Keystone Protesters – the New Town Criers?

By Brent Fewell

I experienced one of those out-of-body moments this week, finding myself in agreement with WaPo’s editorial staff on environmental matters.  It’s such a rare, earth-moving event that, when it happens, I figure it’s worth taking stock to understand the intersection of liberal-conservative agreement.  In response to the outcry by imagesCAYDF8NCenvironmentalists to the State Department’s issuance of the draft supplemental EIS for the Keystone XL oil pipeline here, the WaPo Editors argue that environmentalists are picking the wrong fight with POTUS in waging their eco-War against the Keystone pipeline.  According to the DEIS, the Keystone project will “not likely result in significant adverse environmental effects” . . . with “no substantive change in global greenhouse gas emissions.”  A huge blow to the protesters’ momentum for shutting down the flow of oil before it starts.

The Editors’ argument is that as long as there’s a world demand for oil and other viable means to transport it exist, short of a New World Order imposing a moratorium on fossil fuels (. . . good for a laugh), humanity will find a way to extract it and transport it to where that demand resides.  Joe Nocera, a columnist for the NYT, makes a similar argument here calling James Hansen – the grand poobah of climate advocacy – a “misguided crusader” and pointing out the regrettable effects of scientists moonlighting as activities (something which I’ve discussed here).   In effect, stopping the Keystone pipeline would be purely symbolic and have absolutely no effect on reducing the supply and demand for oil or a reduction in carbon emissions.

While I’m certainly no expert on climate change, I’d like to think I’m a fair observer of public sentiment.  And it strikes me that WaPo’s Editors are reflecting the growing public sentiment on climate, readying to challenge these seemingly nihilistic campaigns and ever-increasing alarmist, apocalyptic posturing.  The Editors go on to point to POTUS’ nominee for Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, a physicist from MIT – with way cool hair I might add – as a smart choice, with a sense of monizbalance rooted in economic reality and social pragmatism.  Moniz is a strong proponent of shale gas produced by hydraulic fracking, nuclear power, and an advocate for more research on carbon capture and storage for coal – the bete noire of many environmentalists.  For me, Moniz represents the reasoned middle-ground where a balanced approach ultimately will be struck.

Dave Roberts – a thoughtful liberal over at Grist who I enjoy following –takes issue with WaPo, Nocera, and others who he refers to as Keystone “scolds.”  Not happy with being chided by these so-called scolds, who he argues have mistaken activism for policy (the editors suggested a carbon tax would be a better campaign), Roberts opines:

Comparing activism and a policy proposal using the metric of direct carbon reductions is a category error. The goal of climate policy is to reduce carbon (and build out alternatives). Activism has different goals: persuasion, organization, and a shift in political power. That a particular activist campaign would reduce carbon less than a particular policy is not so much wrong as irrelevant.

On one point, Roberts is correct and should be applauded for his honesty.  The Keystone Pipeline campaign has never been about climate policy, rather it’s about pure raw politics and power.  Environmentalists’ aim here seems less about finding a solution than grabbing the levers of political power to radically alter human behavior and market decisions.  Feeling the agony of defeat, and lashing out at the scolds and their ideas, Roberts continues

A carbon tax has to get through Congress.  The House of Representatives is filled with Republicans from narrowly drawn, far-right districts whose main fear is being primaried from the right (not being protested from the left). How exactly are left activists supposed to change that dynamic?  What possible prospect of success do they have?  How would it pull together a passionate constituency? What would the mechanics of a carbon tax-focused activist campaign even look like?  It’s not so much that these questions have no possible answers as Nocera and co. don’t even attempt to answer them.  They don’t even acknowledge them. They are content to say, “I want a carbon tax so protestors are stupid.”  It’s just a criminally shallow and irresponsible approach to a real and difficult problem.

While I agree it’s a difficult problem, I think Roberts misses the larger point.  From my perspective, it’s not so much that Nocera and other scolds think the protesters are stupid, rather they believe the amped-up rhetoric and campaign are counter-productive and making it more difficult for an already divided polity to craft a solution.  Roberts is correct that campaigns are often needed.   Heck, I myself love a good campaign.  Nothing better to grab the public’s reality-TV saturated, short-attention span but, more importantly, create that political space needed for moderate voices to bridge the political divide with acceptable policy fixes, such as CCS and other sequestration oriented policies, or potentially even a carbon tax.  However, shutting off the spicket of fossil fuels is not an acceptable solution.  And . . . Earth to NASA, we have a problem – a much bigger problem.  Climate campaigners like Hansen and Mann have lost credibility and eroded the public trust and, as such, are now relegated to being the town crier, regardless of the accuracy or seriousness of their science – which for me, makes this whole sad situation all the more tragic.  And now, we tune back into the Bachelor, sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to see whether Sean picks Katherine over Lindsay.  And the larger message is lost.

While I’d like to believe that Roberts and his pipeline-hating friends want to find a solution to climate change short of massive societal restructuring, I can’t help but think of all the promising market-based and administrative solutions for which the protesters seem uninterested.  It’s difficult for me to figure out whether the protesters are more keen on campaigning and political leveling than solving climate change.  I think I know the answer to that, but I’m hopeful that eventually the political climate will change to fix the real climate.

Roberts and others passionate about this issue and transforming the way society behaves should take note of the massive cultural changes that we’ve witnessed in the last decade.  That my discomfort or disagreement with the cultural shift is irrelevant as a SoCon, these changes didn’t occur through sweeping federal edicts or political fiat; they occurred by persuading and changing one mind at a time through families, local clubs, communities, churches, synagogues – those little platoons for change discussed here and here.  Environmental reform will not occur without the support of these little platoons.

As always, I welcome the thoughts of all others . . . deniers, skeptics and town criers.