to refute:
Even slight gradations in the strength of possible EPA plans matter more than the whole fate of the Keystone pipeline. And yet McKibben and tens of thousands of his followers are obsessed with a program that amounts to a rounding error at the expense of a decision that really is the last chance to stop unrestrained global warming.
The two articles are very thought provoking. Go read them for yourself. Then, if you have the stomach for more detail (see, that's the problem), read the NRDC's proposal for power plant regulation.