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Keystone and Movement-Building


I largely disagree with one major premise of Jon Chait’s post criticizing environmentalists for focusing on the Keystone Pipeline.  Responding to Ryan Lizza’s recent piece on Bill McKibben and the anti-Keystone argument, Chait argues that Lizza’s reporting inadvertently reveals major strategic blunders:

Sprinkled throughout Lizza’s story are statements by various supporters of the anti-Keystone movement to the effect that they seized on Keystone because they needed something to rally environmentalists on. John Podesta, an adviser to Tom Steyer, who has helped finance and organize the movement, tells Lizza, “People were beginning to doubt the president’s commitment.” Keystone “became the test of the question: Are we going to do anything long term about climate change?” Kate Gordon, another Steyer adviser, tells him, “The goal is as much about organizing young people around a thing. But you have to have a thing.” Lizza himself writes, “For many activists, the opposition to Keystone isn’t really about the pipeline … they want Obama to use Keystone as a symbolic opportunity to move America away from fossil fuels.”

Lizza doesn’t frame these observations as a damning indictment, but they do amount to one. The logic of the decision was the opposite of what it appeared to be: Rather than build a movement as a means toward the end of stopping Keystone, Keystone was the means toward the end of building a movement. Cap and trade was dead, Keystone was the best thing they had, so they went with it.

In assuming that this was a blunder, I think Chait ignores some of the realities of movement-building.  Opposing climate change is Olson’s collective action problem in its purest form: no one individual can stop it, the benefits are diffuse and long-term, and the costs are shorter-term, tangible, and are imposed in part on powerful vested interests.  Powerful symbols can help to overcome the collective action problem.  If the focus on Keystone was the result of a choice between a large movement to oppose Keystone and a large movement supporting tougher EPA regulations, then the choice of priorities is indeed foolish.  But I think it’s implausible that this was the real choice — it’s much more likely that the choice was a significant mobilization against Keystone or nothing.  That improvements in environmental regulations are objectively more important doesn’t make it equally viable to rally around them.

It’s also worth noting that symbolic victories can be something you can build with.  It’s true enough that creating opposition as an end in itself is a terrible idea, and dismayingly anyone who follows progressive politics knows this isn’t a strawman.  There really are people who think that it might be worth electing Romney because the much worse policies would be met with more ineffectual opposition — Uncle Sams on stilts would be up at least 20%, and isn’t that better than food stamps anyway? — and there really are people who believe that it would have been better had abortion been illegal in most states well after 1973 because people might have gotten so angry about it that by now abortion might only be illegal in 20 or 25 states which would be better because something something.  But I’m not sure that the anti-Keystone movement deserves this criticism.  There’s another possibility — a victory (or anger over a loss) might be something you can build on.  In the larger scheme of things segregated buses in Birmingham were a fairly minor Jim Crow injustice, but the successful opposition to it helped build a movement that could effectively oppose disenfranchisement, employment discrimination, etc. etc.  McKibben himself might be too focused on the Canadian tar sands rather than climate change in general, but he won’t necessarily always be in a position to set priorities for the movement he helped create. And there’s no heighten-the-contradictions involved here — nobody disputes that stopping Keystone would be a net environmental benefit.

On the other hand, I do agree with this:

My view, which I laid out in a long feature story last spring, is that 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.

If we’re talking about Obama’s record rather than movement strategies, this is certainly right — getting tough new EPA regulations on emissions is vastly more important than stopping the Keystone pipeline. Implementing much better emissions standards while letting the Keystone pipeline go through would be on balance an excellent environmental record (although there’s no reason environmentalists can’t want both and it’s not a zero-sum game.) Conversely, failing to implement good new emissions regulations would represent a substantial failure that stopping the pipeline wouldn’t really mitigate.

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  • joe from Lowell

    Why was the choice between an anti-Keystone movement and nothing? Why not choose a symbolic target more relevant to the actually-significant issue of power plant emissions?

    For example, there were protests against this coal-fired power plant. Imagine if national climate movement that is focused like a laser on Keystone had highlighted this instead, and they press and momentum their efforts would be enjoying not that it’s closing.

    • rea

      Particularly as (1) blocking Keystone probably just means that the Canadians find some ofther means of developing their product, (2) Opposing Keystone strains relations between labor and environmentalists in a way that (for example) protesting a coal plant might not, (3) Other methods of transporting the product (trucks, goddess help us!) might well be worse for the environment, and (4) Opposing the pipeline and failing may mean losing the opportunity to do things like rerouting the line around the Ogallala aquifer

      • djw

        (2) Opposing Keystone strains relations between labor and environmentalists in a way that (for example) protesting a coal plant might not

        This isn’t intuitively obvious. Coal plants employ people, and they worry about their jobs. It was a minor enough thing to not have a huge impact state-wide, but the “war on coal” critique of Obama got a lot of play here in Ohio last year as an organizating tool.

        • I think the reality is that serious environmentalism inevitably requires some conflicts with labor, because dirty industries employ lots of people.

          That doesn’t mean there aren’t things that can be done to mitigate this or build coalitions. It merely means that environmentalism, by definition, shuffles jobs from portions of the economy that either create or rely on dirty energy to portions of the economy that benefit from the creation or use of clean energy. And the former portions are often unionized, which means that the unions have a fiduciary duty to try to protect those jobs.

      • Given the UMWA Obama War on Coal signs all over Appalachia, I don’t think this is true.

      • njorl

        (1) blocking Keystone probably just means that the Canadians find some ofther means of developing their product,

        Not necessarily. If the price of oil stays high or rises, then yes, that oil is coming to market pipeline or no. But if the price of oil drops, the pipeline’s existence could be a critical deciding factor on whether a large quantity of oil is marketable.

        The pipeline alters the fixed-cost versus marginal-cost balance of bringing tar sand oil to market. The pipeline decreases marginal cost on each barrel that flows through it. The decision about whether to extract that barrel of oil is based on marginal cost, not unit cost. There is some price level for which every barrel that flows through the pipeline would have stayed in the ground had it not built. Maybe the price of oil never sits at that point again, but maybe it does.

        In general, opposing large capital commitments which reduce future marginal costs of polluting technologies is smart.

        • DrDick

          None of that oil is coming here. They want to build a pipeline to Houston so that they can refine it and ship it to China and East Asia.

          • rea

            Oil is a fungible product in a global market. It doesn’t matter whether the oil comes here or it goes to China and we buy ours from Venezuela.

          • Marek

            What does that have to do njorl’s comment?

            • DrDick

              It has little or no impact on US oil prices.

              • Marek

                Njorl didn’t specify US market prices. I think we can assume enough sophistication to credit that.

          • Davis X. Machina

            A non-trivial amount of it was going by rail to St John, New Brunswick until the tragedy in Lac Megantic.

            • TCR

              Acutually the Lac Megantic oil was from North Dakota

        • Gregor Sansa

          If the price of oil stays high or rises, then yes, that oil is coming to market pipeline or no.

          While true, in a sense, putting it that way promotes fatalism.

          Here’s some facts:
          * If we burn all the oil in the world, climate will go up to a level that will probably put the earth’s carrying capacity for the 2100s under 4 billion. That’s billions of deaths, and even proportionally is one of the worst things ever to happen to our species or planet. (Add in coal and it’s far worse, but that’s not the point here.)
          * If oil companies can make a profit selling that oil, they will.
          * If we as consumers can buy that oil as cheaply as we can today, or even near to that, we will.

          So, it’s death or taxes. That is, if we’re to avoid cataclysm, the consumer price of oil has to keep going up, while the producer price goes down. Oil company profits and/or taxes are what makes up that gap, and while profits can go up, they will never be as high as we would need them to be; so taxes is the only option.

          Note that we’d need significant taxes to even make it to the starting line. If there were a $10/barrel worldwide tax on oil starting tomorrow, the consumer price would only go up by maybe $3; the other $7 would come out of bloated oil company profits.

          Note also that profits are money, and money is political power. We aren’t going to win this fight tomorrow, and we aren’t going to do it without starving the petrobeast of its profits.

          The lack of a pipeline, and the corresponding elevated transportation costs, act as a tax on keystone oil. It’s a tiny measure and a stopgap one, but it does help marginally, both in terms of increasing the price of oil, and in terms of decreasing oil company profits. Overall, the latter factor is over twice as big as the former one.

          So yes, stopping the pipeline is worth it. We owe it to Canada, if they’re to have any chance of not becoming purely a corrupt petrostate like Russia or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia.

          • rea

            Well, but what I don’t understand, is, if you are opposed to the development of the Canadian Tar Sands, why not focus your effort on opposing the development of the Canadian Tar Sands? Why focus on the side issue of the pipeline?

            • Because American citizens can’t do a whole lot that would directly make an impact on the development of foreign oil resources. They can make an impact on American involvement in such.

            • djw

              Presumably, because a US-based social movement is likely have more influence over the US government than the Canadian government?

              • Larry

                Well, you need to try to choke both pressure points. Make it as difficult, expensive, and frustrating as possible for them to succeed. It’s like in a national election, for instance, when you have to spend money in races you’re likely to lose but are still close enough to worry your opponent so they’ll have less to spend in the areas they most need to. It creates a strain and can bring up other factors that might not come into play otherwise. The same is hopefully true for the pipeline. Maybe not, but we’ll never know unless we try, and I think the maximum amount has to be done to try and stop it, for both environmental and political organizing reasons. Like the GOP keeps guns in the forefront even though it doesn’t really need to issue-wise, they do it to keep the base drooling and ready to go off like a blunderbuss. The environmental movement can be almost toothless by comparison, but that shouldn’t stop it from trying to reach a critical mass of its own. Hey, we might get another President Nixon someday who also could be pressured into pandering to the environment, instead of our baby steps Dems.

          • GoDeep

            Your $7 vs $3 estimate, Gregor, is that based on relative elasticities? Or relative sizes of the consumer & producer surpluses? I’m curious how you came by those numbers. I hadn’t seen anything that detailed.

          • Scott Lemieux

            We owe it to Canada, if they’re to have any chance of not becoming purely a corrupt petrostate like Russia or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia.

            This is really silly.

            • Gregor Sansa

              Hyperbole? Sure, gladly.

              Baseless? …do you really think so? Really?

              • Larry

                Not baseless. I do think you’re right in the sense the more allies the better and the fewer business nincompoops the better in governments near and far, including at the U.S. state level. Politics and governments actually tend to control things to a degree. That’s the whole point. Just think if Nebraska for instance was deadset against it and Kansas was for it; that could set up a choke point to gum up the whole works, and so on, contested here and there on down the route.

                I get updates from my adult offspring who lives in western Canada, about the ongoing efforts to stop the tar sands from going anywhere. It’s very organized, led actually by First Nations activists, and the B.C. government is not unfriendly to the environmental argument, having denied one big pipeline company a permit already, with one more ruling to be made (Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal) before the west coast could possibly be shut down to Alberta’s black sludge. That would make Keystone crucial. The remaining proposed B.C. pipeline decision could go either way at this point, it’s thought.

                They DO deserve allies up there actually. If we sent them money, for instance, they could put more pressure on the local/regional government there, for example, and we could probably fill 3-4 Greyhounds with our U.S. environmental folks for one big rally (okay that Greyhound part is supposed to be snark).

                It is interesting that the Canadian reaction is getting a lot more respect and better response than the U.S. reaction. I wonder how much that’s because an overt right-wing business lackey is not in the White House, while Canada has a remorseless business nincompoop fascisto in power.

          • joe from Lowell

            Nobody’s arguing that the pipeline is a good thing, Gregor, or is opposed to stopping it. The problem is this:

            It’s a tiny measure and a stopgap one, but it does help marginally

            So, it it’s not “game over,” but rather, tiny and marginal?

            That’s sort of Chait’s point, no?

            • Gregor Sansa

              When the do-nothing baseline is “billions die”, a tiny margin of 1/1000 is millions of lives.

              Of course, the uncertainties here are enormous, and of many kinds. My “billions” could be only hundreds of millions, or (in an unlikely worst case) it could leave only hundreds of millions left (luckily, we don’t have to worry about tens of billions dying). And the marginal effect will never be measurable. But yeah… I think it’s worth it.

              • joe from Lowell

                When the do-nothing baseline is “billions die”, a tiny margin of 1/1000 is millions of lives.

                But the question is about allocation of resources, about the effort put into this issue instead of others, such as power plant regulations, that would have a greater effect.

                The importance of climate change doesn’t make it less important to think intelligently about these things, but more. Shouting at me about how important climate change isn’t a response.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Who’s shouting? Imagine Sagan-voice for “billions”, not shouty voice.

                  In the end, “thinking intelligently” means calculating political possibilities as well as benefits. I’m not going to pretend that there are easy answers, but I think the anti-Keystone campaign has been pretty well done, and it’s hard for me to imagine a devil’s-in-the-details fight over regulations where we could get anything like that traction. YMMV.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Say “pounding the table,” then.

                  I think the Keystone fight has been well done, too.

                  I wonder whether protests at coal plants might have been as well done, with greater benefit.

                  Though I’m moving off that position. If movement-building is a more important outcome than the particular policy, maybe the pipeline was a better target.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Yes, I think we’re mostly agreeing.

                  One more point: It’s not just movement-building. It’s also, follow the money. If Keystone gets built, that’s literally billions of dollars directly into Koch pockets, of which millions will surely go to crazy Republicans. Regulations on power plants has no such direct economic impact on a powerful lobby. So if we win, Keystone makes us stronger and them weaker; which improves our chances to take on the bigger fights and win again.

                  Obviously, the best laid plans, etc… but that goes for anything you try.

                • Anna in PDX

                  I don’t know about your experience, Joe, but I have been involved in the various environmental climate change activist movements for the past year or so within my community, and we very much do both Keystone agitation and coal agitation, with some actual impact. The Sierra Club has concentrated on coal while other big environmental groups have focused more on Keystone, but this seems like an intra-movement division of labor than anything else. However I think the coal issue needs a better focus on not just stopping the consumer side or the distribution, but also that we need to focus on a new deal type solution for the appalachian communities that are so hard hit economically and are very distrustful of an environmental movement that has perennially been way too oblivious of working class concerns.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Gregor, your “follow the money” argument assumes that the money behind coal-fired power plants is any less Republican than Koch brothers money. As of 2103, that is a very questionable assumption. I can also assure you that power plant emissions regulations, and stopping them, is money very directly into their pockets.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  JfL: Obviously, you’re right, coal barons are Republican too.

                  But their margins are lower, so they can’t splash it around so libera… er, genero… widely.

                • djw

                  I wonder whether protests at coal plants might have been as well done, with greater benefit.

                  One important difference here is that it’s hard to find significant fault with the current administration’s approach to coal. There’s a lot less to protest.

                • joe from Lowell

                  The people who marched on Brayton Point had no problem finding something to protest.

                  Why not protest global warming? Why not protest mercury emissions?

                  Why not protest the coal industry, the actual wrong-doers?

      • Kurzleg

        (4) Opposing the pipeline and failing may mean losing the opportunity to do things like rerouting the line around the Ogallala aquifer

        Opposition to Keystone on climate change grounds makes no sense to me when the real reason for opposing it is the inevitable pipeline leaks and contamination of the region’s key water supply.

        • brewmn

          Agreed. The potential contamination of the most significant source of fresh water in the entire Great Plains is a much more horrifying prospect then the marginal increase in greenhouse emissions that burning these tar sands represents. Seems like that should be the focus of the anti-Keystone activists.

          • Again though, there’s no way to make that switch. If you want to make that your focus, go ahead. But the organic process of movement building doesn’t allow for changing the narrative like that. It’s Keystone and that’s what it is going to be, like it or not.

            • brewmn

              I’m fine with Keystone as a symbol of environmental depradation. I’m making the argument that there is much more visceral way to employ Keystone than using it as an abetter of global climate change.

              • Larry

                Maybe there has been too much emphasis on climate change and not enough emphasis of the key local threats. But there’s way more attention given to Keystone from other parts of the country that are putting pressure on Obama (we hope) that wouldn’t exist without having emphasized the climate change threat in the first place. It’s like allies in war. You need both Greater Fredonia and Grand Fenwick to fight off the depredations of The Bastard Sons Of Walt Disney, even though Fredonia and Fenwick have different motivations and agree on almost nothing else. The Bastard Sons are that dastardly! Ya know, some of this debate is reminiscent of a circular firing you-know-what. I’m outa here before I get shot at.

        • JL

          Most activists that I’ve met oppose it on both grounds.

          • Anna in PDX

            Yes! Including Bill McKibben.

          • Marek


          • Chait is a dipshit. You know what else doesn’t get mentioned? Who stands to benefit immensely if the Keystone pipeline is built? The Koch Brothers!!!!!!!!!

          • brewmn

            As someone who doesn’t follow this issue super-closely, and who hasn’t talked to any activists, I must say that it’s the global climate impact of Keystone that is getting the most play in the media. Whether that’s the fault of the activists, the media, or some other party, I have no idea.

      • Gregor Sansa

        (1) (other pipelines) is not so clear. Keystone is their best chance right now. They’re not going to give up of course, but there’s serious opposition to all the alternative routes too.

        • GoDeep

          Friends of mine have asserted that alternative transportation means–like rail–are nearly as economic as the pipeline, both in terms of marginal cost & in terms of throughput. Do you know if that’s true, and if so, doesn’t that mean that Keystone opposition is really entirely symbolic?

          • Gregor Sansa

            I don’t know exact numbers. But the kind of estimates I’ve seen are that production would more than double.

            Simple question: if there were no difference, then why would the oil companies want it so badly? Note that the individuals who would profit the most are also the biggest funders of the tea party: Charles and David Koch. I’ve seen an estimate that they stand to gain around $100Bn … that’s obviously very imprecise but it shows the order of magnitude here.

            • Thank you for mentioning that. The Koch Brothers connection isn’t getting enough mention.

            • GoDeep

              After I asked the question, I reminded myself that Google is my friend & decided I shouldn’t be so damn lazy. The various reports I came across estimated the marginal cost difference at b/tn $2-$11 per barrel ( http://fleetnewsdaily.com/rail-emerges-as-alternative-to-keystone-xl-pipeline-for-moving-oil-from-canada/). Reportedly oil-by-rail moves ~4X faster than oil-by-pipeline.

              The cost of production for Canadian tar sands comes in at $50-$70 per barrel (this includes a ROI of 10%). The WorldWide price though comes in at ~$100 barrel.

              So, the total cost (ie, production cost + distribution cost) would still be, at the high end, only $81 per barrel. At a $100 WW price the margin here is just so sizable, the marginal cost difference b/tn rail & pipeline just doesn’t matter, does it? You could triple the transport cost & Canadian Tar Sands would still be profitable. This oil goes to market no matter what, no?

              At this point the only question is which method, pipeline or rail, is better for the environment. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think its the crucial point.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Again: if every drop of that oil gets burned, then we. are. screwed. So any analysis that looks at current prices and costs and says “inevitable” is a suicide pact.

                In the long term, the only way pe’re not screwed is if the worldwide weighted average of the carbon tax gets big enough to keep this oil in the ground. (Or I guess if the worldwide economy collapses, or John Galt invents zero point energy generators, or Stalinist baboons use linear programming to solve the problem.) So anything about a pipeline versus rail is for the short term.

                In the short term, rail might be faster in miles per hour, but the pipeline is fatter in barrels per day. So no pipeline means less oil. Which means less CO2, and also less profits for the Kochs. Which are both improvements.

      • JL

        For what it is worth, there were definitely people who were upset about the protests of the Brayton Point plant because of potential job loss (even though our rhetoric was quite heavy on “just transition” stuff). We got heckled by some of them during the big summer action with the mass arrests, and again during the march from Brayton Point to Cape Wind.

        • joe from Lowell

          Where was “Cape Wind?”

          Did you have boats?

          • JL

            Well, strictly speaking, we were marching to the nearest on-shore point to where Cape Wind will be built, which was Hyannis. 70-mile-ish march over six days. Discovered that there is a truly impressive amount of poison ivy on the Cape, and also that walking over the Bourne Bridge and looking out over the water as a pedestrian is pretty awesome.

            • joe from Lowell

              So cool.

              I thought maybe you marched to New Bedford.

              That would have been cool – from the old and dirty to the new and clean.

    • It’s not like there’s a person who just chooses what the symbolic target will be. It just happens.

      • Larry

        I think your point highlights Chait’s tendency toward fallaciousness. He often just misses the big stuff. It’s almost as if he does so just to be able to write an entire ‘think’ piece about a thought that half-formed in his mind that he clings to and doesn’t want to know if it’s really even true, as long as he gets to expound on his brilliant limited insight. It involves a considerable amount of tripping over his ego. While his essays can stimulate a lot of good discussion, and bring up good points, they also often bring up a long loud Duh or D’oh! As you point out.

        • GoDeep

          I think Scott puts forth a great counter-argument to Chait, but I think the real bet is between Scott’s counter-argument–ie, symbols matter–and the fact that a poorly chosen symbol will turn off the middle to the argument being made.

          For instance, both IRS-Gate & Benghazi-Gate have failed to win b/cs the facts undermined the case being made via the symbols. ie, the BO Admin didn’t use the IRS to target political adversaries & neither did it politically spin intelligence data post-Benghazi.

          So, the real question is how will moderates perceive KXL opposition. I’m pretty neutral on these matters & to me it seems like opposition to KXL is based on the illusory belief that Americans can keep Canadian tar sands off the market.

          • advocatethis

            As others have mentioned elsewhere here, another strong factor in opposing Keystone is the concern about pipeline leakage. As Charles Pierce never tires of telling us, pipelines always leak. That’s bad enough under any circumstances, but, as the Wikipedia article on the Lac-Megantic disaster notes, “Sometimes Bakken oil contains high levels of hydrogen sulphide gas; hydrogen sulphide is flammable, corrosive, poisonous, and explosive.” So, in addition to the ecological damage done in the course of an oil pipeline leaking, these particular pipelines run the added risk of blowing up.

            • GoDeep

              That’s a fair point AT. I don’t know which is safer rail or pipeline, but it seems like given the massive profitability of Canadian Tar Sands their oil is going to market by pipeline or by rail, by hook or by crook. If rail is safer than pipe then the opposition makes a great deal of sense, but if its not the movement may need to be re-focused.

          • I don’t think what moderates think should matter at all. This isn’t an electoral calculation here, at least not primarily. This is a different game.

      • DrDick

        I agree. Keystone is bad on its own merits (oil leaks and other environmental damage), but it also helps rally support for the environmental cause in ways that can spotlight the problems of emissions and global warming. I know that is what I am seeing in much of the coverage of this issue. It really does not matter that not building building the pipeline will have relatively little impact on the latter set of problems.

      • joe from Lowell

        It’s not like there’s a person who just chooses what the symbolic target will be. It just happens.

        That really doesn’t seem to be the case here, though.

        • McKibben didn’t create the Keystone protests. He is certainly the most important figure, but he built on energy that already existed around the issue.

    • verplanck

      Since when has any local issue like this been able to be elevated to a national discourse in recent history? Even the massive catastrophe of the BP oil spill was pushed to be back pages soon after the well was sealed, regardless of the continuing threat it poses to the Gulf. I think Keystone’s sprawling size made it the ideal symbol.

      • joe from Lowell

        Interesting angle. Of course the consequences of coal-fired power plants are not a local issue, but the immediate physical symbol is local to only one community.

      • Anna in PDX

        Yes, I think for the reason that it affects so many local communities, it is a good national symbol. Also for Gregor’s reasons above.

    • JL

      Joe, a lot of the same people who protested Brayton Point are also protesters against Keystone XL. And a lot of the more experienced protesters on those topics are also anti-mountaintop-removal activists and/or anti-fracking activists, and they are bringing the newbies into those causes as well. It’s not either/or. And don’t worry, Brayton Point closing is a morale/momentum boost to the Massachusetts/New England climate movement.

      For whatever reason, Keystone XL caught on. I don’t think it was chosen to be a symbolic target; it was a target and people were drawn to that particular target. It might have helped that it’s a really long pipeline, meaning that there are a lot of local communities in a lot of states that have it going through their area. Traveling to protests is hard and not everyone can do it, so it helps if you have a target near home.

      • Joe

        Traveling to protests is hard and not everyone can do it, so it helps if you have a target near home.

        Quite possibly an important factor.

      • joe from Lowell

        For whatever reason, Keystone XL caught on.

        It’s probably safe to say that Bill McKibben’s writings had something to do with it.

        Not that there’s anything wrong with that necessarily, but the rise of Keystone XL as the main target seems to be somewhat deliberate.

      • joe from Lowell

        Joe, a lot of the same people who protested Brayton Point are also protesters against Keystone XL.

        Good to hear.

    • Sharon

      There were hundreds of miners/coal related workers in DC yesterday lobbying their Representatives about EPA regulation of power plants. A lot of them were carrying “Impeach Obama” signs and wearing t-shirts that said, “Pick Coal.”

      There’s a lot of money and energy in DC around stopping the EPA from regulating carbon from power plants. Coal plant protest aren’t the low-cost projects that you seem to believe that they are.

      • Larry

        I’d guess that was a good way to pick up a day’s pay from their employer for not working, plus getting a nice long bus ride through some pretty country above ground and maybe a Big Gulp and a couple of $1 hot dogs thrown in, and maybe a small bag of chips depending on the gas station’s specials of the day, because owner generosity.

      • joe from Lowell

        I don’t know where you got “low-cost projects” from; certainly not from me.

        My point was about the relative significance of coal plants vs. the pipeline.

  • Larry

    Whatever the merits of whatever, Chait can be a considerable dumbass when he’s made up his mind to be. I think the problem lies in his first having a clear thought about something, then seizing on it and expounding sensibly about it, and then riskily and often mistakenly pronouncing it the real, the true, and the good. Back in reality, however, his original thinking process often seems to have been truncated, stopped prematurely when he had his original Aha, and then he foregoes thinking further or having a second or third thought about it, which could have had the benefit of, you know, being a more complete insight, which would likely have had the virtue of being more correct. Instead we get to read his well-done, half-thought-out limited conceptual framework, that would have tripped and fallen over the more fleshed-out concept had it popped into his mind before he began or perhaps finished his piece.

    • JL

      I think the problem here is that Chait is more of an electoral-politics guy and doesn’t really know much about movement building.

      He’s certainly not the first person with this same criticism.

      • More generally I would say that Chait is a numbers guy, and does his best work in topics that involve a lot of hard data for him to work with. When it gets beyond that, he tends to wander into the weeds.

        The one topic this doesn’t seem to apply to is American history and specifically the history of American political movements, which I guess would tie into the electoral politics thing.

      • FMguru

        Yeah, Chait’s real good at understanding establishment and inside-the-beltway politics, but when it comes to transformation or movement politics, he might as well be typing in Linear A for all the sense he makes.

      • I think the problem here is that Chait is more of an electoral-politics guy and doesn’t really know much about movement building.

        Chait is just a dumb-ass, period. He’s a member in good standing of Versailles. I hope you know what that means. That means he’s been wrong about a lot over the years, Iraq being one thing among many.

        • brewmn

          The best thing I can say about this comment is that the firebagger contingent showed admirable restraint by taking this long to make it.

          • And I see you have absolutely nothing to add to this discussion.

  • MaxUtil

    Rosa Parks and the bus boycott weren’t just random events that popped up. There was a conscious plan to use her and it as part of a broader movement for civil rights. “Why should we waste time fighting about where someone sits on a bus when there are issues of voting and employment…” Sometimes you need to pick battles that further the war, even if that particular battle is less than critical.

    • Pat

      Perhaps there’s also the consideration that many people rode buses, and they did it daily. So causing a stir on a bus, pointing out how the status quo is unfair, is something that could be done in front of a lot of people every single day. You can’t do that with voting rights.

      It’s also interesting in that the stakes are very, very small. Where I sit on the bus does not change when I get there. Making African Americans sit in the back was simply rubbing their noses in the fact that they were second class citizens. But for whites to give up the right to sit in front is not giving up a whole heck of a lot.

      So perhaps under the circumstances of American apartheid, only a small step was possible.

    • Yes, but I wouldn’t overplay this. The conscious decision to use the right kind of person as a symbol was definitely strategy. But it could have been a lot of different people. And it’s important to note that the civil rights movement largely had no idea where to go from there and it was another 5 years before it gained momentum as a mass movement when the students sat down in Greensboro, absolutely not a planned strategy at all.

    • djw

      Well, yes, the anti-Keystone movement didn’t literally happen with no agency at all. But people try to popularize objections to policies all the time; mostly they go nowhere. This one happened to ‘work’ in the sense of capturing the attention of and mobilizing some portion of the population. There were lots of well-organized and carefully constructed efforts to kick-start the civil rights movement that went nowhere too.

      • joe from Lowell

        This one happened to ‘work’ in the sense of capturing the attention of and mobilizing some portion of the population.

        To the extent that the engaged people are focusing on this pipeline as the one big score, that’s a problem.

        I see a lot of rhetoric about the Keystone decision being a singular make-or-break moment.

        • MaxUtil

          Well, I think it will be a fairly big symbolic make or break. It’s pretty clear that this was going to happen were it not for Mckibben’s movement. If it does not happen, it will be widely perceived as Obama giving in to the environmental concerns regardless of whether or not the real impacts are that large. And I think that that could have impacts in and of itself.

          I suspect a lot of what has catapulted this issue into the forefront is that it is a big, simple decision point. Either build it or don’t. Power plant regulation is obviously more important, but there’s no simple, obvious choice to make. It’s hard to get lots of people to rally around a particular number of parts per million in an emissions standard.

          • joe from Lowell

            If it’s a “symbolic” make or break, that is because McKibben et al. have made it one.

            What your comment seems to amount to is a situation in which the decision going the wrong way will be a “break” moment, devastating to the movement, far beyond the actual significance of the project – when it didn’t have to be. That seems a rather poor position to have danced the movement into.

            I suspect a lot of what has catapulted this issue into the forefront is that it is a big, simple decision point.

            Makes sense. Big, simple narratives are easy to sell.

  • themgt

    The entire argument that keystone will have a marginal impact on GHG is premised on the idea that the actual dirty carbon being pumped through the pipe isn’t our responsibility because the Canadians will get it to market some other way if not for the pipeline.

    This is somewhat reminiscent of the debt ceiling debate where Republicans used the ceiling as a hostage while simultaneously arguing nothing bad would happen if we ran into it. If the pipeline is actually unimportant to the continued development/expansion of the horrifically destructive tar sands project, let the Canadians get it to market without our help. If in fact the pipeline is important, then the estimates of its marginal impact on GHG are based on bullshit.

    • Marek


    • Gregor Sansa

      Right. The “0.3% of US emissions” number is off by at least a factor of 10. Power plants are still a bigger deal, but using these numbers uncritically is not reasonable.

      • rea

        On what conceivable basis can you conclude that the pipeline would increase US carbon emissions by 3%?

      • Scott Lemieux

        The “0.3% of US emissions” number is off by at least a factor of 10.

        [cite omitted]

        • Gregor Sansa

          Here’s the math:

          .88 tonsCO2/barrel *1100000 barrels/day *365 days/year (KXL capacity)

          versus 5,461,014,000 tons CO2/year (US emissions)

          gives a total of 6.5%. Let’s say that half of that is being produced anyway, so the pipeline accounts for half. So that’s 3%; ballpark of 10x 0.3%.

          The 0.3% is only US-based emissions for that oil, not the full cost of the oil.

          • Marek

            How dare you bring math into this!

    • brewmn

      Yeah, I guess we should ignore the research by the CRS, and instead listen to the anonymous blog commenter.

    • joe from Lowell

      The methodology section of the linked CRS study reports that they included end-user combustion in their analysis.

      IOW, the use of that dirty carbon is included in the study.

      • Gregor Sansa

        I think it’s just the use of the carbon which happens to get burned in the USA. Which is some of it, and good that they included it, but not the full story.

        • joe from Lowell

          There is nothing in the report to indicate that that is the case.

  • carolannie1949

    There is a whole environmental sub-movement that I would call accommodationists. They incessantly argue that symbolic moves, small projects, things that people can latch onto, recycling, replacing incandescents, hybrid vehicles, etc just have such a small impact or none so just give up already and try to accommodate to climate change by coming up with big things that really work. Now, this is only part of what we should be doing. Yes, we will need to accommodate, it is too late to do otherwise. Yes, we should try to change our behaviors on small and large scales towards the goal of averting climate change. We need to do all of these things, not just whatever some highly promoted group says. This isn’t a strategic war, this is our lives.

    • Pat

      Replacing incandescents is not a minor move. The switch to diode lighting has saved us a bundle of money and the earth a bundle of carbon.

      • Gregor Sansa

        We need about 16 “wedges” at this point; projects that start with 0 savings today and ramp up to a gigaton CO2 savings by 2050. Changing all the light bulbs in the world from 100% incandescent to 100% LED would be under 1 wedge; not negligible, but nowhere near the scale of action we need.

        • MaxUtil

          Sure, but who’s arguing “hey we got the lightbulbs, let’s shut down the environmental movement now”?

          Every small wedge gets us that little bit closer AND helps get people thinking in terms of what else can and should be done.

    • joe from Lowell

      Trying to accomplish big things that really work to have a big impact is the opposite of accommodationism.

  • zoe from Cowell

    Bad McKibben! Forget Keystone and quit making My President look bad.

    • JL

      I sometimes disagree with Joe, but he has not said anything in this thread to warrant this half-assed caricature.

      • Anna in PDX

        Yes can I just second this? This is the kind of thing that makes comment threads super irritating. I am a diehard McKibben supporter and Keystone opponent and how does this help my side of the argument? On the contrary it makes us look like petty idiots who are incapable of making a better argument than “2 legs bad 4 legs good”.

  • gmack

    Two points:

    (1) Just to add your critique of Chait, I would say that, at least in the current state of global warming politics, movement building is and ought to be an end in itself. Pace what Chait seems to assume, building a political movement isn’t the same thing as developing an interest group: the goal isn’t just to achieve this or that specific policy victory or regulation; rather, the goal of a political movement is at least in part to introduce new answers to ongoing political issues, or more often, to construct new topics and spaces, or to invent questions that no one is asking yet. As others in this thread have pointed out, the freedom rides are grossly misunderstood if we think that their goal was only to modify bus station regulations.

    (2) Regarding the last bit, I agree with you and Chait that EPA regulations are really important with regard to environmental policy. But I’m also of the opinion that we will simply never be able to deal with global climate change through policy modifications alone. The kind of political movements that you are talking about are really essential (in my view anyway), and raise entirely different kinds of issues.

    • Pat

      Getting most people to acknowledge that some of the activities that humans do to make money can destroy the environment would really help. I think a lot of climate denialism on the part of everyday people has to do with this fundamental issue.

    • Larry

      Right, and if Al Gore wasn’t so fat we’d have that movement already and The Day After Tomorrow 2 would show the ice melting and the oceans receding.

  • jkay

    But isn’t Chait weirdly right this time – don’t numbers matter?

    And when has McKibben ever THOUGHT about anything?

    • Gregor Sansa

      But Chait’s numbers are wrong.

      • jkay

        Gregor, but where’s your link or argument?

    • And when has McKibben ever THOUGHT about anything?

      Whether that’s right or not we could ask the same thing about Chait.

  • tt

    Maybe I’m wrong about the technical issues here, but it seems to me that Keystone is fundamentally different from EPA regulations. EPA regulations reduce carbon emissions in the US, but they also reduce the world price of carbon emissions, so they may be a wash in terms of fighting climate change–the carbon is going to be burned somewhere, and what matters is world emissions, not US. Keystone brings a pool of carbon previously inaccesible to human use and makes it accessible. Maybe this oil would eventually be used anyways, so Obama’s actions make no difference. But maybe not. Maybe in a decade the global political climate will be different. So, unless I’m getting the technical issues wrong, I think fighting things like Keystone is more important on the merits than fighting for regulation.

    • panda

      I am not quite sure why would coal regulations decrease global carbon prices. Do you think they will result in a major coal export boom?

      • Marek

        I think the idea is that a localized regulation (US coal restrictions) do not restrict the use of coal elsewhere, and in reducing US demand decrease the world market price for coal. Therefore there is a downward impact on world carbon prices.

        Coal is expensive to move, so I don’t think the impact would be huge, but Australia manages to export coal.

  • Peter Hovde

    So, related to the issues of opposition on multiple grounds, and opportunities for mobilization, Keystone was a favorable prospect for collective action because in addition to contributing to the diffuse costs of climate change, it also imposes concentrated, specific costs, or the risk of them, on the people who live on its path, most of whom will not receive a countervailing economic benefit.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Responding to a minor point in the OP: while there really were people who wanted to elect Romney in order to heighten the contradictions and there really are people who think that it would have been better for abortion rights in the long run if Roe had never happened, these views–unlike, say, the movement against Keystone–have utterly failed to develop significant constituencies on the “left.” One can always find people from across the political spectrum saying idiotic, contrarian things online. But when these idiotic things fail to have any measurable political effect, we should be happy about the fact and ignore them, rather than scoring cheap points off of them while suggesting that the left (or the “left”) is dumber and less practical than it in fact is. Neither the primary-Obama folks nor the support Ron Paul/a third party/nobody-at-all factions of the left gained any traction in 2012. IMO too much space was devoted to beating these dead horses.

  • GoDeep

    I think Scott’s points are spot on. As a moderate on Green issues, however, I *think* KXL may come to be a bad symbol.

    The harm of a coal-burning power plant is much more obvious than the harm of the KXL pipeline. Most left leaning people in states affected by it don’t see KXL as a big threat (outside of Nebraska at least). Most ppl I know in those states are generally unbothered by KXL, or think its a job provider. So I think there’s a real risk that the opposition undercuts our ability to fight global warming instead of enhancing our ability to fight global warming.

  • joe from Lowell

    There is a sound institutional reason for highlighting the Keystone XL decision: the significance of a Presidential finding that additional carbon emissions are contrary to the national interest of the United States, and sufficiently so to override other national-interest considerations in the execution of foreign policy.

    • Larry

      Good point, bro.

      • joe from Lowell


  • Rob in CT

    I see a parallel here between “frustrated environmentalists” and Tea Partiers.

    Both think/thought they were losing. Think they’re always losing. And running out of time. Result? Tilting at windmills, apocaplypic language (game over), etc.

    Not that I find the two groups morally equivalent. Hell no. But I think in both cases their tactics are driven by their desperation.

    Given what we know about climate change, environmentalists (or rather anyone who takes the projections seriously), it’s understandable to feel like time’s running out. I don’t mean to sound scornful. But I do think that Keystone XL isn’t a great target. Trouble is, what’s a better target? Are people going to get passionate about a carbon tax. I mean, you’d have me, but as a smart man once said, you need a majority…

  • Larry

    Remember too that Kinder Morgan already has an available pipeline from Alberta to the Vancouver area and that they’re still trying to get a parallel pipeline approved to the same terminal, which would be the pipeline primarily used to move the oil slop to waiting tankers. They’ve been upgrading and expanding their facility there at Burnaby, B.C. for quite a while already. The B.C. government denied a permit for a different pipeline company (name escapes me), but that was for insufficient environmental permitting and application materials, and Kinder Morgan is likely to have its act together enough in that way to get it approved if the B.C. government is so inclined, which it may be despite very active and forceful organized opposition.

    • Marek

      If it was that easy they wouldn’t be pushing so hard for the Keystone XL. And if it is that easy, they’ll do it in a way that doesn’t threaten our aquifers. Either way, the US movement can win. (Humanity’s results may vary.)

  • jkay

    Oil’s slowly trended up because we’re running low on supply.

    Canada’s radical Tories have announced other pipeline plans and put the legal fix in on new pipelines, making them harder to stop, meaning this won’t be the only route.

  • rhs

    While the Keystone battle continues, the Koch Bros are busy building alternate routes for tar sands crude. Enbridge Pipeline Co. (owned by Kochs) has applied for permits to bury a line through Minnesota to the Flint Hills Refinery (also Koch owned) near the Twin Cities. Tactically, Big Oil has used Keystone successfully has a diversion. Environmentalists may win the Keystone fight but to Big Oil it will only be a skirmish in the much larger war. As much as I hope Keystone can be stopped, for the symbolic value alone, I’m afraid Obama will ultimately approve it. He’s just waiting until 2014 elections are done

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